Discernment

Derek Larson headshotMinistry Statement from Derek M Larson

When did you first decide to seek ordination, and why?

I first felt called to the possibility of ordination in the Episcopal Church my senior year of college in 2011, but I was brand new to the Episcopal Church and decided to immerse myself in the tradition and explore the calling further before pursuing it. In 2015, I decided to formally enter discernment for the priesthood.
Ministry has been a very important part of my life since as early as middle school. I can remember starting a prayer group that met regularly before class or after lunch. I spent time each week writing letters and offering scriptures of encouragement to my friends. I played music in the worship services at church, and eventually became the primary music minister all through college. Peers came to me for spiritual conversations and encouragement. After graduating college, I was a full-time youth minister for three years at an Episcopal Church, and currently am a lay chaplain at an Episcopal School. Ministry has always been very important to me.
In my view, spiritual hospitality is the heart of all ministry. Whatever the context, whether it be preaching the Word, teaching a class, feeding the hungry, counseling the lost, caring for the sick, offering absolution for the hurting—to minister is to radically welcome another into the family of God. It is an invitation for a person to go deeper in their awareness of God’s presence in their lives. It is a sign and symbol to all people that they belong, that they are welcome, that they are home. At the core of every human situation is the deep desire to be whole, wanted, and loved. To minister is to affirm these desires; it is an act of spiritual hospitality.
This idea of spiritual hospitality is central to why I have dedicated my life to ministry. My heart so longs to be an expression of God’s radical welcome that I can often feel it tangibly. I feel God asking me to be a messenger—to send out an invitation for all to come to the table of God. This is the reason I feel pulled towards ordination.
While all ministry may be an expression of radical welcome, the priest’s vocation is central to this mission. Walter Brueggemann once wrote, “The central aspect of the pastoral office is to make people aware.” The sacramental work of the clergy is to open the gates to all people and shepherd them into a greater awareness of God’s mercy. In no place is this more evident than at the Eucharist, when the priest stands at the altar before the people and holds up the bread and wine saying, “the gifts of God for the people of God.” The words are a radical welcome to come and participate in the family of God. It is as if to say, “you are welcome here at God’s table.” Priestly ministry is sacramental—it gives tangibility to God’s loving presence. In fact, all the sacraments demonstrate this spiritual hospitality. That’s what I want and feel called to participate in.
As a Franciscan tertiary, I live by a rule of life that invites me to participate in the sacrament of reconciliation at least once a year. While I know intellectually that God will always forgive me, it is immensely powerful to hear absolution from a priest. In it there is such a palpable presence of belonging and welcome. A few months ago, I was doing confession with a priest who happened to know I was in the discernment process. After giving an absolution and praying with me, he asked if in my heart I wanted to do what he was able to do for me in that moment as a vessel of God’s Spirit at work. Yes, that is what I am feeling called to do. I want to be a vessel for God’s radical welcome to others in the ministry of the sacraments. This is the reason I am pursuing ordination.

Who are the individuals who influenced you?

I feel particularly influenced by all the clergy in my life who have offered their support: Robert Moses at St. David’s in Lakeland, FL who I first spoke to about my calling; Monna Mayhall and Tracy Wells Miller at St. Paul’s in Franklin, TN who explored my calling with me while I worked as a youth minister; and Nancy Shepherd who has mentored me as a chaplain. My undergraduate and graduate professors have also been a source of great encouragement and direction, especially Dr. Hackett who challenged my assumptions of what I thought a pastor was supposed to look like and first hinted at an ordained calling; Dr. Waddell and Dr. Cotton who introduced me to progressive Christianity, contemplative prayer, and the Episcopal Church, and who continue to be great friends to me; and Dr. Cooper who recognized in me a calling to the ministry of spiritual direction. I spent four years in formation as a Franciscan and hours talking about vocation with my spiritual director, Charlie Palmgren, my formation counselors, Janet Fedders and Gordan Shields, and friends, Wally Reynolds, Joan Voight, and Joyce Wilding. I also have been deeply influenced by my own family, especially my wife who has talked most with me about my calling.

What alternative callings have you considered?
Why do you seek the priesthood rather than another vocation?

