This summer, the Cowans will leave the city and church that has nurtured them for years to pursue a calling that has whispered quietly and intently in Sarah’s soul for three decades.
In early August, Sarah will begin her three years of study at Virginia Theological Seminary, stepping out in faith in a way that will eventually bring her back to minister to the people of West Tennessee as an Episcopal priest.
“I have considered this vocation since I was in high school. Then college, career, family and all those things entered in,” Sarah said, smiling at the blessings the years have bestowed.
“I’ve talked to a lot of people, lay and ordained, over the years. Finally, one day I was having lunch with John Burruss. He said, ‘If you have been thinking of this for 30-some years, you should just start.’”
She took a night class at Memphis Theological Seminary to see if she could manage graduate-level work. And in the fall of 2016, she began the intensive work with Sandy and later, a committee of parishioners, to discern her call.
“It was wonderful. Discernment is not a defined process in the Episcopal Church. Sandy created his own after consulting with other ordained friends,” Sarah said.
The two met every month for the better part of the school year. In January of this year, Bishop Don Johnson named her a Postulate for Holy Orders, a seal of affirmation from the parish and diocese that also means both will offer financial support while she is in seminary.
In the Episcopal Church, the discernment process starts first in the heart of the postulant and then flows into the parish and diocese, symbolizing the concentric and ever-widening circles of confirmation and affirmation it takes to succeed in ministry.
“The Episcopal Church believes God’s will is discerned communally, not individually,” Sandy said. “A person does not simply say he is called to ministry; she invites her community of faith to share in her discernment. This is a vulnerable process, but also one filled with love. By discerning in this way, both the priest and the church are given an increased level of confidence that we have heard God’s voice correctly.”
Robert Propst headed the lay committee. Its members were Anne-Morgan Morgan and Barb Boucher.
“In a general sense, the lay committee gets to know the journey the person has been on,” Robert said. “If there were areas in the person’s life that we felt like might be a detriment, we would suggest they need to pray on that more and consider more. Ultimately, the committee makes a recommendation if, from our perspective, it is appropriate for them to continue their pursuit of this.
“It’s an honor to walk beside someone who is pursuing a personal and godly thing to serve God in such sacrificial way,” Robert said. “It’s an honor to be part of that and to really experience the deep, deep abiding love they have for their church and how they want to serve Christ in the world.”
For Curt, the process underscores the centrality of the parish.
“This whole thing started in this parish. It started with a meeting with Sandy. The center of church life happens at the parish level. The most important things in a church happen right here in your home church,” he said.
For a denomination that is losing priests to retirement much faster than it is ordaining them, the decision to him feels like very personal.
“We are doing something that needs to be done for the greater church … It’s meaningful to me that the church needs Sarah.”
The Cowans will move to Alexandria in early August. Their children, Corinne and Billy, will begin their new schools after Labor Day. As a reward, they will get a puppy when they are settled.
“It’s probably the first thing we do after we get our beds in our rooms,” said Billy, 8, who’s looking forward to new adventures.
“There’s also a whole seminary I can ride my bike around on the street.”
The Cowans did not tell their children of the move until the pieces were all in place.
“One day, at dinner, Mom announced that she had always wanted to be a priest,” Corinne said. “Billy and I were so surprised, I think our mouths fell open. It’s just hard to imagine,” she said, looking at her mother.
“I know you have really wanted to be a priest. It’s just difficult to think of you as one.”
Part of the commitment a postulant makes to her home diocese is to return for two years of service in parish assigned by the bishop. After that assignment, she may take an assignment any place in the world.
“I’m excited for our family to have a three-year adventure and be in a place that really feels like the place that would form me the best for this vocation I am choosing,” Sarah said. “But we’re also looking forward to coming back and serving in West Tennessee.
"I'm excited to be a student again and immersed in new learning. And I'm excited to be formed as a priest at a seminary that feels very 'right' for me. A wide variety of faith communities - St. Peter's in Del Mar, CA; St. George's Independent School, Church of the Holy Trinity and church of the Holy Communion - have formed me as a Christian. Now, I am excited to go to VTS to be formed as a priest."