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Meet Our Rector

An Interview with The Rev. Cole Gruberth  

By: Alexei Waters 

From: St. Thomas Newsnotes, Easter 2013

                                                                                

The Rev. Cole Gruberth is an unassuming, thoughtful, articulate man, so unassuming, in fact, that one would easily, or rather automatically, predict that he was an academic or counselor, because he has an analytically sharp mind and is able to explain complex ideas simply without in anyway diluting the ambiguities and subtleties inherent in complex ideas; and yet there is a gentleness that is conveyed in his long pauses before reaching a conclusion, and this sensibility is reinforced by the mellifluous tenor voice that seems destined to reinforce his compassion for others, his willingness to listen to someone express doubts about their beliefs, frustrations regarding some of the dominant trends in the Anglican Communion and among Christians in general, and his eagerness to connect with you in a way that is neither rushed not calculated; but is instead balanced to fulfill the need to answer as deeply as possible but also with a keen awareness that no matter what ideas are exchanged, the conversation is likely to be ongoing, one that will reveal further answers in future discussions, through his sermons and homilies and during church gatherings and celebrations. We met over coffee at the Maté Factor on the Ithaca Commons for a 90 minute conversation on March 19. Below is a partial transcript of our conversation with some additional follow-up questions. 

 

Where were you born and where did you grow up? 

In Los Angeles. 

 

Were you raised in a particular denomination? 

I was raised Presbyterian, but when I was an undergraduate, I attended an American Baptist church for a while and experimented with other religions, but I essentially became disillusioned with Christianity and was not involved for several years. 

 

What made you return to Christianity, and in particular, how did you become involved with the Episcopal Church? 

That’s an interesting question [he laughs]. But I guess what’s more relevant is that I felt called into the Church. For example, when I was working at Ithaca College and occasionally driving through Dryden to work or from another town, I would pass by St. Thomas on Route 79. I kept getting an internal nudge that would leave me disgruntled. I tried to understand why I felt this way. I came to realize that something was missing in my life. One day in 2001, I believe, I decided to attend a Sunday service. I knew right away that I had done the right thing because I suddenly had a sense that I belonged here, that this is where I was meant to be. 

 

What was it about the Episcopal Church that you found so congenial, given that you had experience with other churches and denominations? 

The combination of a liturgical tradition that contained a wealth of substance, the ability to approach difficult questions with a faith and spiritual tradition that encouraged open inquiry, that was disciplined, focused, that seemed to capture the mystery of faith without making it dogmatic for people who were searching and didn’t want simple answers. 

 

I don’t think I’ve ever heard of anyone joining a church and then in very quick succession, finding that they were called to the priesthood, and then entering seminary within 2 years. It would appear that you had more than just a nudge that compelled you to attend St. Thomas. 

My wife Corie was very supportive and that helped. She could tell I was emotionally committed in a way that wasn’t just a temporary phase. Her father was a Naval officer, so she can easily sense when someone’s commitment is more than just a phase. I felt called within 6 months of joining St. Thomas. Rev. Cullie Mowers was quite supportive. He and I had many discussions, and he was very encouraging and supportive. In fact, Cullie arranged for me to speak to Bishop Skip Adams and the Diocesan office. I was shepherded through the period when one is a Postulant [the period in which a Diocesan-approved committee in consultation with the church review a potential candidate’s suitability for ordination as a priest] much more expeditiously than is normally the case. Bishop Adams allowed the Commission on Ministry to move more quickly than they probably do now. But I think it worked well in my case because I was fully prepared to assume the challenge and responsibilities of becoming an ordained priest in the Episcopal Church. 

 

Were there any issues or difficulties in choosing a seminary to attend? 

Bishop Adams was incredibly supportive, and this is particularly noteworthy because I believe at the time he had been Bishop for about a year. He wanted to make sure that I didn’t attend a seminary that was way outside the mainstream, so too liberal, or conservative, or evangelical. 

 

What made you choose General Theological Seminary in NYC? I would assume that after living in Ithaca for a while that you would not necessarily want to study there. 

When I visited General Theological Seminary (G.T.S.) I had initially assumed that I would not go there, but in the course of that one day visit, I was drawn to the community and their communal style of worship. It seemed to be a better fit for me than elsewhere. Corie also thought it was a real oasis. There was something about the atmosphere that had a calming effect on me. There was also an incredibly strong community that was quite supportive of us after our daughter was born in 2005. I was happy to return to G.T.S. after being away for a full year. It’s an ideal place to raise a child because it has such a supportive environment. 

 

After graduating from G.T.S. in May 2007 and completing the ordination exams, you became an Associate Rector in a large church in the Diocese of San Diego. What was the experience like there, especially considering that you subsequently served in small churches? 

