The Rev. Whitney Altopp
Rector, St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church
I grew up a Methodist preacher’s kid in Kentucky. My vocational calling, until my senior year in high school, was classical ballet. My junior year at a youth performing arts school gave me a reality check on my aspirations. As I reconsidered my future, I contemplated pursuing Law toward being a judge. And then my father casually passed me some brochures on ordained ministry.
I wasn’t interested in that, but youth ministry excited me. In part, I wanted to do youth ministry so that kick ball could be a justifiable use of work time. (Seriously!)
Every vocational change in my ministry has begun with others saying “Have you thought about…?” My discernment for Bishop Diocesan of ECCT began with that same question. My petition process also began with that question.
I am thrilled to come to this slate via petition. The petition process required that I dialogue with others and make connections- two of my very favorite things to do! Dialoguing with others and making connections roots me with people on the ground- the most solid place from which ministry flourishes. In my work responsibilities, I always have time for this! Dialogue and connections reveal new discoveries. Some of you, via this petition process, have already helped me see things within our diocese that I hadn’t seen before. God’s wisdom is in God’s people- this is God’s generous way!
My husband and I just celebrated 30 years of marriage. We’ve accompanied each other through all of life’s developments, which meant living in 5 different states. Our four children range in age from almost 16-24. When I arrived at seminary with a 9 mo. old child, I claimed what I have been claiming ever since- This is life! It’s meant to be lived and it’s meant to be livable.
How does your relationship with Jesus shape your priestly ministry?
Jesus is very much alive in my life. The intimacy between Jesus and the Beloved Disciple in John’s Gospel is something that I feel. It was John’s Gospel that opened up for me what it is to follow Jesus, way back in 1993. Since then, I have had many (several? numerous?) experiences with Jesus as he’s portrayed in the Gospels which have made the Gospels alive; Jesus alive. They’re some of my favorite stories to tell because they remain Good News to me.
When I read about Jesus in the Gospels I see someone who “did not see equality with God as something to be exploited” (Philippians 2:6). His posture of servanthood- even as the Son of God- humbles and reminds me of how I am to serve God in the place where I am. In the Eucharistic prayer when “he had given thanks,” I lift up the bread and chalice as an offering of gratitude, as I imagine that he did. The theme that runs throughout the High Priestly prayer in John’s Gospel is “thank you, thank you, thank you.” Even when I’m in the highest position of authority in the room, I want people to experience an openness that is rooted in gratitude and love.
Whether Gratitude is the chicken or the egg in the sequential order, Love is the other one. The scripture that roots my ministry reads like a throwaway line at the start of the Last Supper. “Having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end.” (John 13:1) This sentence reminds me that Jesus only had people to work with and he only had the people that he had to work with. Me too! We can’t invent the people that we lead. They are the ones that we have and we will know how to lead when we love them.
One of my Good News Stories was a time when I felt exasperated by my leadership’s deafness to my direction. “They’re not listening to me!” I lamented to Jesus in my meditation prayer time in front of my replica icon of Christ Pantocrator. And Jesus looked at me with eyes of love, out of the inanimate icon, and said, “Whitney, they didn’t listen to me either.” A wave of relief washed over me and I chuckled to myself and said in response, “And you were the Son of God. Why would I think that my batting average would be better than yours?” I was reminded again of John 13:1. I learned to settle my defensiveness which opened a way toward resolution.
As Bishop Diocesan I would understand it to be a holy calling to shepherd the Baptized. We are all disciples of Jesus, learning to follow him in our lives, growing in understanding of what Kingdom he is trying to bring about, realizing how full of misunderstanding we have been, and renewed and strengthened by his compassion and mercy to repent and try again to follow him as he would like us to.
Have you ever committed to—and created—an environment of racial healing, justice, and reconciliation? Tell us about it.
When the Resolution for a Two Year Season passed at Convention in 2018, I decided to simply make my leadership aware of it. I compiled and led my Vestry through “A Brief History Packet of A Season of Racial Healing, Justice, and Reconciliation” covering the work of the General and Diocesan conventions since 2015. At a vestry meeting we read the Resolutions out loud. I wanted us to be in community when we heard and said words that made us uncomfortable like “white supremacy” and “anti-black bias.” This exercise in understanding the work of the national church and our diocese was hard. We had yet to determine what it meant for us.
