Serving at Saint In-Between

"An oath I could not quite live up to."
An oath I could not quite live up to.

My first call to serve God and country came at the age of nine. First as a Brownie for year or so – until proudly I got my “wings”. Sprouting wings I ascended to the rank of Junior Girl Scout. Green uniform and all. But I was not a very good Girl Scout. In fact I was a pretty lousy Girl Scout.

My uniform would never quite pass inspection. There was always stuff that needed to be sewn on that wasn’t – troop numbers and patrol badges. I hated camping and when no one was looking, I would switch assignments with the other troop members. Let me gather wood any day – rather than take latrine duty. I never got past the introduction in my handbook and I barely completed the most basic of requirements. I fudged what I could to get my citizenship and cooking badges. At flag ceremonies, the other girls’ sashes were a veritable rainbow of ribbons — while my naked sash was the ultimate embarrassment. My commitment was shaky. My efforts sub par. My loyalty questioned…to God…to country…to Troop 4111.

Girl Scout uniforms circa 1965
Girl Scout uniforms circa 1965

“Joani”, the troop leader asked me “Do you want to be a Girl Scout or not?”

Choose this day whom you will serve.

Silly as this may sound, at nine years old I had made a choice to serve something much bigger than myself. The Girl Scouts had lofty ideals. It was a place where I could make friends, learn new things, and make a difference for my native land in a grade school kind of way. I had taken the Girl Scout oath but this little nine year old did not quite have the hutzpah to live up to it. Sadly my scouting days were over.

Choose this day whom you will serve.

Just who that would be I did not know for a very long time. If it was not country than maybe it was God. I was really good at the “God stuff” at Holy Family School. I loved first Friday Mass. I loved the holy cards that marked my place in my missal. I loved the stories of the saints. I loved the chanting and the incense. I loved the Stations of the Cross. I loved the rosary. I loved the Baltimore Catechism. I even loved the uniform. Peter pan collared blouses. Plaid jumper. Red bow-tie. Saddle shoes. Bobby socks. My home life was hell but Holy Family School was heaven to me.

Choose this day whom you will serve.

But then came the questions. My Jesuit educated father had gifted me with an insatiable curiosity – “an inquiring and discerning heart”. I raised my hand religiously in religion class – frustrating the good sisters to no end. “Transubstantiation makes no sense, Sister. Why would Jesus want us to eat him?” “Jesus was born of a virgin? Didn’t Jesus have a real dad, Sister?” And as I got older my questions got bolder. “I don’t understand why French kissing is a sin, Sister. What’s wrong with tongues touching?” And the nail in my coffin — “What the heck does the Pope know about birth control?” Sister Mary Clare took me aside and delivered the diagnosis: “Joani, you are intellectually gifted but you are spiritually retarded”.

Choose this day whom you will serve.

Well maybe it wasn’t God. I went off to Catholic University and majored in philosophy where I could ask all the damn questions I wanted. I studied Plato and Aristotle; Boethius and Aquinas; Descartes and Kant; Hegel and Kierkegaard; Sartre and Camus. I loved the proofs of logic and proving the Jesus freaks wrong. But the meaning of life evaded me.

Until I became a mom. When I became a mom it was abundantly clear just whom I was serving and their names were Zach, Colleen and Jacob. I was not a stay at home mom. I really do not have a domestic bone in my body. My children are all grown now. But I really mean it when I say that every age was a good age and every stage was amazing. Not perfect of course – hell no — but amazing. And my children just by being my children taught me the meaning of life. This life is sacred. Every day – no matter how lousy – is a gift of God. Every single day is a Holy Day – a Feast.

Choose this day whom you will serve.

So with kids in tow I found myself back at church – but this time at the Episcopal Church. I taught Sunday School according to the Gospel of Frog and Toad, Dr. Seuss and the Berenstain Bears. I helped start a neighborhood preschool for at risk kids. I read lessons and passed the chalice. I read Thomas Merton’s “Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander” and the Ulanovs’ “Primary Speech”. I was the “Theotokos” in a liturgical drama. I was hooked. I was an Episcopalian.

Choose this day whom you will serve.

So I guess it was God after all. I guess it was God all along but it took a while to really know it deep down in my gut. So I walked across the street — literally — I walked across the street to Virginia Seminary in 1991. And now ordained twenty years I have served God in Her church in five different parishes. Saint Luke’s. Holy Cross. Saint George’s. All Saints. Emmanuel. But the hardest parish I have ever had to serve is Saint In-Between.

