Interview with Rosalyn Murphy
Rosalyn Murphy has been vicar of St Thomas, Blackpool since 2008
(20 August 2010)
1. Can you tell us a little about yourself, your background, and your life and ministry before you came to Blackpool?
I’ve been an active part of the Church all my life, beginning in my father’s Pentecostal church in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. I was a PK (preacher’s kid) who was later ordained as an elder in my adult Christian life, while working alongside my husband (an ordained minister in the Charismatic wing of the Presbyterian Church) planting churches and leading foreign mission. During this time, I also travelled extensively across the eastern part of the United States as an evangelist and motivational speaker before going to seminary full-time, which is what ultimately brought me to England.
I began university at age 16, and attended Marquette University, a Jesuit university, because my parents believed that at 16 I was too young to attend a university away from home. As a private institution religious worship was an integral part of university life, so I began worshipping as a Catholic while there. I found elements of Catholic spirituality, reflection and contemplation quite rewarding and very much akin to Pentecostal spirituality.
I received my BA honours degree, and by 18 I was in the United States Navy working in aviation communications. This was great! It gave me an opportunity to travel, but also a chance to become independent. After my stint in the Navy I was back in university beginning a Master’s Degree in International Relations and later working first as the Public Communications Officer at Wisconsin’s largest airport and a few years later in Virginia as the Vice President of Operations at a large public relations, marketing, and graphic design agency.
It was another posting that challenged me to ‘think outside the box’ while strategising and implementing key enterprises for the region – economic development, entrepreneurial networks, as well as executive mentoring and cultural exchange programmes. But all the while my faith remained the bedrock of my life. I’ve always been a Christian first, and everything else sort of fell in line.
As my public ministry began to grow it became clear God was giving me a choice. My husband and I debated for months – but, he, God and seminary won out. When I entered seminary, my intention was to teach which I did part-time while studying full-time. However, when the invitation came offering me the opportunity to travel to the UK to continue postgraduate studies, I accepted with the full support of my family. It fact, it has become a ‘family adventure,’ which we have all embraced.
I studied at Durham University while attending St Nicholas Church, and basically grew up in the Church of England while there. While I was eager to learn more about the Church of England I didn’t want to limit my experience to educational pursuits. I wanted to ‘roll up my sleeves’ and get involved. So before ordination training, I served for nearly a year in Easington Colliery – an old coal mining village that was hard hit when the mines closed. But, I don’t think I’ve ever been in a more loving and accepting faith community as in that little church of 12 faithful members.
I also served in the village of Spennymore helping the parish priest who was in charge of two churches there. It was a chance to lead Bible-Study and Lent Courses, assist with Holy Communion and preparation for Baptism, Confirmation and First Communion; working with children and youth leaders, serving tea and coffee, attending the Mother’s Union meetings, being part of the prayer ministry, helping to organise the annual church fair and everything in between.
I’m so glad that I had these experiences because they were quite different from those during my training as a Curate at St Nicholas’ Church in Durham. St Nic’s was a very large Evangelical church with well over 400 members. It proved to be a blessing because with a large staff – ordained and lay — the vicar was able to allow me a great deal of autonomy while heading up ‘Fresh Expressions,’ student ministry, special ‘holy day’ services, and fundraising.
My biggest challenge came when the vicar accepted a post in Hong Kong in the middle of my second year as curate. This meant that as the only full-time priest, the majority of the vicar’s responsibilities were passed on to me. It was definitely a period when faith and prayer carried me through – and, it was also during this time that I begin to think and pray about the shape of my first incumbency.
2. What led you to this point? Did you always envisage leading a particular kind of church? Did you ‘plan’ your ministry, or was it more a case of being open to where God has led you?
I was extremely intentional, focussed, and intent on serving at a church that would reflect the wide worship spectrum within the Evangelical tradition. St Thomas’s was exactly what I had prayed for, but not where I had hoped for geographically – my daughter and her husband live in Kent.
Also, my religious background is quite diverse – Pentecostal, Roman Catholic, Presbyterian, Episcopalian, and now Anglican. I believe it is important to acknowledge, but also appreciate the full breadth of worship traditions present in the Church of England, and I believe God has been preparing me for this all my life – both in worship and active church membership. And, again the congregation at St Thomas’s appeared to offer me that flexibility. On any given Sunday, we have four to five different services: traditional evangelical, all age, ‘New Wine’, and youth church, with a mid-week Prayer Book Holy Communion. In addition, we have a monthly service which is more reflective, and a Causeway service, aimed at those who are physically or mentally impaired.
