When I was young, my grandmother hinted that maybe I would be the first person in our family to be ordained. A clearly devout child growing up in an ELCA congregation, I remained that way through my teen years and heard a particular call to ministry early, so it wouldn’t have been surprising. In fact, at 25, while finishing a graduate degree in Women’s Studies, I even undertook formal discernment in the Episcopal Church. What I hadn’t fully reckoned with at that point, though, was the fact that being a lay person is its own vocation. The questions from others didn’t go away—I’m frequently asked if I’m planning to go to seminary or if I’m planning to pursue ordination—but I have since found a path.
As the Episcopal Church remembers the life and work of Emily Malbone Morgan (Dec. 10, 1862-Feb. 27, 1937), a lay leader and important contemplative figure, I am drawn to the question of how lay people shape the Church. Pausing to reflect on this question, the answer is obvious: as lay people, we are the Church. This reality is particularly clear if you’ve been through a recent clergy transition or served in a position of leadership that requires you to recruit fellow parishioners, but it should be this clear all the time. As it is said, we are God’s hands and feet in the world, and we have much work to do.
When Emily Morgan was engaged in her life of service, most significantly defined by her efforts to establish a women’s retreat center, she did not seek to pursue a new role or title, such as becoming a nun. Instead, she simply undertook the work God had given her to do with a particular overflow of compassion for those isolated from community and fatigued by the labors of this life.
Devoted to intercessory prayer and social justice, Morgan went on to found a retreat center in Byfield, MA named Adelynwood after her childhood friend Adelyn Howard. Howard was disabled by a hip condition that trapped her at home away from friends and family. The two knew they could not let Howard’s disability separate her from Christian community. And, of course, Morgan did this work alongside fellow believers; Howard was integral to the founding of Adelynrood and the associated Society of the Companions of the Holy Cross, as was a third woman, Harriet Hastings. In the decades since, these vacation homes have multiplied and the Society of the Companions of the Holy Cross has grown to include over 700 women whose lives are centered on prayer and spiritual growth and who work to make space for others to focus on these things as well.
Ordained and lay, God gives all of us work to do and people we are tasked to work alongside. My call, I have found, is not unlike that which fell to Emily Morgan a century ago. I am blessed to work alongside other lay people in serving children. I have found particular nourishment supporting other disabled individuals and fostering inclusion. I hope to make a space for tired families to experience rest in an overwhelmingly busy world. When children walk into a classroom, I want to feel confident that their grownups can relax into worship without worrying about them. And, most importantly, I don’t need to undertake religious orders to do this work.
Ordained leaders are vital to Christian community, but they are important because they support the work of the people—literally, the liturgy—and not because the community is built around them. By reorienting ourselves to this view and remembering remarkable lay people like Emily Morgan, we also remind ourselves that we are responsible to each other as Christians. Our calls vary widely in order that we might meet the great needs of this world, but we must tend to them in order that we might give rest to each other’s weary souls and receive such moments of renewal in return.
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