Ten years ago I crashed and burned after being 24/7, seven days a week, chief cook and bottle washer at Holy Cross. No need to bother with the details but once I was checked out of Dominion Hospital I was also without a church. And quite literally without a job. I rearranged my resume to try and pass off my skills in the secular world – but to no avail. I had lots of interviews but no offers. I volunteered at Ten Thousand Villages and United Community Ministries. Unemployment among the mentally ill in the United States is estimated to be as high as 80%. A staggeringly obscene statistic. I took the only job I could find  — the lowliest I could have imagined doing inventory in a library.

Learning to live a bipolar life is just about the hardest thing I have ever had to do. And some days – the depressed days — it was all I could to get out the door. But get out the door I did. And you would think that church would be a great help at a time like this. But church was no help — no help at all. And diocesan functions were the worst. In a hierarchical church, who is a priest without a position? Who was I with only my name and not a church name on my name tag? “Where are you serving now?” nosy folks would ask. Invariably I would answer: “I am serving at Saint In-Between.”

Choose this day whom you will serve.

Well I believe it is still  God of course. I still endeavor the best I can to be Her humble, bumbling, and imperfect  servant. But my discipleship has been reshaped and redefined. Work is incredibly healing – especially meaningful work. But my work now is different.  I still work in that library – Bishop Payne Library – where at the front desk I serve as pastor, priest, book jockey and mental health evangelist. And I am also awesomely blessed to serve as Priest Associate at Emmanuel on High – where I get to preach, teach, and celebrate. (And where I have the best colleague in the world, the Rev. Chuck McCoart.)

My ministry now is different but different is good. Different is delightful. Different is divine. And for this different – I am deeply grateful.

So my friends, tell me about your Saint In-Between.

Pax vobiscum,



  1. As a deacon, I have served at St. In Between (by design) for nearly 20 years.

    I’m the third generation of Episcopal clergy in my family and never doubted growing up that I would become a priest. But I always described my vocation as “this plus ordination.”

    Being a deacon for me is the harder path — it requires me to go back and forth between two fulfilling careers, never quite being “only in one” or “only in the other.” I’m also one of the relatively rare “mobile” deacons, having now served five parishes in two dioceses since being ordained.

    Increasingly, however, my ministry at St. In Between has become simpler and simpler. I try to practice the Christian life transparently so my congregants and coworkers and followers of my blog can see what it looks like.

    When I celebrate a Major Feast, I talk about why and teach about the Church year. When I’m at work, I’m open about my being ordained and try to live like a Christian among my coworkers. When I stumble and recover, I do it in public (despite the A for Anonymous in my recovery group’s name). When I offer to help someone who’s in need, I invite others to do the same.

    It’s not the career I imagined when I was serving at the altar with my father growing up, but most days I’m aware how much better it is.


    1. Thank you so much for sharing your own story of St In-Between. As a deacon you have definitely embraced that this is in fact where God wants you to be and where your witness matters most / and maybe even especially with th “A” in your recovery you will reach far more folks in faith. At my own St In/Between I have found this to be so. It’s a big parish!


  2. PS> I never was a girl scout – I grew up in a very conservative evangelical (fundamentalist) church and so I was a Pioneer Girl! The Christian version of Girl Scouts. We never went camping because “that’s what boys do.” I would have loved to camp (and I find it refreshing to this day!) However, I too was horrible and was often found hiding in the church bathroom – standing on top of the toilet. I always kept losing my vest – and I barely had any badges. I thought the whole thing was stupid. We sang songs with lyrics such as “when I take a bath, I think about the Lord, and how he washed away my sins, let me tell you more… He washed my feet so I could walk and give a happy Gospel talk… Jesus fills me up with hope and washes me with SUPER SOAP!”

    That song ruined bubble baths forever. I try not to think of my sins when I’m taking baths now. 🙂 Thankfully I have found a home with the Episcopalians who encourage the questions. 🙂 So here’s a question – if we believe in One Baptism for the forgiveness of sins… do we need the confession of sins – begging forgiveness for what we have done and left undone – and the sins done on our behalf? What’s the difference? Because if we constantly need to renew our needing forgiveness for errors we’ve made and confessing both communally together and privately on occasion for reconciliation (which I concur and can give my heart to) what is the point of baptism other than being marked? And if we only need one baptism for the forgiveness of sins – why must we revisit our sins if we’re already forgiven — kind of ahead of time?? It’s all funny wording issues for me. And where the disciples baptized? We know Jesus was… but what about the others?