In college until just before I decided to pursue ordination, I had assumed I’d become a religious studies professor. Having grown up in the Church of the Nazarene, I had a very difficult time envisioning myself as a pastor. At the time, my only vision of a pastor was someone loud and extroverted. I also wanted to go academically and spiritually deeper. As an introverted, contemplative, progressive, academic, I simply couldn’t see myself as an ordained minister. I loved working in the church and leading people into a deeper understanding of God, but when I looked around the only people I saw that looked like me were professors, and I do love teaching.
In my final semester of college I took a homiletics course, and after expressing to the class that I had no intention of becoming a preacher, my professor, Dr. Hackett, challenged me to broaden my image of the ideal pastor. He told me that having an academic approach to preaching did not cancel out a call to pastoral ministry, and that it would even enhance it. He reminded me of pastors such as Eugene Peterson who had made careers as a parish pastors while embodying the principles of both the contemplative and academic traditions. He said he thought I would make a great pastor. His words excited me and immediately resonated with my heart, but it did take a long time for me to wrap my head around the idea. As I became acquainted with the Episcopal church over the next four years, I also bounced back and forth between the idea of being a priest or professor. It took time and seeing the great variety of Episcopal clergy personalities and styles to break down my narrow vision of what a pastor was supposed to be.
In some ways, the vocations of priest and religious professor are very similar. Both exist to help bring people into a greater awareness of God. The priest has a congregation; the professor has a class. The priest has a homily; the professor has a lecture. I do think the priest’s vocation is more community oriented. The priest’s mission extends beyond the classroom and into people’s homes, city streets, and hospital rooms. But the primary difference between the two is the sacramental work of the priest as described in an above response. I feel that the core of my calling is to this sacramental work. I don’t feel like my main mission is to broaden minds in the classroom but to bridge mind, heart, and soul to the presence of God’s grace everywhere. To be a professor feels like a safe and comfortable option; to be a priest feels more in touch with the tug of my heart.

What are the needs of the Church as you see them?
What do you hope to contribute?

The Church, as always, exists in a challenging time. Regular church attendance continues to decline, and yet studies show that many of those who no longer identify with a religious tradition continue to believe in God, prayer, and the importance of cultivating a spiritual life. There are many reasons for this common western trend, but part of it lies in our culture’s growing distrust of institutions. The aversion of institutions for change is understandable, but unsustainable. The most pressing need of the Church is to adapt to the shifting culture while continuing to offer a rich and authentically Christocentric faith message. With its unique blend of ancient practice and progressive welcome, I believe the Episcopal Church is on the forefront of this mission. Presiding Bishop Curry’s work and Jesus Movement message is particularly moving. Yet plenty of work continues to be done. The Church needs more creativity. It can no longer thrive within four walls on a Sunday morning, but needs its mission to spill out into the streets. Like Francis of Assisi, it ought to find a home in the streets among everyday people. Like Benedict of Nursia, it ought to have its doors permanently propped open for all to enter—not just during prayer services but for communal and creative gatherings of art, education, meals, justice, and refuge. Like the Spirit, the Church needs to be at home in unexpected places. This is one of my deepest passions and I hope to contribute to this calling.
While the cultural shift presents itself most among younger generations, 80% of TEC’s full time clergy are over the age of 45. The experience and wisdom of this group is indispensable, but it is also important the Church finds more leadership among millennials who offer crucial perspectives for its mission in today’s changing world. As a millennial myself, I sympathize with so many friends who have left organized religion. I hope my mission as a priest will be a symbol and an invitation for them to find their way back to an ancient tradition with a fresh expression.

Why Seminary of the Southwest?

My family and I are excited about attending the Seminary of the Southwest. After visiting the campus and speaking with other seminarians, I felt a deep sense of authenticity and creativity. I see Southwest as being a community deeply rooted in an ancient tradition while at the same time being extremely engaged in today’s world and finding ways to keep the tradition fresh and relevant. Too often in my experience in evangelical churches “fresh” and “relevant” meant “watered-down” and “commercial,” but I sense an enormous amount of intentionality in Southwest’s creativity and engagement that brings with it real rootedness in the faith. I want my priestly formation to be in a place like that. I want to be part of a community holding the past in its hands and heart while looking and moving towards the future. This outlook is what the Church increasingly needs in the ever-changing postmodern world. Someday, when I become a parish priest, I would love to be equipped with all the resources that Southwest has to provide. As a Franciscan I’m also very interested in spirituality—another emphasis the seminary provides with its Center for Christian Ministry and Vocation and the courses available through the Master of Arts in Spiritual Formation.

Not only did I feel good about the visit, the Seminary of the Southwest felt like home to my wife, LauraAnn, and our 2 year old son, Bear. It’s extremely important to us the place where I engage in formation offers community for the whole family. My wife is not called to be a priest, but she is an intimate part of my life and faith, and to isolate her over the next few years would be to isolate part of myself. We don’t have a fear of that at Southwest. The seminary was unbelievably hospitable, and we felt right at home. The city of Austin also offers so much opportunity. I’m excited about the many churches and ministries in the area, and my wife is excited about the accessibility of everything and the opportunity for jobs and childcare. Even our normally shy son came out of his shell over dinner with other seminarians and their families. The Seminary of the Southwest is a wonderful place to grow, learn, raise a family, and prepare for ministry, and we are honored to participate in such community.