Coming home

Logan Wallace

The former chaplain of the National Cathedral School in Washington, D.C., takes a job as rector in a small parish in her home state. For the Rev. Catherine Powell, the important thing about leadership is not the prestige of the institution, but whether she is changing lives.

The Rev. Catherine Powell knew the Church of the Servant in Wilmington, N.C., was the right place for her as soon as she walked in the sanctuary.

On one wall was an image of Jesus beckoning to his disciples from shore. It was the same image she saw each week when she held services in Washington National Cathedral as senior chaplain at the National Cathedral School.

This coincidence -- the artist who created the mosaic for the cathedral had donated a version of it to the church when he lived in Wilmington -- offered Powell some symbolic connection between the job she was leaving and the one she was taking on.

As the senior chaplain at the National Cathedral School for Girls, the 56-year-old mother of two had grown quite fond of the cathedral, site of presidential funerals and a spiritual destination for thousands of tourists each year. Yet, in spite of the beautiful worship space and her fondness for the 500 girls in her care, in the summer of 2008, Powell felt a calling back to parish ministry.

In the business world, it would not be considered a good career move. As recession loomed and people began losing their jobs across the country, Powell turned down a salary raise and left her prestigious position in Washington, D.C., for a rector's post in which she's responsible for promoting the church's annual lobster sale, among other duties.

But Powell didn't see it as a step down. For her, parish life offered a new kind of leadership path by allowing her to return to the kind of Christian servanthood to which she felt called.

“[The National Cathedral] was a big machine with a lot of cogs, and you're one of them,” she said. “I felt there would be more response to my leadership here.”

The luxury of loving Jesus

With her black-rimmed glasses, salt-and-pepper hair and bright smile, Powell strikes a wise, motherly profile, though she carries herself with humorous humility.

“Don't forget to put the halo in there,” she said jokingly during an interview, forming a circle over her head with her hands.

She is warm and expressive when she speaks, punctuating her comments with raised eyebrows. Her light-hearted presence is welcomed at the church -- and already missed at the school.

Powell says she misses the school as well. The decision to leave came slowly: There wasn't one moment when Powell felt God telling her to leave the big city for pre-sweetened tea, grits for breakfast and an Episcopal congregation in coastal North Carolina. The call from God happened gradually.

“I still wouldn't have moved unless I found a really good match,” she said. “But I think that's how God guides you. This little piece and this little piece fall into place and then this big piece.”

Part of Powell's decision to move her two miniature poodles and her youngest daughter to Wilmington was guided by Scripture.

“One of my all-time favorite Scriptures about transition in your life is the story of the road to Emmaus in Luke,” she said. “And that traveling with Jesus as your companion who is enlightening you along the way is appropriate for me.”

Some of her reasons for moving were personal. Her parents, who are in their 80s, live two hours north of Wilmington. Her 20-year-old daughter, Sarah, no longer needed the doctors she'd once had in Washington for her sleeping disorder.

In addition to the welcome sight of the image of Jesus on the wall, she liked the progressive worship style in the liberal-leaning church: The acolytes sometimes wear flip-flops, and the seating is rearranged according to the season. The church is growing, with many young families joining the congregation.

The eastern part of North Carolina is home turf for Powell, who grew up one hour from Wilmington in Fayetteville, N.C. It's a place where her faith was formed. Her parents were devout Episcopalians at Holy Trinity Church in Fayetteville, where, “if the church was open, we were there.”

“Looking back on it, I know how important that extended family was to my identity,” she said in a sermon. “They knew me; they cared. I was part of something much bigger than myself. This is what I think the communion of saints is all about.”

She had not thought of becoming a priest until she spent some time working in a crisis ministry during college and realized her calling. Powell became one of the first female Episcopal priests when she was ordained in 1980.

As a clergy trailblazer, Powell made flexibility a hallmark of her career from the beginning. Her first job was at the National Cathedral School, where she first worked from 1979 to 1985. She then spent 16 years working in churches in North Carolina and Massachusetts before returning to the school in 2001.

During her tenure at the school, an independent private day school located on the grounds of the National Cathedral, she began to feel the limits of being a chaplain and longed to return to work as a minister.

“I think that both she and I felt that what is missing in chaplain work is experiencing the seasons of people's lives in parish ministry,” said Rev. Emily Blair Stribling, the school's upper school chaplain.

In addition, because of the diverse student population, worship there had to be broadly spiritual.

“You know, at the school, I was always working to explain Jesus to people who didn't get it or were actively opposed to it,” Powell said. “If you love Jesus, it's nice when you can be somewhere where you can indulge in loving Jesus. It feels like a luxury to me now.”

A call to ministry in the local parish

Former Hartford Seminary president Barbara Brown Zikmund is working on a study called “Women in Leadership” through the Association of Theological Schools. The study examines the careers of 25 female leaders of American theological institutions, including divinity schools and seminaries.

“I know that in the business world there are assumptions about what a successful career is,” Zikmund wrote in an email. “However, I think that in the church, these assumptions do not play out in the same way.”

Even in very hierarchical denominations (such as the Roman Catholic and Episcopal churches) clergy do not view moving into local parish life after ecclesiastical administrative work as a step down, she said. “I think that this is especially true among women.”

She said her research indicates that women clergy’s view of the church is shaped by the fact that they think of themselves first as members of the church. They are comfortable organizing and leading both at the grassroots and at the organizational level.

“The idea that members should have a say in what happens is at the heart of American society,” she said. “Therefore, women, as grassroots workers in the church, are quite comfortable moving back and forth,” to different levels of church and organizational leadership.

Despite its practical drawbacks -- and the tough questions from doubting friends about the wisdom of leaving such a high-profile job -- for Powell the move to the parish means stepping into a different kind of leadership role. For Powell, the mark of her own effectiveness in leadership is a place where she can do the most good in changing lives.

“At a school like the Cathedral School, though there are many needs and sorrows in people's lives, the truth is they really don't need clergy like a church does,” she said.

With counselors, a psychiatrist, tutors and three chaplains who can serve as resources for parents and students, Powell wasn't called upon for that kind of aid. Indeed, sometimes families purposely didn't share their troubles with her.

“At the school, we'd find out after a kid graduated that they'd been tutored all through school, but the parents didn't ask us for help because they wanted you to recommend them to Harvard or Yale,” she said. “But if there's trouble in the lives of your parishioners, you find out about it because you see them in so many different settings.”

Comfortable with everybody

When Church of the Servant congregant Marylee Hawse first heard Powell preach at the National Cathedral as part of the search process, she said she was so impressed she drew in her breath. Powell's preaching style is heavy on storytelling, and she speaks without notes. Hawse was impressed by her confidence, thinking: “Here's a woman who's comfortable in her skin. When you're comfortable in your skin, you're comfortable with everybody.”

The committee was looking in particular for someone who could strengthen its children's programs -- a natural fit for Powell.

So, instead of rewriting the curriculum for a prep school, she's working on changing the church's preschool approach. The formal, polished worship services of the cathedral involved working with light and sound technicians, while at Church of the Servant she decides where to place the altar. She has had become accustomed again to making hospital visits and visiting the sick in their homes.

But even if those responsibilities don't seem as glamorous to an outsider, Powell is confident it is the work she is called to do.

“I don't focus on myself as the shepherd but Christ as the shepherd,” Powell added, “and the priest is one of the flock who says the words of Christ so he can continue to feed his flock.”