Saying Goodbye

On the evening of Sunday, October 10, the parish held a farewell dinner for me and my family. It was an elegant affair – delicious catered food, cheerful decorations, a Hawaiian dance by Dee, lots of helpers, a big crowd, and a fun and funny program led by our irrepressible Bishop’s Warden, Peter Stockwell.

We were overwhelmed by the love and support shown to us at the dinner. So many people got up to express their feelings about the last 13 years that we have spent together that it was hard to take it all in. I felt so incredibly grateful to be loved by this congregation that I have loved.

It’s not easy saying goodbye. Katy and I told people that we’re not moving out of the area. We’ll undoubtedly see people from time to time, and at some point we’ll be back at St. Antony’s. But the fact is that we won’t see each other every week like we have for the last 13 years. A priest is a symbol of safety, steadiness, and assurance. If you know the priest will be at the altar every Sunday, you know that God is there for you.

I won’t be at the altar next Sunday, or the Sunday after that. Fortunately, Fr. Craig will be there, and the worship of the church will continue as always. It will be different, and require some adjustment, but maybe this is a good thing. Maybe we need to be shaken up every so often so we can find God in new ways.

I know that for Katy and me it will be a huge change to our routines. On Sundays I won’t be getting up at 5:30 am to practice my sermon and run to church for the 8:00 service. We’ll be able to sit together in church for the first time in 26 years. Things will be different, and it will take some adjustment.

I feel like I’m leaving a healthy congregation with good leadership. I’m happy that Fr. Craig is going to be the interim because I know he’ll be a good priest and a good leader. And I trust the Holy Spirit to bring a new vicar to St. Antony’s who will be a shepherd and guide for the future. All shall be well.

Some things I’ve learned as a priest

As I approach my retirement, I’ve been thinking about my ministry over the years. Here are some things I’ve learned (I shared this list on Facebook).

  • Love the people. They will return your love many times over. Love the people, even when they’re unlovable.
  •  Constantly improve your sermons. Give sermon writing the weight that it deserves. It will pay off.
  •  Visit. Visit old people in nursing homes. Visit families with noisy little kids. Visit lonely old men. Think what it would be like to be old and to have a visit from the priest.
  •  Keep grounded in scripture and prayer. Say Morning Prayer from the Prayer Book every morning. Memorize the Canticles. Memorize some Psalms. Memorize Compline.
  •  Honor the altar. Honor the sacraments. Honor the scripture.
  •  Make time to exercise. The other stuff can wait. Don’t squander your health.
  •  Don’t let the bastards grind you down. Difficult people will wear you out. Lean on your allies.
  •  Remember the theology you were taught. Build on the foundation.
  •  Stay connected but don’t let others define you.
  •  Find someone to talk to. A spiritual director will save your life.
  •  Read novels and poetry. You’ll be a better preacher for it.
  •  Remember your first ministry is to care for your family.
  •  Tithe. Give ten percent of your salary away. It will give you peace.
  •  Remember that your privilege as an ordained person comes with a spiritual danger. Be humble. Be yourself.
  •  Have a life outside the church. Don’t be a one-dimensional person.
  •  The symbolic power of your position is often greater than you realize. Remember that people project their ideals and their fears on you, for good and for ill. Don’t take it personally.
  • Learn how to say no. It’s a valuable skill.
  •  The church is not exempt from evil. In fact, the church is a very good place for evil to hide. Be careful.
  •  Love the people. They will return your love many times over. Love the people, even when they’re unlovable.

Reflections on my career as a priest

Vicar’s Voice
September 2021

As I approach my retirement date, I’ve been reflecting on how I’ve changed over the years as a priest.

When I was first ordained, I was vividly aware of being a priest. I wore my collar everywhere, and I was very conscious of the fact that I was a man of God in the view of the public. It’s quite a strain to live up to that high expectation. I remember wondering, “What if people find out that I’m a fraud? I’m just Bill Fulton. I’m not a saint.”

As time went on, I began to relax. I found out that although I’m a priest and a man of God, at the same time, I’m just Bill Fulton. I’m a human being with flaws. Rather than having to apologize for that, however, I began to realize that my greatest strength is just to be myself.

I’ve learned to accept myself for who I am and just be myself in my encounters with others. My greatest gift is connecting with people, and when I bring my authentic self, I do that best. That means I’ve had to learn to let go of judgment, control, and a lot of ego in my journey as a priest and a person. It hasn’t always been easy.

As Vicar of the congregation, I’ve always been aware of my responsibility to nurture the parish and help it succeed. When we’re thriving, I’m happy. But there’s always a nagging worry, “What if it falls apart? What if people drift away? What if we run out of money?” Over time, I’ve learned that it’s not just up to me. It’s up to all of us. I’ve had to learn to hand that over to God. After all, it’s God’s church, not mine.

One of my personality traits is that I want to please people. It’s not a bad personality trait for a pastor who works with people, but it causes me considerable anxiety when I have to bring up uncomfortable truths or institute changes. One of the best pearls of wisdom I’ve received was from our matriarch, Jane Stockwell. She told me, “You’ll never be able to please everyone.” How right she was.

One of the joys of being a pastor for me is the many relationships I’m entrusted with. I’m fascinated by human beings. I love hearing peoples’ stories and learning about their life journeys. Hospital visits, home visits, baptisms, weddings, burials and counseling have brought me into close contact with people, and I’ve found that rich and rewarding.

