I grew up in a very Catholic family. We observed all the holy days and ate fish on Fridays, and I attended an all-girls’ Catholic high school. Being Catholic was part of my family’s culture.
So when as an adult, for various reasons, I began attending an Episcopal church—a church whose weekly services are very similar to the Catholic mass—I was a bit startled by a few of the differences. For one, priests are allowed to marry. For another, they’re allowed to be women.
About a year ago, I had the opportunity to attend the ordination of a woman priest. As I sat in the pews, watching the ceremony, I couldn’t help but get a bit emotional: here was this woman—married and pregnant—about to be welcomed to the priesthood. The feminist in me was thrilled, and I said as much to the newly ordained priest after the ceremony was over. She grinned conspiratorially, thanked me, and said, “I think it’s pretty cool too!”
Since then, Sarah and I have been friends. Sarah is now a priest at St. Martin’s Episcopal Church in Houston; a contributor to Mockingbird, a website whose focus is to connect the Christian faith with the realities of everyday life; a sought-after public speaker; and, I’ve discovered, an introvert.
Tuesday, April 14th, 2015
St. Martin’s Church, Houston, Texas
Karen Walrond: Sarah, I’m very excited about interviewing you because in a lot of ways, you’re kind of the opposite of what I think of as a priest! I grew up in the Catholic faith, where priests aren’t women. So I’d love to ask how you knew you wanted to be a priest and how you started—what was your relationship with the church like, growing up? You were raised an Episcopalian, right?
Sarah Condon: I was raised an Episcopalian, and I was the kid that did everything that they would let me do in the church. I started acolyting, serving at the altar, when I was about 7 or 8 years old. I also sang in the choir. They didn’t have a choir at the early service of the church where I grew up, which meant that I would go to the early service with my parents and then stay for the later service and sing with the choir, so I would go to church twice every Sunday morning.
KW: Wow. You were hard core.
SC: I was! When I had to fill out things in school that asked what I wanted to be when I grew up, I often put “nun” and “housewife,” which is an interesting combination…and sort of what I am now, I guess! And I always loved the movie The Sound of Music. And honestly, there was something about that movie for me that identified my calling. And then I saw…oh, what’s the name of that movie? Whoopi Goldberg…?
KW: Sister Act!
SC: YES! That movie had so much to do with vocation for me!…because the characters were these very real people who were entering into ministry. I mean, Whoopi Goldberg’s character entered into it kicking and screaming, but she still entered into ministry in a way, and so I identified very deeply with that.
KW: So you knew you were going to do something with the clergy from a very young age.
SC: I started to articulate that this was what I was going to do probably around the age of 10. And then, I wasn’t really sure what that path would look like for me, but as seniors in high school, we were asked to do these projects that tied something that we were interested in the world with a passion that we had. And I had a teacher who went to church with me, and she said, “You know, you should do something about the church!” And so I found a mentor at the Episcopal cathedral downtown and said that I wanted to do a project about women in the Episcopal priesthood. And unbeknownst to me, instead of giving me history books about that, he gave me books about discernment for ordained ministry—in other words, to start me praying about and thinking about ordained ministry. I was 18 at the time.
KW: Wow. So, okay, let me back up: you talked about how you wanted to be a nun—possibly a singing nun like Maria from The Sound of Music—but do they even have nuns in the Episcopal church?
SC: They do have nuns in the Episcopal faith. But I was raised by two people who grew up in the Southern Baptist church, not by people who were classically Episcopalian, and so they didn’t know that the Episcopal church had nuns, thank God, because I would not have made a very good nun. But they do have nuns in the Episcopal church, and they’re lovely people, but it wasn’t a vocational path that was laid out for me.
KW: So at 18, after doing this project, you thought, “Maybe priesthood is for me?” And there aren’t a whole lot of women priests, are there?
SC: I had met two in my whole life by the time I was 18.
KW: Wow—and you still knew that this was where you were going. So, okay, you’re 18, and you’re about to go to college, but is there college for priests? Priesting is usually a graduate-level study, right?
SC: I actually ended up in the Southern Studies program at Ole Miss, which was the perfect place to learn about theology, I think. I always say I learned more about theology in Southern Studies at Ole Miss than I learned at the Divinity School at Yale because it profoundly handled the blood that has been spilled and the sin that the South has experienced, and it also talked about the deep religiosity that sort of swims alongside that and how those two inform each other. And so for me, I feel like I was bound for the priesthood, even just as a southerner.
KW: That’s interesting because I think if you think of a Christian faith in the south, Episcopalian is not what you would think of! I feel like—maybe I’m wrong—I feel like when you start talking about religion, particularly with the Civil Rights movement, you think of the Baptist Church, and maybe AME Churches, more than the Episcopal faith.
SC: Well, for example, in the history of the town of Oxford, which is where Ole Miss is, there were massive student riots that happened when we had our first black student attend Ole Miss. It was really violent, down in the town square, and history tells us that it wasn’t actually all students: there were a lot of people from town involved as well. And the Episcopal priest of St. Peter’s walked out among the people who were throwing glass, and among gunfire and extreme violence, and pointed at people and called them by their first names—because remember, Oxford is not a big town—and said, “You need to go home.” And so, while we might not look at Southern Studies and think “the Episcopal church,” for me, there were things I learned in the department that made me think, “That’s where I want to find myself. That is something I would be honored to be a part of.”