In the days and weeks that followed I had a couple of vestry members who wanted to talk with me. I, myself, had been receiving coaching on how to be non-defensive. These phone calls gave me the opportunity to practice my new skills. When we revisited the question- How do we participate in this Season?– at our next Vestry meeting, there was an urgency to do something. They were big and ambitious ideas. I told my leadership that I would welcome any idea that they could bring to me which had a process we could follow. Even in their enthusiasm to take up this work, no one was able to bring me a substantive plan. Within a couple of months I had some clear direction to offer us. We were going to get good at talking about racism.
This commitment reveals several truths:
- We’re not good at it.
- To get good at talking about racism, we have to practice.
- Practice means that you’re going to mess up sometimes. So, we need to offer compassion to ourselves and one another.
I started to watch my congregation pick up the work of dismantling racism. They would tell me something that they were working on or noticing or questioning. As I was speaking into the injustices every Sunday, they were becoming strengthened to consider the difficult and painful news, day in and day out.
I write an account of all that we did together as St. Stephen’s in a google document entitled “Dismantling Racism in a White Congregation.” It only covers the span of January 2019-April 2021. In short paragraphs, it highlights the work that we’ve done as St. Stephen’s. There are many congregational efforts, including an open letter from the Vestry following the murder of George Floyd (which was printed in our town’s newspaper). I’m happy to share the document with you if you’d like. It took more than 3000 words to cover the highlights. Since April, I offered an “Understanding Racism” zoom meeting which resulted in a parishioner researching our complicity in slavery, as well as a working group that produced and shared a program on red-lining.
Additionally, I serve on the Diocesan Task Force for Reparations. I’m the primary author of the “Did you know…?” series that comes out each week. I also played a significant role in Resolution 7 at Convention 2021.
Please describe a time when you played a leadership role in advancing ministry with young adults (ages 18–39)?
I had sabbatical in the fall of 2018 during which I began a Doctor of Ministry Program in Contextual Leadership at Palmer Seminary in St. David’s, PA. I knew that I wanted to focus my Doctoral Research Project around ministry with young people. My professional ministry in the church began in Youth Ministry. Since becoming a priest and serving the Church in a broader capacity, I’ve become keenly aware of the challenges of growing ministry with young people. (I won’t use my 500 words to recount the challenges.) In preparation for my research I read books and articles on Millennials and Gen Z. Because I had to narrow my research, I ultimately decided on focusing on Gen Z. My project is entitled Holy Experiments: Discovering the Church in the New Missional Age with Gen Z in the Episcopal Church in CT.
Nonetheless, my reading prepared me for interviewing several and ultimately hiring a person of the Millennial generation in a key leadership position- Minister of Music. Millennials demonstrate a high level of concentrated excellence, catapulting them into arenas of older generations. However, they lack organizational experience. This presents itself as a professional imbalance. This generation’s comfort with working collaboratively masks the lack of systemic understanding. Their confidence, although welcome, can be misunderstood by older generations who are accustomed to deference as a dimension of this stage of life. Millennials value mentorship and have soft boundaries between their professional and personal lives. This makes them uniquely suited to help imagine new ways of organizational structures. Indeed, they know that the linear professional progression of previous generations is not the only way professional life can be done. Their own experience as young experts proves this. I have successfully helped my staff member and the congregation navigate the various differences (he also happens to be African-American) so that he and the choir (which skews significantly older and all white) have a creative and stable relationship in ministry.
St. Stephen’s also has a high level of young families engaged in the church and on the Vestry, which is shifting the common life of the Church.
My doctoral research was born from the recognition that the Millennial generation is generally missing from congregational life. The practices for raising young people in faith, for as many generations as any of us can remember, has not created engaged young adults in the routine life of the Episcopal Church. I ultimately decided to focus my research with Gen Z because some portion of this generation is still under 18. Clergy are focused, often by necessity, on the people that are present within the congregation. Confirmation continues to be an important occasion for re-engaging families. I have found that the habits of faith development run deep and will take more effort than I expected to re-imagine. However, my Four Categories for Ministry with Youth have generated some creativity, reflection, and empowerment among the clergy who participated. This is why I have hope for ECCT as it pertains to advancing ministry with young adults.
Based on your reading of our Diocesan profile, what excites you most about leading in ECCT, and why?
I am most excited about supporting congregations and clergy in the hard work of organizational transformation. ECCT has already recognized that the institutional church does not function in society as it did in Christendom. We already know the sorrow that accompanies change. What I’m excited about is the fertile soil in which God’s transforming Love can work among us; the resurrection that comes from the silence and sorrow of death. I bring experience and knowledge in three particular areas which I believe are applicable to ECCT’s current situation: processes for addressing systemic change within the congregation, emotional and practical support for the work of clergy during transition, and accessible tools for developing contextual ministry.