    1. My sister, I have never heard of the Pioneers. That is hysterical about the soap song. In catholic school the sisters told us to put talcum powered in the water so we would not immodestly even catch sight of ourselves! Bathing and baptism do have some things in common. That “baptized once for the forgiveness of sins” thing I think has more to do with just being baptized once and not forgiven only once. In the early church folks postponed their baptism until they were on their deathbeds because they thought they could only be forgiven once and no second chances. The tradition of confession arose in the Celtic Church with a soul friend so that one could unburden oneself, make amends and move on as often as necessary for peace of mind. Something we do in the General Confession on Sundays….but it is very general and not very personal….Baptism I believe is a sign of accepting that God will forgive us and claims us as part of God’s community. But one day at a time….

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I recently shared my Pioneer Girls stories and songs with my priest friend and she was … traumatized… and partly for me.

        I feel bad for using the word – “brainwashing” – but basically that’s what happened. I learned nothing of how to move about in this crazy world and what faith means BUT I will never forget the catchy tune that we sang at the beginning and ending of every meeting:

        We are Pioneers for Jesus
        We’re looking unto Him
        We believe His Word
        And we trust the Lord
        With a faith that will not end!

        (this is where you would take a big gasp of air)

        And we will tell the world about our Savior (I’m like seven… what the Hell do I know???)

        … and then this is the part that I blank out and all my memory is erased of the rest of the song…. probably because I started contemplating the meaning and impact of this song on my life!!! HAHAHA 🙂 I did enjoy ruining the bath song for everyone by the time I was 12 – switching it to “Jesus fills me up with Soap and Washes me with Super Hope!” … annoying everyone around me and getting the stink eye from the leaders. The thing I took away from that experience is I now know how to melt crayons into fun shapes, I can make candles with wax, string and a pencil, and I learned how to cook a meal and clean up afterwards. Very important tools for life. Truly.

        My question about baptism and sin came to mind when I was comparing what we say with the Nicene Creed and then what we do with the confession of sins.

        This has been educating & insightful and a good distraction.

        I too will keep you in my prayers. One day at a time is all we get… walking slowly as it is dark and the path is not well lit.


  3. Dearest kindred spirit stranger whom I’ve never met,

    I loved this post and it gives me great hope. Sadly, the Church as well as society has yet to figure out that mental illness is exactly that – illness, and sadly it is the only illness that doesn’t seem to warrant covered dishes from the church ladies. I worked with a pastor many years ago who committed suicide in 2010 – it was devastating not just because of the loss of his life but all of the stigma and ignorance throwing around. “I guess he wasn’t Christian after all” were the comments that floored me. (Silly Presbyterians and their hold onto predestination ideas)

    You are brave and wonderful and inspiring.

    My Saint In-Between is happening now as I lived with my parents for 10 months while I healed from horrible side effects of Cymbalta and got back on my feet… and a few months ago moved back closer to work – I am figuring out my place in the Church as I am living in the same region but farther south and my old church wants me back but I feel called to have a fresh start somewhere new. For years I have been involved with youth ministry – but at this point I just want to be left alone to chop things in the kitchen or light candles.

    This weekend I’m experiencing once again two family deaths – just weeks apart – back to back funerals…same thing happened in 2011 – I had to be hospitalized almost a year later in 2012 from the stress and depression. So PTSD dumping on top of suffering from Bipolar … I am in a dark place – which is kind of good because I need sleep. Hoping to figure out med situation soon this week.

    Life is short and precious, thank you for reminding me that even the crappy days are special.

