Bishop Bill’s Faith Story…
As a “cradle Episcopalian” God and the Church have been an important part of my life for as long as I can remember. When I was about five, I asked a visiting priest if I could help him carry things in from his car for the service. He handed me his Bible to carry. To this day, I remember how proud and special I felt carrying the Bible. At that time I couldn’t tell you much about the Bible other than that it was holy.
My love for the Lord and His Church really began to grow when we moved to East Texas and started attending St. Dunstan’s Episcopal Church in Mineola. Fr. Ralph Woods took me under his wing, let me serve as an acolyte, taught, encouraged and inspired me. He was the one who first planted the seeds about becoming a priest. Jokingly he would say, “When you become a bishop…” Little did either of us know what the future held!
I first sensed a possible call to the priesthood when I was in high school, but I believed it was too limiting. Instead, I dreamed of becoming a great journalist, thinking that if I could learn to write, I would be able to touch on a number of different important topics and help change the world. Although I majored in journalism, I would later discover the life of a journalist was not what God had planned.
Unlike some kids who go off to college and drift from the Church, I continued going every Sunday. I would attend the local Episcopal Church in the morning, but often went with some of my friends to their churches in the evening. I went with my roommate to a large Baptist Church which was quite different from “little” St. Dunstan’s. One night, I went to a Pentecostal Church with a girl I met at a skating rink. The Pentecostal service was TRULY unlike anything I had ever experienced in church, shattering my comfort zone.
My first true faith crisis occurred when I met and became friends with two Mormon missionaries who knocked on my apartment door one day. Not wanting to be rude, I invited them in and we began talking about the Mormon faith. Much of what they shared over the coming months was quite interesting and very enticing, at least on the surface – so much so that I came very close to joining the Mormon Church. That did not go well with my parents.
Before making a final decision on joining the Mormon Church, my mom, by God’s grace and prompting, asked me to meet with Fr. Tom Pantle, an Episcopal priest she knew, who had knowledge and experience with the Mormon faith. I agreed and what a blessing it turned out to be. Not only did the Lord use Fr. Pantle to help me see that the Mormon Church was not at all what it appeared to be on the surface, thus keeping me from making what would have been one of the worst mistakes in my life, but he also helped me take a closer look at my own personal faith and the Episcopal Church in which I had grown up, but didn’t fully understand or appreciate.
One of the books he gave me to read, “Faith and Practice” by Bishop Frank Wilson, helped me come to see and appreciate the beliefs and traditions of the Episcopal Church and Anglican Communion in new and exciting ways. In addition, Fr. Pantle helped me see the priesthood in a new light and come to discover that it was not limiting as I had first believed, but in fact was involved in some of the most important and holy aspects of life. This was a major turning point in my life and faith journey.
I became very involved in the Canterbury Club at Southwest Texas State University where the Lord blessed me richly through Fr. Chuck Woehler and the many other people I met. It was there that I became involved in Happening, (a high school/college age ministry similar to Cursillo). The Lord taught me that I could trust Him in ways that I had not yet discovered. I was asked to give a talk on “Reality” as pertaining to God and the world. I worked and worked on trying to write my talk, but couldn’t pull it together. The day came for me to give the talk. I was scared to death, not knowing what I was going to say. I prayed that the Lord would help give me the right words. When I stood up to speak with nothing more than a few thoughts scribbled on a note card, I was amazed at what came out. It was as if the Lord had taken all my confused and random thoughts, reorganized them and then spoke through me, giving me just the right words to say. You could have heard a pin drop in the room. The Lord not only kept me from making a fool of myself, He taught me a great deal about His faithfulness.
I grew tremendously in my faith, trust, and passion for the Lord that Happening Weekend, as I experienced firsthand Jesus’ promise: “…do not be anxious how you are to speak, or what you are to say, for what you are to say will be given to you in that hour. For it is not you who speak, but the Spirit of your Father speaking through you.” (Mt 10:19-20) I have lost count of the number of times since that weekend when the Lord has taken over, speaking to and through me when I didn’t have a clue what to say or how to respond. God is truly gracious and trustworthy.