KW: So, you graduate with your Southern Studies degree and immediately start thinking about seminary school?
SC: Yeah, I started thinking about the discernment process of the priesthood, which is what we have to do in the Episcopal church. You have to go through a two-year discernment process, sometimes longer, where you have conversations with your congregation, with committees, and finally with your bishop about whether or not you’re actually called to the priesthood. And only then can you go to seminary. It’s a big job, and we think you should have a whole group of people helping you think about whether this is what God is really calling you to do, and not just what’s happening in your own brain. So I started that process, and my process was much longer because I moved it from Mississippi to New York when my husband Josh and I moved there.
KW: Okay, so as you know, Susan Cain, who is the founder of the Quiet Revolution, wrote this amazing book called Quiet, and one of the things that she talks about is related to a case study she did at Harvard Business School. And I know you didn’t go to Harvard, I know you went to Yale, but it seems that in the Ivy League, extroversion is valued highly. For example, at Harvard Business School, it’s all about working in teams, and there’s no working alone, and it can be difficult for somebody who is not an extrovert. Is Yale Divinity School anything like this? Are there lots of requirements for working in teams and working in groups?
SC: It is the same. And that was sometimes difficult. I had to learn to let go of control because as an introvert, when I do group projects, I just want to do everything and not have to communicate with people. But the wonderful thing about Yale is that you’re with a lot of really bright people, and so I had to learn to trust people and my relationships with them in order to accomplish a goal in a way that I hadn’t had to before. So it really pushed me to say, “I’m going to do my part, and I’m going to trust and know that I’m with these really bright, capable, and wonderful people and that they’re going to do their part.”
And by and large, it was awesome and exciting. And at the Divinity School, there’s so much crossover. So, we would have people from Yale Film School or Yale Law School who were in classes with us. And just the breadth of what they would bring to the table was wonderful.
KW: The other thing that Susan talks about in her book is this idea that extroversion is really valued in the faith community to the detriment of introversion. In other words, the concept that if you are truly faithful, then you express that faith out loud, and faith is about outreach and evangelism—telling your faith story as often as possible—and really being an extrovert. And I’d be really interested to hear if you found that to be your experience, both in studying to become a priest and also as a practicing priest now. Do you feel like being an introvert hinders you in any way?
SC: You know, I only think being an introvert hinders me if it’s been a really long day of interacting with people and I know that there’s even more interaction that’s going to happen later. But I actually don’t know how people function in terms of leading churches, but also simply being Christian, without having some sort of “introverted” time. I think that part of being Christian means that we are called to step away, you know?
We see that in Scripture, where Jesus sort of steps away and takes a beat and prays, and I think that that’s crucial to us connecting with God and connecting with what God’s purpose is in our lives…what God’s—I hate the word “purpose”—intention is for us. Because I think when we just keep charging ahead, and we keep talking, and we keep being loud and “out there,” I think it becomes about us in those moments. It becomes about our own agenda because we’re not stopping and saying, “Lord, what would you have me do?” If we’re not stopping and reflecting on that passage, “We love because He first loved us”—not because it was our idea and we kept charging ahead and articulating and explaining—but because we take a minute and we remember it all starts and begins again with God and not with our own human flawed bravado.
KW: You also do a lot of public speaking. You speak a lot at conferences, at Mockingbird Conference and a lot of faith-based conferences, and you speak at other churches. Is this difficult for you as an introvert?
SC: It’s actually really difficult for me as an introvert because all of that content really comes from me writing. I spend weeks or months, sometimes, writing the content I speak about, which is such an introverted activity. And then I crack it open for everybody to hear. And people are awesome and lovely, and they want to come up and talk to me afterwards, which is so great, but when they come up and want to reflect with me, I have to fight the overwhelming urge to say, “Thank God that’s over!” You know, which is not at all what they want!
We need to have a real interaction about what they’ve experienced, and I want to genuinely hear that, but as an introvert, sometimes I just want to get done talking and crawl under a table and pull a blanket over me for 20 minutes of Lonely Time!
KW: So, if you were to craft your perfect priestly day, as an introvert, what would it look like?
SC: Definitely it would start with my husband taking our children to school and me getting to shower with no one else in the house. And then I would go into devotions and prayer. When I make the space for that to happen in my day, it’s amazing how much it transforms the rest of my day. So, if I can spend 20 minutes doing that, in the Word, in Scripture, it sort of changes my day’s whole landscape. And then from there, I have energy to spend time with people. I have energy to talk and answer questions.
Hands-on ministry is always such a blessing. One of the things we’re told in seminary is that we’re going to get to do a lot of hands-on ministry, but for a lot of people, they get into parish ministry, and it’s more administrative work than you were prepared for. So, some of my best days in the ministry have been when I’ve been able to participate in, for example, Blessings in a Backpack, packing meals for at-risk kids, or any sort of hands-on ministry where it’s not about me preaching, it’s not about me talking, it’s not about me telling. It’s more about me living out “we love because He first loved us.” And that’s wonderful.