    Blessings & Veni Sancte Spiritus,


    1. Pax, It is easier I believe to come out as gay in 2014 as it is to come out as bipolar in 2014. This little blog is my witness to the world to try to turn that around especially when it comes to the church. The church indeed can be callous and cold and hide their ignorance behind simplistic theology. I have been knocking on doors and one seems to be opening in my diocese to link this blog the mental health committee and do some “face to face, coming out of the closet” events. What goes wrong with our brains is just as normal as what goes wrong with our hearts. I understand wanting to just chop vegetables for a while, things like that can be healing in themselves. I also understand the doubling down of losing two loved ones so close together while at the same time you are struggling with medication issues. After I lost my mom last month a dear friend died a few days later and the family wanted me to do their funeral. I just could not do it. It would have done me in…Foolishly I said yes first but after talking to my therapist…a saint named Mary….I had the wisdom to withdraw. Blessings to you sister in your St. In-between. I will be thinking about you.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I support your mission and stand in solidarity. I have been “coming out” more and more over the years especially as I have needed to set boundaries with people who don’t understand that when I’m no longer hypomanic – I literally can’t do anything for them anymore. I watched a documentary about mental illness and how the church reacts after the pastor I had worked with committed suicide… and it opened my eyes greatly. I’m not sure if you’ve heard of it but it would be recommended watching for those in need of an education: Shadow Voices –

        BringChange2Mind is also a fantastic organization spear-headed by Glenn Close as she finally got tired of being embarrassed to say the word bipolar when it came to talking to and with and about her sister who suffers from it.

        My real name is Maureen Hains – and I have Bipolar II and I am in your Diocese. A priest recommended I read your blog. I was diagnosed when I was 21 – I am now 30 – and I work hard to manage it and I am a good person who cares deeply for others and often feels too much. That old saying – I hurt when you hurt – that’s me. It’s a blessing and a curse.

        What bothers me is what we see on the news is “so and so murdered her babies BECAUSE she had bipolar” – so people associate this illness with violence – when in fact many bright and creative minds quietly suffer with it and are able to live fruitful and meaningful lives. Sometimes, it’s just harder for us. Just like sometimes it’s harder for someone with Diabetes.

        I am in awe of your blog – your bravery – your hard work – your willingness to set boundaries and say no. After doing wedding photography for about 3 years – I finally had to tell people no, I’d rather attend your wedding than work it. It’s exhausting! And you were grieving too – you did the right thing.

        I have a wonderful therapist, psychiatrist, and my friends are starting to pick up on my laying out that I need help eating right now – so have my action plan in place as we await this funeral to get over with – and then I plan on taking a retreat and recharging my battery.

        Bless you,


      2. Pax/Maureen, You are amazingly articulate and insightful about your journey as a Bipolar II person. I have forgotten whether I am “I” or “II”! But hypomania is my norm, if I have a norm. Writing has been tremendously important in making “outward and visible” the things that really matter and has helped me tremendously to clarify not just what I think but what I must do. So I am trying to do it….and so are you with your blog…I love the metaphor of “paddling for peace”. And yes the news media and the stupid and ignorant movies and tv shows about violent people “going postal” or campus mass shootings….that blame “bipolar disorder or untreated mental illness”. It makes angry as well and whenever I can I correct people in no uncertain terms. The fact is that people with mental illness are no more likely to be violent than anyone else. And when violent we are much more likely to turn that violence on ourselves with self harm. Untreated depression is a deadly disease. Our brains are different and we work one day at a time to live our very best lives with our different brains…I don’t believe in balance as much as I believe in being optimal, flying just under the radar with awareness of just how high I am actually am flying, being careful to not get too close to the sun. You and I have been at this about the same amount of time…a decade…but I am just a tad older than you:) And since you are in my Diocese and not too far away maybe we could meet for coffee or lunch sometime soon. What do you think?


      3. Joanie,

        I’ve gone from Bipolar I (college made me super manic when they put me on an antidepressant – that’s how we figured it out) to Mood Disorder NOS back to to Bipolar (Chatty Cathy and not taking meds like I should ’cause I felt GREAT!) then declassified to Mood Disorder NOS and finally have decided on Bipolar II. All through this and all through the medication trials and tribulations I started to wonder if the doctors were the ones with the disorder and not me! Make up your minds people!! But I am for sure II since I only suffered drug induced full blown mania. I am not your textbook Bipolar Beauty – I never have experienced the spending sprees or the casual sex with strangers or any sexual craziness for that matter. I am extremely boring when it comes to those things – but I am an artist, and my bipolar comes out with lack of impulse control at times or my brain gets revved up and I can’t shut the radio stations off. However, the hypomania, I find is the most dangerous place for me to be because it’s there that I want to hurt myself and sometimes break things for the release. Kayaking is my life saver as is the Celtic Service at my church.