So, yes, I was extremely intentional – but, that wasn’t all. Did I pray? Certainly! Did I wait and respond to the Spirit’s prompting? Of course, but I was also very specific in my prayers trusting that God had placed these desires in my heart and had prepared me for this type of placement. I remained confident, in faith, that if this was the case I’d see it through. Now, I will confess that I did ‘buckle’ initially, and wondered if I was reaching too high. Yet, my contact at CPAS encouraged me to ‘go for it’ and see how God would respond – so, I did.
3. What have been the highlights so far of your time as leader of St Thomas’s?
Without a doubt, it has been witnessing the transformative power of the Holy Spirit at work in the lives of those who are vulnerable, invisible, and ‘being at the margins.’ When I first arrived, two young women were unemployed and in the midst of losing their housing benefits. I decided to take them under my wings and ‘love them to the Lord.’ I remember when initially they didn’t feel ‘holy enough’ to even enter the Vicarage. Now, they ring the bell and come in for a chat or cup of tea whenever they’re nearby.
But, loving one another isn’t always enough – I believed God literally wanted me to ‘teach them to fish’ so I encouraged them both to begin volunteering in the Church office. Initially, they were completing very small tasks – photocopying, compiling song lists for copyright, filing, and keyboarding – small steps, one or two times a weeks. As their confidence grew over the weeks, one received a job rather quickly and the other followed within a few months.
I provided references for them, and encouraged one when her probation period was extended. I prayed with and for them, explained job appraisals and encouraged them both to better qualify themselves through education. One has recently received an incredible promotion, and the other is now being considered for another post in a different field, but also at a higher wage and better work hours. As a result, this autumn we will be launching “Competitive Edge” – a programme geared to help the unemployed with CV preparation, application completion, and job interviews.
I have also been amazed at how God has totally empowered the congregation – particularly women. When I first arrived we only had one Reader. We now have one member who has gone forward for ordination and begins her training in the autumn. Another young woman recently passed her Diocesan panel and is completing additional training to better prepare herself for her BAP in the spring. Finally, another young woman has come forward and begins here Reader training in the New Year
4. What have been the biggest challenges?
The biggest challenge has been encouraging men in the church to ‘step outside their comfort zones.’ I must admit, this was the last thing I expected, because my corporate and religious experiences in America have always exposed me to dynamic men of vision and my working alongside them was never seen as threatening. So, this has been a unique experience for me.
It seems (at times) like living in a bit of a ‘time warp’ because I’m also quite used to women being accepted, and their qualifications not consistently questioned. In fact, my experience has been that women were expected to work alongside their male counterparts hand-in-hand. So, in many ways, I believe God uses me at times to be a bit counter-cultural, because I frequently find myself attempting to empower men. I’ve always found men who are liberated and totally empowered – simply aren’t threatened.
In corporate America, as a senior vice-president, I was readily accepted amongst my male peers and we worked harmoniously together – forging new horizons, helping large companies diversify their assets, cross-train employees that were being made redundant, and contractually guarantee economic compensation to local communities upon their arrival and departure.
Unfortunately, far too often in the church I find my abilities questioned and I’m constantly made to feel as if I need to ‘prove myself,’ something my male peers find shocking. But, it’s not just me; I hear similar stories from other female priests. Many find that our previous professional experiences and academic credentials appear to somehow be ‘devalued’ or simply ignored.
5. What sustains you in your ministry?
(a) Prayer, prayer, and more prayer! Fasting and prayer! Praise and prayer!
(b) Women in the church who are hungry and thirsty for righteousness – and ‘stand in the gap’ as prayer warriors,
(c) Holy Spirit success stories,
(d) An extremely supportive family here in the UK,
(e) My father in America who always reminds me of my inheritance in Christ Jesus,
(f) And, my bishops (Nicholas and Geoff) who encourage me; (Rowan and Sentemu) who inspire me!
6. What would you say to other women who feel God has equipped them to lead but find they are facing discrimination of various kinds?
Be obedient to God! Remember that “the Lord is faithful; he will strengthen you and guard you from the evil one.” (2 Thess 3.3)