Courageous Acts of Unity: Pursuing the Call with Rev. Winnie Varghese
Courageous Acts of Unity take on many forms. In the case of Rev. Winnie Varghese, it took
the shape of following her calling even when it led her to lead congregations of people who share her love for God and service but not her background or skin color.
Ordained in 2000, the Dallas native of Indian descent has been a college chaplain at UCLA
and Columbia University and served churches in Los Angeles and New York. Today, Rev. Varghese is a national leader in the Episcopal Church, known for her inspired writing, teaching, and preaching. She currently serves as the 23rd rector of St. Luke's Episcopal Church and is married to Elizabeth Toledo with whom she has two adult children.
Her unique life experiences have helped her understand the dynamics of church communities and develop her own philosophy of church leadership. Varghese's journey provides insight for anyone seeking to make a difference no matter what type of community they are called to serve.
When Inspiration strikes
During her first year of college at Agnes Scott in Decatur, Georgia, Varghese heard the
call. She was reading for a class about women in the Hebrew Bible taught by Dr. Tina Pippin when she sensed that she should be a priest. Her following thought was— "Are there women priests?"
Despite the lingering question, one thing she was sure of was that she was passionate about the power of how we read and understand the Bible. She also knew she wanted to pursue that passion within faith communities as opposed to in academia.
Still unclear about what it meant to be a priest, she trusted her calling and pursued it
by getting educated through schooling, meeting with priests, and engaging in service opportunities. As her sense of her calling deepened, she discovered the path to accomplishing her innermost inspiration.
At the same time of her spiritual awakening, Rev. Varghese realized she was gay. While her
sexuality could have been a barrier; she believes her honesty and vulnerability gave the people with power over her ordination process the opportunity to be more inclusive.
Overcoming obstacles to pursue a calling
Varghese's family is from a small place in India and are Christians from a very particular,
small community. Almost everywhere they go, the majority of people are different from them. In India, their language and faith represent a very small minority. In the U.S., where Varghese was born and raised, there also was no place where she felt part of the inside group.
Ironically, it is Varghese’s lived experiences of feeling on the “outside” that allow her
to be courageous in the pursuit of unifying and building communities—and leading change within the church. The Episcopal Church is over 90% white, but Varghese didn't think much about that while preparing for priesthood. Over time, she has given it more thought. She thinks about the origins of the church, how it made its money, and who built the buildings.
When Varghese was in New York, their oldest buildings were built by enslaved people or from the profits of the slave trade. While she often raises these issues and works on them, she comes to the issues of systemic and historical racism, sometimes feeling like an outsider.
In church, one wants to be all in with the community, authentically working through hard issues together. It feels like a disadvantage to not be on the inside of some of those conversations. While racism and sexism have not been as big an issue as many would think in Varghese’s personal experience, what's proved to be most difficult is when other people
of color or women unwarrantedly express opinions about who Varghese is and the authority she should have in the church.
Qualities needed for strong leadership
In the midst of resolving challenges, Varghese works hard to be a unifying pastor. To do so, she continues to do the personal work that allows her to be with people confidently and humbly. For her, that means practicing prayerful study, self-awareness, and developing the professional capacities needed to understand the opportunities and challenges of the church she serves.
Those are different at different scales and contexts. The happiest clergy are very flexible
and curious about the world. Enjoying being with people and learning are essential in roles like hers. Here are five principles that help her serve a diverse community:
Be curious and take time to understand as many perspectives as possible before acting.
Try very hard not to assume things about others. Do so by being aware of when your past experiences are influencing how you approach a situation.
Give people the benefit of the doubt.
Try to take nothing personally. It's rarely about us.
Diversity is hard. Be joyful. We are so fortunate.
Her bonus advice is to act like the leader you aspire to be. Varghese's story proves that we
can become whomever we were meant to be if we are curious enough, open enough, and brave enough to pursue the call.