Married priests find niche in Severna Park

December 06, 1992|By Angela Gambill | Angela Gambill,Staff Writer

The phone rings in the office of St. Martin's in the Field Episcopal Church.

"May I speak with Reverend DeBeer?" asks the caller.

The secretary pauses. "Which one?" she asks.

The new rectors of the 1,100-member Severna Park church are joined by more than faith. They are married.

The Rev. Patricia and the Rev. John DeBeer arrived at the congregation Nov. 1, after several decades of church work in Florida and Tennessee. This marks their first joint calling as parish priests.

"Part of the basis for being together was our commitment to serve God and other people," says Mr. DeBeer, bearded and Oxford-educated, with a South African accent. "We weren't sure when we married in 1970 how that service would turn out, but it's what brought us together and has kept us together."

They take turns during the worship service; one preaches, the other presides at the Eucharist. The couple also divides the rest of the duties. Mrs. DeBeer, who has light-brown hair and an engaging manner, is in charge of worship, evangelism, liturgy, fellowship, the church's day school and pastoral care. Mr. DeBeer is in charge of administration, education, outreach and youth.

"The best part is that at the heart of the parish, there's a team," says Mr. DeBeer. "It can be lonely being in charge of a congregation, so that's very supportive for us. It's also good for others to become part of a team that knows and trusts each other."

The sense of unity was there from the moment the couple met in 1969.

Mr. DeBeer was about to be ordained as an Anglican priest in Seattle. His wife-to-be was on a 10,000-mile trip around the United States. She was out of the church but hoping to do social work in a city, so she attended an urban issues workshop -- and Mr. DeBeer was there.

They hit it off immediately and married the following summer.

The couple returned to South Africa, where Mr. DeBeer was ordained. They had two children. In 1977, they moved back to the United States, and Mrs. DeBeer attended Chicago Theological Seminary.

In Tennessee, Mr. DeBeer directed the Education for Ministry program of the Episcopal church's University of the South, which offers a four-year study for lay people. Mrs. DeBeer found her niche teaching at the seminary and serving as pastor of a small country church.

After eight years in Tennessee, she was made a full-time parish priest at a church in Florida. She later was named interim rector.

Her husband worked as a congregational development consultant to Episcopal churches and with the Seafarers Church Institute, an organization ministering to professional sailors.

Finally, it seemed time to find a ministry where the two could serve at the same parish. Severna Park provided the answer. The church's rector was retiring; the assistant rector recently transferred to another parish.

The DeBeers fit the bill. Of 600 couples serving in ministry in the Episcopal church nationwide, they are among the few couples who are co-rectors. But they have some friends who have successfully managed a marriage and a church together, says Mrs. DeBeer, "so we knew it could work."

"We're delighted to be here," says Mr. DeBeer. "We're very excited about the level of commitment people at the church have."

The church has been a major influence in SPAN, the Severna Park Assistance Network, and the homeless shelter Sarah's House. Once a month, the congregation brings groceries and money for the needy and places them on the altar.

Mrs. DeBeer also appreciates the congregation's warmth. "The church has been very receptive to us and to new people who've come in," she says. "It's a new church that . . . has a lot of potential."

In their new ministry, the DeBeers hope to practice a faith that reaches out to people unlike them, they said. "As we deepen our experience of God, we make more of ourselves available to the community that's not here in Severna Park. That seems to be Christ's way," says Mr. DeBeer.

Serving as ministers at the same job presents tangles for a couple, Mrs. DeBeer acknowledged. "We have to be careful to keep a balance between work and play," she said. "We have a rule that we do not talk about work in the bedroom or the bathroom."

But the benefits of having your co-minister in your home outweigh any difficulties, the DeBeers said. "We really are working out of a common vision," says Mrs. DeBeer. "The love and respect between us makes the work we do fun."

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