By Annette Hinkle
On a recent Tuesday afternoon, Rev. Karen Campbell was tucked away in her new office in Christ Episcopal Church’s Parish Hall. Surrounded by boxes and memorabilia, she was settling in as Priest in Charge at the Sag Harbor parish. Rev. Campbell replaces Fr. Shawn Williams who left the parish in January, and she offered her first service at Christ Episcopal on Ash Wednesday.
“This is such a beautiful place and I’ve really been welcomed,” says Rev. Campbell, a California native who, after living in Massachusetts for more than 30 years, is in the process of getting to know a new community. “It feels right. It feels of God. The people I have met are wonderful. The parish is filled with people who have had interesting lives.”
Rev. Campbell and her husband, Graham, come to Sag Harbor from Fitchburg, Mass. where Rev. Campbell served a small parish — her first since being ordained at the age of 52. But the working class mill town had fallen on tough times, and it eventually became clear that her parish, one of two Episcopalian churches in town, was in trouble.
“The system in the mill towns in Massachusetts was that they put up a big cathedral church for the mill owners, and a small chapel for the mill workers,” explains Rev. Campbell. “It isn’t as diabolical as it sounds. Our small church had bowling alleys and took care of the millworkers.”
“Now a town the size of Fitchburg can’t support two Episcopal churches,” she adds. “I was with my parish for 10 years. At the seven year point, it was obvious we weren’t going to make it financially. I spent three years telling the parishioners that our mission is to serve Christ, but in the process, maybe we have to die ourselves.”
In the end, Rev. Campbell’s church closed and 30 parishioners made the journey over to the cathedral.
“The big church wasn’t that full either,” she adds. “ Now it’s a much more viable congregation.”
Looking at Sag Harbor, with its many historic churches, Rev. Campbell sees shades of a similar struggle, especially in terms of “deferred maintenance.”
“Our buildings are killing us,” she says and she takes in the intricate woodwork in her office. “This church was founded when there were large sums of money for endowments they thought would take care of it for ever. But forever was more expensive than they imagined it could be.”
Nevertheless, based on what she’s seen of Sag Harbor and her congregation, Rev. Campbell is not deterred.
“I’m really positive. I’m not worried about that,” she says. “I think the core group here has been doing this a long time and are committed, energetic and their engines are revving.”
“My parish is diverse, both racially and in terms of sexual orientation. This kind of openness for me is a breath of fresh air,” she adds. “Here, being clergy has a status to it.”
It’s quite a contrast to blue-collar Fitchburg, where several parishioners said they “really don’t want a woman” the first time she met them.
“Three weeks later they said, ‘Never mind,’” grins Rev. Campbell who has come to understand where that mentality comes from. “Out of seminary, you learn you’re supposed to process everything to death. But if you’re on a production line, you don’t care about process. You need product. People who process have the luxury of time and education.”
“Now I come to a world where they’ve had time,” adds Rev. Campbell who hopes to offer services that spark interest — from a summer solstice blessing of the animals, to an Easter Vigil with bells, baptisms and on-screen visuals.
“We had even done a clown Eucharist in my former parish,” she says. “I like to bring the theater back to the church and make things exciting.”