Administration, on the other hand, is not one of my gifts. I couldn’t administer my way out of a paper bag. I’m in perpetual danger of missing a meeting, forgetting a phone call, or blowing by a deadline. Volunteer management and event organizing are complete mysteries to me. Luckily, I’ve had the help of a great secretary who has saved me from my worst disasters.

Every priest has strong points and weak points. There are some things I’ve done well, and some things I’ve flopped at. I’ve learned to accept that. I’ve tried to lean into my strengths, and find ways to compensate for my weaknesses.

It’s a great privilege to be a priest and a pastor, and over the years I’ve grown into my role as a priest. I’ve become more confident and more at ease in my role as the shepherd of the flock, thanks to the trust given to me by so many people. I’m grateful for that trust. Thank you for allowing me to be your priest.

Prayer and scripture

Last week I participated (virtually) in the ordination of three new priests at St. Mark’s Cathedral in Seattle. As I sat in my comfortable chair and peered at my laptop screen, I was reminded of my own ordination 26 years ago in an old stone church in Kansas. In the Examination, Bishop Smalley asked me, “Will you be diligent in the reading and study of the Holy Scriptures… and will you persevere in prayer, asking God’s grace, both for yourself and for others?

The Prayer Book is wise to ask those questions of the candidate. Our tradition values them as foundations of the spiritual life. Without a life of scripture and prayer, a clergy person can lose their anchor and drift away.

I began saying daily Morning Prayer from the Prayer Book in seminary. It was expected, but not required, for all seminarians to attend Morning Prayer, and nearly everybody did. It began a lifelong routine for me.

Of course anything done daily can turn into empty rote, and there have been times when Morning Prayer was just a chore to be accomplished. But after 29 years of Morning Prayer, I see that it has shaped me and changed me. You might say it has created a cathedral of prayer within me in which God is present. Sometimes parts of the cathedral crumble or burn, like Notre Dame, and have to be rebuilt.

Likewise, I’ve spent more time in the Bible than I anticipated. In addition to the weekly concentration required for preaching, I’ve taught our Vicar’s Bible study every week for my thirteen years at St. Antony’s. I’ve pawed through my old seminary notes, read commentaries, pulled articles from the internet, and presented a sheet of notes for the class every week. Our small group of four to six has clustered around the table, poking and prodding and pondering the scriptures. As they say, “The teacher learns the most,” and that’s been true for me. I’ve come to feel at home in the odd stories of the scriptures, and found my own perspective on them.

I’m sure there are other ways I could have spent my time as a priest, and I know every clergy person chooses differently. But for me it’s provided a firm foundation for my life as a priest.

Retirement Announcement

To my dear friends,

It’s with great ambivalence that I’m announcing my retirement as Vicar of St. Antony’s as of September 30, 2021.

I’m very sad to contemplate leaving St. Antony’s because I have loved being your priest. You have given me the great gift of your trust and I cherish the relationships I have with each one of you. Together we’ve done great things, and, more importantly, we’ve done small things with great love. My thirteen years as Vicar have been rich and rewarding for me.

However, I’ll turn 68 at the end of September and I believe God is calling me to move on. I have done my best to serve faithfully, but now it’s time for St. Antony’s to find new vision, new energy, and new leadership.

I’m announcing this six months in advance so there will be plenty of time for us to say goodbye and plenty of opportunity for the Bishop’s Committee to begin finding the next Vicar of St. Antony’s.

I know this decision will cause consternation and be the occasion for grief. I feel sad that my tenure is coming to an end, but I feel confident that the Holy Spirit is leading us and guiding us into the future.

With all tenderness and affection in Christ Jesus,
Bill

Invitation to our Lenten Program

During the season of Lent, we’ll be offering the Sacred Ground program on Wednesday evenings at 7:00 pm. Sacred ground is a program of racial reconciliation, healing, and justice developed by the Episcopal Church.

PEP II Preaching Conference

Last week, January 11-15, I attended an online preaching conference put on by The Episcopal Preaching Foundation. I signed up for this course in 2019, anticipating that I would fly to a conference center in Maryland for a week in June 2020. That was postponed, of course, and the conference was held on Zoom last week.

What did I learn from this conference?

Probably the most surprising thing I learned was that I was the only white male my age among the attendees. The clergy who attended were almost all female, people of color, or gay. It makes me feel like I’m a little out of synch with the evolving Episcopal Church. Maybe it’s time for me to get out of the way and let the new generation of clergy take over.

There were two presenters who were excellent, both of them professors of preaching at major seminaries. Wes Allen talked about how difficult it is to preach when there are overlapping crises in our country, and he gave some practical pointers. Judy Fentress-Williams spoke about the using lament as found in the Psalms and using the experience of Exile in the Bible as a way to speak about our current situation in America.

I was in a preaching group with three other attendees and a mentor. We had four preaching group sessions, so each of us was able to give a sermon on the Zoom session and receive feedback. Not only did I receive useful feedback, but listening to the other preachers helped me expand my awareness of different ways to preach.

I’ve done a lot of reading about preaching over the past few years, and I didn’t learn a lot of new things at the conference, but the variety of preachers and the chance to talk about preaching with other preachers made this a worthwhile conference.