Twenty Minutes with Robert Hendrickson
The Rev. Robert Hendrickson studied at the University of Mississippi, Cornell University, and Beijing Foreign Studies University before receiving his M.Div. from the General Theological Seminary in 2009. Fr. Hendrickson is married to Dr. Karrie Cummings Hendrickson, a nursing professor in New Haven. I met with Fr. Hendrickson recently to talk about his extensive work in a number of new initiatives based in New Haven. This is the first of a series of conversations with leaders finding creative ways to share the good news in the 21st century. —Richard J. Mammana, Jr.
You wear more hats than anyone I’ve ever met.
I am the curate at Christ Church, New Haven, so I have general preaching and liturgical responsibilities with a particular focus on young adult ministry. I organize Compline and some other outreach activities. I also serve as missioner at Christ Church, which means I am responsible for our engagement with the wider community through specific projects.
I am also the director of St. Hilda’s House, which is our young adult service program in which I plan everything from their daily schedule to theological reflection work to spiritual direction — all those sorts of things.
Then I serve as program director for Ascension House, which is a new clergy training program in the Hill neighborhood of New Haven. Ascension House is based in the old rectory at the Church of the Ascension, which closed as a worshiping community about ten years ago.
I am also the missioner for Ascension Church in the Hill, which is a mission parish of Christ Church, New Haven. It’s a church plant in the Anglo-Catholic tradition, and I’m working actively to see that get off the ground.
Finally, I am one of the cofounders of the Society of Catholic Priests. I think that covers all of my official titles.
How does Ascension in the Hill relate to Christ Church or to other parishes in New Haven?
Roughly ten years ago, Ascension closed as a worshiping Episcopal parish. The building hasn’t quite been dormant since then, but almost — it was being used by a Pentecostal church for a while, and also by Seventh-day Adventists. But since the congregation dissolved, there hasn’t been any Anglican presence in the neighborhood. Concomitant with that, the three local Roman Catholic churches closed — St. Michael’s, St. Peter’s, and Sacred Heart. There were a total of about 800 active families in these churches, none of whom had any remaining local sacramental ministry. The Methodist and Lutheran churches closed as well.
So part of the work we saw ahead of us as we were thinking of how to revive Ascension was an act of reconciliation on the part of the whole Church with this neighborhood. It’s a place where there is still an incredible sense of hurt on the part of people who feel abandoned by the churches. Initially, we had actually just intended to rent the rectory as housing for the new clergy training program. But as we were talking with people in the neighborhood, we realized there was a deeper need we could meet by reopening the church and engaging with some other local nonprofit partners.
The parish house will soon host English as a Second Language classes, offender re-entry programs, a community garden, youth leadership programs. There are so many different ways in which people are marginalized in this neighborhood, and we’re trying to find all the ways we can to develop the parish hall into a comprehensive community services center, an active worshiping community, and a traditional curacy opportunity. All of them fit together in a very traditional model of parish ministry in a place that needs it.
It relates to Christ Church in that I don’t think there’s any other local church that would be capable of launching a mission parish in a similar sacramental framework. That means an understanding of a disciplined life of prayer, Catholic spirituality — particularly Marian spirituality — and an understanding of the local cultural needs. Christ Church is working hard to be actively attuned to all that.
There’s a lot of Spanish-language material on the Ascension website. How do you see Spanish and English interacting in your ministry there?
My own Spanish-speaking skills aren’t completely up to speed yet, but we do have bilingual people working with us already. This is one of the areas where I am hoping that the liturgy will form a kind of bridge in the community between people who speak English or Spanish. The services are designed to be in both languages — the Liturgy of the Word one week in English and the next in Spanish, etc. We want both languages to be completely integrated in the life of the parish without one dominating the other.
Ascension House looks like a kind of incubator program for young clergy who are in transition between seminary and congregations but might not have a chance to get a traditional curacy in a parish.
That’s exactly what it is — kind of a group curacy. The model is the 19th-century clergy house, with a group of clergy working together in mission. One of the realities of the Episcopal Church today is that it’s often difficult for new clergy to have on-the-job training without becoming rectors right away. Every parish is under a lot of strain in terms of staffing, in terms of budgets. Ascension House is a way to provide a full-time curate to a parish at a substantially reduced rate — essentially $18,000 a year. There is a huge savings in pooling together the costs of food, health care, housing, and so on by living in an intentional community like this. These folks then get the opportunity to be formed in a life of community and prayer and peer engagement. I think that in the two years they’re [at Ascension House], they’ll grow by leaps and bounds while being active in new ministry. They’re going to be working in different parishes in the diocese — some urban, some suburban, some rural — but they’re also going to be working in the mission plant at Ascension in the Hill. They’ll be engaging young adults — doing so many things at one time.
And how does St. Hilda’s House fit into all of this?
