When Mary Carson was growing up, she never entertained the idea of going to seminary or becoming a priest.
"In fact, as a teenager, that was the only thing I said I never would do," said the Rev. Mary Carson, a 1992 Master of Divinity graduate of Bexley. "One of the critical things to know is that my father was an ordained minister and went to Bexley (he received his master of divinity from Bexley Hall in Gambier), but that was not the reason I chose Bexley or the ministry."
It was a love of music, and eventually church music, that led her to Bexley Hall in Rochester, New York, when the seminary started a new program with the Eastman School of Music. Carson's father, the Rev. John G. Carson, who died in 2007, served as a priest in the Diocese of Southern Ohio for over 50 years.
"My time spent at Bexley was a great time of life," said Carson, who for two years has served as interim rector at Episcopal Church of the Redeemer in Lorain, Ohio. "I loved the community in the seminary and especially appreciated the ecumenical nature of Bexley, which was even more ecumenical then.
"Being a cradle Episcopalian, it was important to me to have that exposure to lots of kinds of Christian theology. I'm realizing now how many of my colleagues don't know any way other than the Anglican way. I value highly the way we do liturgy in the Episcopal Church, but I also value and appreciate other ways of worship."
Carson's career has followed an ecumenical path. Prior to her current position, she served from 2007–2011 as associate executive director and interim executive director of Lutheran Chaplaincy Service in Cleveland, Ohio. From 1999–2007 she served on the bishop's staff for deployment and ministry development in the Episcopal Diocese of Ohio and has served as assistant rector in congregations in Ohio, Pennsylvania and Rhode Island. Committed to Bexley's Future
Because of the great value she places on her Bexley education, Carson has named the seminary as one of the recipients of a planned gift when she dies.
Carson said she chose to include Bexley in her planned giving "because of my commitment to the vision Bexley has to providing theological education in an ecumenical context and because I believe that is the only way denominational churches will survive in the next decade."
"When I was responsible for the ordination process, I had the ability to recommend Bexley to people interested in seminary, and I did. Absolutely. I'd recommend Bexley to anyone entering seminary."
Carson said she appreciated the intimacy of Bexley and, in seminaries and in parishes, has never bought into the bigger is better theory. Currently, she gets great pleasure from helping breathe new life into a small, "definitely not dying" congregation in Lorain, Ohio.
"I love what I'm doing now so much," she said, "and the wonderful 'downward' movement of my career from assistant positions in Newport, Rhode Island, Mainline Philadelphia and Sandusky, Ohio, to bishop's staff to a less than full-time job in a supposedly dying parish in Lorain."
Although it struggles financially, she said her parish is committed to ministering to those in need.
"When I arrived in December 2009, I was initially just their cheerleader," Carson said.
"They started doing a community meal once a month about three years ago, which has become the favorite meal for everybody who shows up. So it has developed a real life of its own. Right before I came, they had signed up to be a host parish for Interfaith Hospitality Network (a nationwide program that addresses issues of homelessness). They had 25 helping with that out of a congregation of about 100 active communicants. They've been doing that for two years. I came in and said, 'You are not dying. Look at what you are doing!'" Carson said about 75 percent of the congregation participates in community meals and the Interfaith Hospitality Network.
"That has really energized the congregation, and they've made the switch from thinking they are just helping those people to making relationships with them and becoming friends with them and working with them."
So, no, their weekly attendance is nowhere close to the approximately 250 who attended a few decades ago, but the congregation continues to do important ministry, and the parish is operating within its means.
"On a recent Saturday night I was out with other clergy," Carson said, "and they were talking about budget laments and problems with choir attendance, how sometimes only two or three sopranos show up. I spoke up and said that we have a perfectly balanced budget and, with an average attendance of about 50, we often have three or four sopranos there."
Carson said she shared that story to her congregation the following Sunday, telling them that they had a lot to be proud of.
"There is a potential here to do new and interesting things," she said. "This is a church in a community that has been in economic decline for some time, primarily due to businesses closing; lots of steel plants closed in the 80s. The church is surrounded by a significant area of poverty, people with mental health issues and drug addicts. The big issue for the congregation is to realize that the church building is an asset that they can use for ministry. That's something we're working on."
Building on what they have. Investing in the future of the church. It's part of Carson nature.