There are a multitude of resources for addressing systemic change coming from disciplines as varied as business to psychology. Theology also addresses systems. I believe that there is work to be done in organizing these resources so that clergy and the congregation’s leadership can access them for the change they are trying to understand. This will allow committed people some clarity on what to “try on” and its effects on the organization of the congregation. This process will reveal vision, whether long-term or next steps. People will be able to speak theologically about the work of the church in a changing environment.
Clergy are inside of change, too. The health of our clergy and their longevity in ministry is directly tied to how well they navigate the changes of our institution. Millennial clergy need particular support in understanding their gifts in relationship to the changing church and older clergy need support in exploring new ways of leadership. The crux of this is the worshipping community, the body of Christ, where we remember our oneness. Executive coaching can help clergy leaders find themselves in the midst of the changes. I want our diocese to make executive coaching available to clergy. This profession partners well with therapists, spiritual directors, and mentors. My commitment to self-care, having utilized all of these disciplines, has revealed a way to stay in good health through challenges and conflicts.
There is great diversity in our post-Christendom society. Programs and resources designed to address any area of congregational life have limited applicability for a whole host of reasons. The expectation of congregations to sort through these materials and then translate them for their context requires more time and planning than congregational leaders have. It is possible to have church leaders learn how to assess their resources and culture so that they might identify their needs. Furthermore, this process helps clarify a “good enough” next step in addressing the need and developing ministry within the congregation’s context. Growth and change is incremental, often at a rate and effort that we can live with.
God is merciful and gracious. Our life as the church, Christ’s body in the world, has great diversity and variety. We would do well to reflect God’s mercy and grace in all things.
What would make you a great Bishop Diocesan? Please share with us the gifts you would bring to this calling.
The gifts I have to offer include energy and creativity; a combination of mystical and practical theology; perseverance; belief in congregational life; and grace under fire.
One can witness my energy and creativity in my ideas. Collaboration thrills me. I’m good at recognizing people’s gifts and empowering them in sharing their gifts. Through listening and dialogue, we can determine how work needs to change in order to be recognized as worthy of one’s time. This recognition motivates people to take initiative and follow through. Then, through collaboration, we develop new ideas for addressing age-old problems and break them down into actionable items. This work energizes me.
Inspiration comes from a deeper place than positive thinking. Change that’s transformational is beyond politics. The mystery of the Christian faith- the Good News in Jesus’ death and resurrection- brings inspiration. It is through the work of the Holy Spirit that we are transformed; able to more consistently demonstrate God’s love in the world. Living as members of the Kingdom of God takes intentionality. The ways of this world do not lead us into the Kingdom of God. Thus, Practical Theology becomes our theological language.
St. Paul reminds us that we are supported by the faithful in the hard work of following Jesus, and thus to “persevere.” (Hebrews 12:1-17) He should know that the payout for the life of faith can be significantly delayed from the effort. I am accustomed to this. My patience and endurance has grown from my experience. We know that as the Episcopal Church seeks to address injustices and work for justice in the world, the future Body of Christ will look differently than its present incarnation. “Persevere” also shows up in the Baptismal Covenant when talking about our approach to resisting evil. Evil shape-shifts. But so does Love. As followers of Jesus, we must continue to learn from our Teacher of Love’s shape-shifting power, so that we might magnify Love’s presence in the world. We do not need to be afraid or discouraged. Our faith calls us into the hard work; attends to our disappointment and heartbreak; and promises that God does the impossible. God is faithful. You will hear this language carried out through my leadership.
Jesus began his ministry with twelve disciples. This “small group” size fosters community and aids in transformation. Mark Lau Branson & Juan F. Martinez list six characteristics of community, one of which is “relative intimacy, proximity and permanence.”* Thus, in order to develop Beloved Community, we need this characteristic. The local congregation provides the essential dimensions of community. It is best equipped to communicate the Good News in the local context.
Finally, I am frequently commended for my offering of grace under fire. People can be ugly to one another; egos can take over. Time and again people commend me for interrupting the trajectory of self-focused behavior in stressful settings with grace. Grace is what God works with to change people. Committing to joining in the gracious work of our merciful and just God is the way that I demonstrate my participation in the Kingdom of God; the way in which I submit to Jesus’ Kingship.
* Mark Lau Branson & Juan F. Martinez, Churches, Cultures & Leadership: A Practical Theology of Congregations and Ethnicities (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2011), 81.