        ANYHOO – It’s time that people know that there are brilliant, creative, intelligent and very capable human beings who also happen have Bipolar Disorder – and it is a game changer… and like a learning disability – we need modifications sometimes to our jobs and our lives to meet our needs. We need our right protected.

        I am of the belief that the bipolar mind feels more than other people’s brains – we are special and sometimes in a good way.

        I’d LOVE to meet with you for coffee or lunch especially since my priest friend pointed me to your blog to tell me hey look, you’re not alone. I’m in RVA but will be in Manassas whenever the funeral is finally pinned down (it’s going to be huge… full military honors – lots of police (he was retired military, vietnam vet and a retired police officer) .. I’m thinking in order to disassociate a bit – I may bring my camera to document it. I tend to lose it less if I have a job) and THEN I plan on doing a silent retreat to recharge my batteries but I’m not sure where yet. I have a friend who is recommending Chanco on the James – but it may be too buggy for me – buggy as in mosquitos.

        I’ve done Holy Cross Abbey before but I kind of want to find some place new. Perhaps I can meet you in the time between the funeral and the retreat? They have August 1st tentatively scheduled. Waiting for his grandson to be born so everyone can attend and not have to worry about choosing birth vs. funeral.

        Oy and Vey!



      4. Maureen, Yes I know exactly how you feel when you say that the doctor’s are really the one with the problem. I too had my first manic episode after being on a anti-depressant. Turned into Martha Stewart on speed and I am no Martha Stewart:) But my brain blossoms manically on its own…and I try to keep it a dull roar but roaring still. I agree that Bipolar brains may feel more intensely and deeply what others experience only as ups and downs. I consider my bipolar brain a gift…a gift with complications:) And yes of course we are creative and productive people big time! Have your read “Touched with Fire” by Kay Redfield Jamison about creativity and the artists, poets, painters etc. who share our temperament. She is my hero having written her own memoir – An Unquiet Mind – she teaches psychotherapy at John Hopkins, is an expert in mood disorders and is herself Bipolar. Her work is part of what inspired to start my blog. And excuse my ignorance,, but does RVA mean Richmond, VA? Roanoke? Rural? I have a car and can travel:) And yes early August is good. Wednesdays or Saturdays especially as I am off those days. Let me know!


      5. Richmond, Virginia – Sorry!

        I will touch base with you soon – if the Funeral is on Friday (the 1st) – Saturday might be nice to have a lunch date. I’ll be up in Manassas so we could meet in the middle or I can drive up to Alexandria or wherever you are – I don’t mind at all.

        I go to St. Stephen’s on Grove Ave in Richmond but for years I went to St. Paul’s in downtown Richmond.

        I attend St. Stephen’s primarily for their Celtic Service because it speaks to me so much and calms my brain for the start of the week.

        I have not read any of Kay’s books but have heard of them from my DBSA Support Group which currently I’m not allowed to go to – doctor’s orders – because it triggered too many PTSD things the last meeting!! LOL How crazy is that??? Sigh…

        I will hit the library up and look that up. Also your post on Celtic Women Heroes – Brigid has been my hero for years and the last few years I’ve thrown a St. Brigid party which consists of everything being dark except for candles and tiny christmas-like lights illuminating the spaces, a bon fire, and those glow necklaces and stuff + spicy hot candy. SO much fun!! And everyone needs a Brigid party early February to get us through the winter.

        Have a great day!


  4. I love this Joani! I had the same experience when my first call ended in closing the congregation … after 1 year of ordained ministry. I served lots of Saint In-Betweens until landing at Grace. And you are right, the diocesan staff and clergy tend to ignore non-parochial priests. It’s a tough lesson … but I think we’ve come through ok, sister!


  5. I loved this post, Mom! You may remember my Saint In-Between– 2009: when I was living under your roof again for 6 months, trying to get you to become as anal-retentive and as neat-freakish as I am. A good reminder to me– although I do have a domestic bone in my body, they’re better spent in the world of employment!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yes Sweetpea! Indeed I do remember your St In-between when you were looking for that first great job out of grad school. I was glad you could take shelter under my roof for those six months. A little of your neat freakishness has worn off on me…but not quite to the anal degree:)


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