As I look back at my life, I can see time and again where God has watched over me and my family, guiding, protecting and providing for us in wonderful and mysterious ways. My marriage and call to the priesthood are no exceptions. Karen and I met when we were both serving in the Air Force, stationed at Plattsburgh. On our first date, I told her that I felt I was being called to be a priest in the Episcopal Church. She (a faithful and devout Roman Catholic) told me she wanted to make the Air Force a career and hoped to be a General someday. Despite what initially seemed like two very different paths that would never work together, we not only continued dating, but got married trusting that somehow the Lord would work out the details – which He has in ways that we never could have imagined.
When Karen and I left the Air Force in order for me to go to seminary, it was a very anxious and uncertain time. We were concerned about a number of things such as: leaving the familiarity and security of the Air Force; what seminary to go to; how we would make ends meet financially; where Karen would work; where we would live and whether we could keep our dog Tasha. By this time, Karen was pregnant with our first child, Christopher. We had to submit our separation orders from the Air Force before any of these details were worked out. It was truly a step of faith which the Lord ultimately blessed in miraculous ways – adding all the more to my love, trust, and passion for Jesus. One of the key steps was learning to stop trying to be in control and give God room to work.
The Lord, through Bishop Ball, answered the seminary question when he told me that he wanted me to attend Nashotah House. That set everything else in motion. A few days after I had been officially accepted at Nashotah, Karen received a call totally out of the blue from the Dean of St. John’s Military Academy (a boys prep-school) in Delafield, Wisconsin, two miles from Nashotah. He told Karen that he heard that I was going to be attending Nashotah in the fall and that he understood Karen was a pilot and graduate of the Air Force Academy. He then went on to say that he wanted someone from the Air Force Academy to be part of the faculty and teach Jr. High and High School math. The Dean stated that he understood that we had a dog which we loved and couldn’t keep if we lived on campus at Nashotah. As part of Karen’s compensation, we were welcome to live in an apartment in an empty wing in the school hospital where we could keep our dog. He then told Karen what her salary would be which was almost to the penny what Karen and I had decided we would need if we were to avoid going into debt while in seminary. In that one phone call, from someone we had never met or talked to, God answered all of our concerns, with the exception of one.
Unlike me, who never intended to make the Air Force a career, Karen did. For her to give up flying and leave the Air Force was truly a sacrifice and a sign of her love for our Lord, me and our family. Six months after arriving at Nashotah, the Lord in His loving care, honored that sacrifice when Karen was offered a part-time flying position with the Milwaukee Air National Guard, flying the same planes she had flown in Plattsburgh.
Little did we know that all of these things were not only meeting our initial needs, but preparing the way for our future life when we returned to the Diocese of Albany. Ultimately, Karen was able to go back on active duty with the 109th New York Air National Guard unit in Scotia, where she would retire after 27 years of military service at the rank of Colonel, and brevet promoted to Brigadier General in the New York system. I believe it was God’s way of honoring the many sacrifices she made in order for me to answer my call to the priesthood and fulfill her earlier dream to become a General. The Lord truly did work out all the details as only He could.
The Lord used Karen’s income from the Air National Guard to help provide for our family’s financial needs, thus allowing me the freedom to serve as a full-time priest, accepting a call to St. Mary’s in Lake Luzerne, making far less than what I otherwise would have needed to provide for our family. During our 14 years at St. Mary’s, the Lord Jesus Christ not only blessed the parish, taking it from the brink of closing to become a vibrant parish filled with the Holy Spirit, He also richly blessed Karen, the kids and I through the tremendous love and support of the parish family.
A year after I became Bishop of Albany, it became clear Karen and I couldn’t both be gone as much as we were from our daughter Catie, who was still at home in school. By God’s grace, a math teacher’s position opened up in Lake Luzerne. After much prayer, Karen interviewed for the position and was hired, enabling her to retire from the military, spend precious time with Catie, and once again teach math to high school students – something she has truly come to love.
While there are so many other “special God moments” and “mountain top experiences” of God’s love, mercy, and healing grace that I have witnessed and would like to share if time permitted, I share the above stories as a sign of the Lord’s immeasurable love and faithfulness, and as a testimony to why I have passion for Jesus. Now, what about you? Why are you passionate for Jesus? There are people all around you that need to hear how the Lord has touched your life and your passion for Jesus. Don’t keep it a secret.