St. Hilda’s House grew out of a period about ten years ago when Christ Church was asking substantial questions about finances and mission. Out of that came a decision to do ministry in a way that was not reactive, or coming out of fear, but finding what brings joy out of the congregation’s service in the community. We went through a period when the parish had to recommit to being outward-looking. A few things came out of this: one was a new devotion to a disciplined life of prayer, another was a decision to be constantly engaged with young people in the life of the parish, and another was formation of new ministers. We wanted to do these things within the parish’s tradition, and looking at the history of the parish, one of the outstanding examples of this were the deaconesses of the original St. Hilda’s House who provided comprehensive social services for the entire city. As we looked at all these pieces, what came together was that we wanted to help young people grow in a deeper awareness of the faith as they discern what God is calling them to. St. Hilda’s was a very natural evolution of these parish discussions about mission. The thing that is so successful about this model is that it grows out of the distinctive identity of the congregation in an authentic way.
How is it all funded?
It was initially funded by grants from Trinity Wall Street and various other partners. We’ve evolved since then into being funded by income from the sites where the interns are working. So, for example, if an intern serves with AIDS Project New Haven, we receive a stipend from them to support the intern. Our interns serve in a wide variety of placements around the city — everything from soup kitchens to schools to homeless service agencies. We also do additional fundraising through various channels. We’re trying to move from a model of being grant supported to being as self-sufficient as possible.
When was the first year of St. Hilda’s House internships?
The first year was 2010, with seven interns. In 2011, there were 16. And this year we have leveled out at 11, which is a good number. We have also shifted the emphases slightly — in the first year, we were geared more specifically toward young people preparing for ordained ministry. We broadened our focus in the second year to lay and ordained ministry discernment, and we’re continuing to hone the vision along the way. We have weekly meetings about group dynamics, and weekly spiritual direction, weekly theological reflection, daily prayer together, and all of that helps us to keep developing the program.
Do you know of any other programs quite like this?
The Episcopal Service Corps is the umbrella organization for all kinds of young adult service programs in the church. I would say that St. Hilda’s House is distinctive in the discipline with which we approach prayer and theological reflection. One of the great skills of Fr. [David] Cobb [rector of Christ Church] is that he has done hard work over the last ten years in attracting people whose primary concern is mission, whose primary interest is worship and evangelism. St. Hilda’s House is one of the ways we can share that distinctive parish flavor with people in an intentional way. We also have a close engagement with scholarship through Yale and Berkeley Divinity School — there are regular presentations about scriptural interpretation, spirituality, social justice, or theological issues in the wider church such as baptism and communion. We have been able to draw on a lot of intellectual resources for the enrichment of the interns. The interns are also all part of the worship life of Christ Church as acolytes, and that can mean as many as seven services on a Sunday. I think what they come away with at the end of their time here is an understanding of how parish worship, personal prayer, and service all intersect to form the core of Christian discipleship. They come away knowing something about the intersection between faith and society in a concrete way.
Who are your models for ministry? Who are the people who have inspired you to build these programs?
Foremost, the priests who have formed me in ministry have been great models. I was sponsored for ordination by Trinity Church on the Green in New Haven by Father Andy Fiddler, and Father David Cobb at Christ Church has been amazing. I have been privileged to begin my ordained ministry with both of them. I came from being sponsored by a rector who was a kind of exemplar of his tradition, and I work in a parish with a priest who is also an exemplar of his particular tradition, even though those Low Church and Anglo-Catholic traditions are very different. Beyond them, I look to people like the Anglo-Catholic priests of the late 19th and early 20th centuries who were working in cities — Father Stanton, Father Dolling who preaches about the drains because he believes in the Incarnation. There’s Father Houghton at Transfiguration [New York], who grabs the altar cross and goes out to confront the mob who are bearing down on the church during the Draft Riots [in 1863]. I look to those folks, and I think: they did exactly what we’re trying to do — figuring out what is the intersection between the deep needs of the world and the answers our faith provides for those needs.
What do you find most discouraging in trying to follow those models and goals?
I get discouraged when I see people who think that the way of the future in the Church is to abandon the past. I find it enormously discouraging to encounter the idea that progress somehow means perpetual revolution. I think that our programs here have shown me that people are yearning — deeply yearning — to touch something authentic. They don’t want one more place that “markets” to them.
And what makes you hopeful?
What makes me hopeful is the number of young people bringing so much energy into the church. When you come to Compline at Christ Church and see 150 young adults sitting there praying, engaged in adoration, you can’t help but be hopeful about the future of the Church.
What are your hopes for the Episcopal Church?
My hopes for the Episcopal Church are that we can recapture two things that I think we have had in our history. One is an evangelical zeal. I think we need to recapture the sense that what we do matters because souls matter. And the other is that we can recapture the catholic senses of discipline, worship, adoration, and service. My hope for the future of the Episcopal Church is found in that blend of evangelical Catholicism that is at the heart of any great period of the Church’s history.
Richard J. Mammana, Jr., is founder and director of Project Canterbury (anglicanhistory.org).