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Welcome to the Most Divisive Parish in America

In D.C., churches train ministers of peace in a place devoid of it.

When you think about Washington, D.C., you might imagine similar things: politics, culture, and a district filled with our nation’s history. 

What you probably don’t think about is Anglican churches, the kinds of churches that recall an older history, older at least than the monuments to church freedom that mainly decorate the capital. Yet, in the last three years, three Anglican churches have trained and sent out dozens of pastors to places like Pittsburgh, Boston, Virginia, England, and others — not in spite of D.C. but strategically from it. 

The mechanism is what they just call the pastoral residency program: a two- to three-year training program for men and women who want more hands-on experience in pastoral work, not too different from medical residency. Would-be clergy get a chance to apply what they learn in seminary classrooms to the real world — and, in this case, in the metro area of Washington, D.C.

Only 7,000 people reside within the D.C. grid, but the metro or surrounding area includes the District of Columbia, the Montgomery and Prince George’s Counties in Maryland, and the Arlington and Fairfax Counties in Alexandria and Falls Church, Virginia, expanding the region to more than six million residents. More people move there to work for political campaigns, agencies, or nonprofits than almost any other city. This creates a transient and diverse culture, not to mention the election cycle every four years creating partisan divides between red and blue (and everything in between) voters. 

Between harsher work hours to move up in a career or politics, and the pressure to succeed, serving in a place like D.C. requires pastoral residents to learn how to navigate not only helping people know their work matters, but guiding them to balance work and life in a urgent-paced, identity-shaping environment. 

Deborah Tepley, who worked in international development and other Christian organizations prior to Church of the Advent, explained how much of the discipleship that occurs at their church reflects this reality. 

“A lot of our work with congregants is helping them to know how to put work in its proper place,  and not having that to be such an idol in their lives,” she explained. Three of these residency programs are in Washington, D.C., at Church of the Resurrection, Church of the Ascension, and Church of the Advent. Each church’s program was launched in partnership with Made to Flourish, providing the churches coaching, a network of other churches with residency programs, and startup grant funding. This allows the residents and the churches to focus on the work before them without other pressures. 

Dan Claire started Church of the Resurrection, an Anglican congregation in the Anglican Church of North America, in 2003. What began as a small gathering in his living room grew into multiple new churches and a thriving, now 17-year-old church on Capitol Hill. Claire says the desire and commitment of the church was twofold: become a church that plants churches and Become a church that trains leaders. 

“And so, over the years, we’ve done that,” Claire told me in a recent interview. “We’ve had a hand in starting 10 churches out of our church. And we’ve seen 17 people ordained over the last 17 years.” 

From the Church of the Resurrection, multiple churches around the country and overseas continue to grow into new congregations. They planted the Church of the Advent in 2007 and the Church of the Ascension in 2008, both in the metro D.C. area. All three congregations welcome men and women who often move into the D.C. area to work for a season, whether short or long term. This gives the churches a unique angle — and responsibility — for ministry both to congregants and to pastoral residents as they train for three years at a time. 

Claire emphasized that discipleship in their context “is focused on topics related to political theology and the kingdom of God, especially as many people come here having been formed in churches where there is a high degree of overlap in their church between Christianity and a political party in America.” 

Both Tepley and Dean Miller agree. They say that these programs help both the church and the residents. Tepley serves as the executive director at Church of the Advent in Takoma Park, Maryland, including oversight of their residency program, and Miller is the rector of Ascension Church in  Annandale, Virginia. 

This pastoral discipleship helped Kevin Antlitz feel more prepared for his new role at Church of the Ascension in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Antlitz worked in campus ministry at Princeton University for several years before beginning to explore a transition to pastoral work. He believes the residency program at Church of the Advent was the perfect fit for that transition. 

According Antlitz, the residency program gave him a controlled and safe environment to explore whether or not he felt called to pastoral work, and helped him work through questions and doubts around his future. 

“I was assured through this process that this in fact is what the Lord has called me to. And that was huge. I’m so grateful for the opportunity to go through that process and to have that kind of time where I can sort of protect and guard, to do that kind of soul searching and that kind of work,” he said. 

“The hope of the world is ultimately Jesus, not national politics,” said Antlitz. “And the way that Jesus plans to build his kingdom is through the local church. And to be convinced that that’s the answer to so many of the questions. It’s really exciting for me to be serving in the local church, as quirky and funny and miraculous and beautiful as it is.”

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Discipleship in this context “is focused on topics related to political theology and the kingdom of God, especially as many people come here having been formed in churches where there is a high degree of overlap in their church between Christianity and a political party in America.”

Dan Claire
This story is from Common Good issue
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