NORTH ADAMS -- The Rev. Dr. Stephen White is officially the new "priest in charge" at All Saints Berkshires. The vestry selected him as of Dec. 1, 2012 as their new priest, after working with Rev. White since May of last year.
"I've been living in Berkshire County for almost five years and helped out at various parishes around here," said White. "In May, All Saints called me to officiate at their weekend services because they didn't have a priest. And they needed to have somebody for an interim, a priest in charge. We began to talk about that over the summer, and it became clear that we thought we could work together, and have a good parish relationship. So, after some conversations with the bishop in Springfield, we worked out an agreement, and I became the priest in charge at All Saints."
White's road to the priesthood was a circuitous one.
"I've had several lives," said White. "I'm sort of like a cat. I originally started out as a clinical social worker in the psychiatric field, and then I pursued doctoral studies in social policy and health economics at Brandeis University]. I taught in a graduate school [at University of South Florida] for a while, got involved in health care management in large companies, and ended up in Johnson & Johnson as a vice president. I left all that in the late 90s, and went to seminary, a general theological seminary in New York City."
So what drives a successful vice president to abandon his position and status?
"It's kind of complicated," said White. "The simplest way to explain is that I felt a call to ordained ministry when I was in high school. I was raised Roman Catholic, and was in a Roman Catholic seminary for a few years. But I left the seminary, and my life took various twists and turns. But the priesthood is sort of like having malaria -- you can be symptom-free for a few years, but it comes back. It never fully left my mind completely. I went through a number of changes in my life in the ‘90s, including being remarried. It just became clear to me that I didn't feel I was being authentic. I didn't feel that who I really am was being lived out, as a corporate executive. It came on gradually over many years, I felt more and more that my true self was somewhere else, and it wasn't in the corporate world.
"So, I talked this over with my wife, and in that conversation we both could see pretty clearly that I was really called to the priesthood. After that evening dinner conversation it was a pretty rapid progression -- leaving Johnson & Johnson, getting ordained -- it all happened pretty quickly. And it was the best thing I ever did in my life. People wonder, ‘Don't you miss that life, and all the perks?' I don't miss it at all. Not for a second."
Having found his calling, White was ordained in 2000, and was appointed Chaplain of the Episcopal Church at Princeton University, where he served for eight years. During that time in New Jersey, he did work at a few other parishes as well.
"Since Princeton, I really felt happier than I ever had in my life, and enjoyed what I was doing in a way I really never had in doing anything else, especially in corporate life," White said. "It was a fairly dramatic change. And the people I worked with, many of them just couldn't understand what I was doing. I would try to explain, and they'd look at me like, ‘Are you crazy? You're giving this up to go do that? What's wrong with you?' It was just impossible to explain, my need to do that. But it was a really good change."
White's experience at Princeton, he believes, has helped him prepare for his new post.
"I think one of the things I did at Princeton that I'm also doing in North Adams, is explaining to people what the gospel of Christ means: What it is, what it's about, and how it applies to our lives in a compelling way," said White. "I think I have a gift for doing that. I enjoy doing that; that's what I did there, and that's what I'm doing here. Connected to that, I had many experiences of talking with students, as well as faculty and staff, who didn't have any kind of church background or church relationship. People who, through conversations and just spending time together, found their way into the church in a way that was very meaningful to them and enhanced their lives. To the extent I played any part for them, those are some of the accomplishments I am proud of."
Now installed at All Saints, Rev. White is looking forward to having a parish to preach to. "I like to preach," said White. "I really like to preach a lot. And if you talk to people at All Saints, they'll probably mention that. They get something out of it, they like it, that's what keeps them coming back. I just think the preaching is a really important part of what I do, making all this stuff that can seem esoteric very accessible to people's lives. I like doing that, I like to teach, I like to explain things."
Foremost for White, however, is the need for outreach.
"I think we want to let people know about this parish, to let people know in the Northern Berkshire community that it's a wonderful place," he said. "There are terrific people there, it's a very warm welcoming community, and we'd just like to get the word out about how enriching it can be for people's lives to be part of this community. Churches tend to look inwards most of the time, and what we're about now at All Saints is looking outward into the community."
White was quick to praise the past charity work done at All Saints.
"All Saints has a really wonderful track record of community service," said White. "For years, they've given money to charities in the area, they have a Meals on Wheels program once a month, they give away backpacks to school children in the fall, visiting the sick ... for a parish its size, I've been really impressed, and even surprised, at how much they do in the community. We want to build on that, and invite other people into the parish family to participate in what is a very active and lively and rich parish life."
In conjunction with White's arrival, the parish has developed a new website, to put a more modern face on the parish and talk about what the church stands for. Visit www.allsaintsberkshires.org for more information.