I was called to St. Bartholomew’s Church in the suburbs of San Diego. At the time the church had five clergy, two were full-time and three were part-time. In residence was also the Retired Bishop of Jerusalem. I originally thought I was going to be involved in Christian Education and the Young Adult Ministry, but after arriving, things worked out that instead, I worked primarily as a youth group leader, which meant working with both junior high school and high school students. 

 

Did you have much involvement with university students? Did your church serve the military since San Diego is a region with a large military presence [U.S. Marines and U.S. Navy]? 

Unfortunately, we were too far away from downtown San Diego to attract college students, and we were away from the military bases in the area. 

 

How long did you serve at St. Bartholomew? 

I served for three years and then began the process of finding a suitable position. I subsequently accepted a challenging position in the Diocese of Rochester, specifically Allegheny County, that involved working with seven small congregations. Originally the idea was to create a single unit from two separate entities that consisted of four parishes that shared a priest, and a second unit that consisted of three small parishes. 

 

So, if I understand this correctly, this was an issue of creating a better economy of scales, so that instead of having seven small, churches that were too small to support full-time clergy, there would be an opportunity for two clergy to share responsibilities for these churches. 

Right. It was a very unusual arrangement. I guess in theory it could have worked, but it presupposed that all seven churches shared the same spiritual vision as well as were united in the same objectives. But that proved to be false, because within a year, six of the seven parishes opted out of this plan.  

 

So, what happened when this novel administrative arrangement unexpectedly collapsed?  

I ended up working for the smallest congregation, but one that is most like St. Thomas in the quality of its congregation, whose members were quite energized and invigorated despite being small.  

 

The Episcopal Church, like all mainline Protestant churches, has been losing members steadily during the last 30 years. It’s difficult to say precisely what accounts for the decline, but many scholars and studies suggest that some of the key dynamics include allowing the ordination of women in 1970, the Consecration of Barbara Harris as the first female Bishop of the Episcopal Church in 1989, and conflict over the ordination of openly gay and lesbian priests and especially the Consecration of Gene Robinson as Bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of New Hampshire in 2004. When we consider that in the Episcopal Diocese of Central New York only ten out of 90 parishes have a full-time rector, and most of the congregations are small and older, it seems as though this demographic trend will continue, unless a way can be found to attract young families and young adults, especially college students.  

I think the issues you mentioned have all had an impact. There is also a greater trend towards having what are called bi-vocational clergy. That means that there are many churches whose part-time clergy is either retired or has other employment obligations. But I think people aren’t relating to the liturgy very well. Perhaps there is no longer a clear understanding of why we’re liturgical. When I was serving in Allegheny County, there were 26 churches in a region with only 5000 people. That suggests that people have spiritual needs, but so many small churches in one of the poorest counties in the state suggests that the challenges of ministering to communities in that situation are intensified.  

 

What do you see as some of your main priorities during your first year?  

I’m not coming in with any [particular] agenda to impress upon the church. My own focus is mostly in the area of spiritual development.  

 

Could you expand upon the kind of spiritual development that you think would contribute to someone’s personal journey through faith and possibly at the congregational level?  

I think it’s imperative—but also a real challenge— to increase understanding of our own [rich] tradition. For example, however you do liturgy, it’s clear that the meaning has to be as transparent as possible; and if it takes teaching do that, then that’s fine. We have to remind ourselves that the Episcopal tradition has such a richness and depth that can give it great spiritual vitality, but this depth of riches can become obscure to people.

 

I hear that you are also a musician. Could you tell me more about your musical training and experiences?  

I play Irish traditional music usually during Irish Sessions at the Chapter House Pub on Stewart Avenue [near the intersection with Seneca St. and across the street from Carriage House on Tuesday evenings beginning at 8:30 pm. I have also played with an Irish traditional band called Traonach.  

 

What instruments to you play?

I play the drums, wooden flute and whistle. I also sing, of course.  

 

Is your family of Irish descent?

No, none of my family has any known recent connection to the British Isles whatsoever. I just found myself attracted to the music while an undergraduate. I suppose I started playing music in junior high school, but I learned much more by playing at the sessions in Ithaca starting around 1995.   

 

Our conversation could have easily continued for another hour because I always had the impression that Father Cole could have easily elaborated at great length about any of the topics we discussed. But his deliberately relaxed pace of speaking elucidated a thoughtfulness that seemed to be a direct by-product of an underlying humility and a desire to focus attention on wider issues than merely himself. Our conversation ended, we quickly cleared the table, packed our things and headed out the side door for Green Street. I had to catch the next tcat bus so that I could return to the Math Library in Mallott Hall at Cornell, while Father Cole walked briskly past me to his car so that he could resume his work in the Office of Enrollment Services at Ithaca College. Five days later I met him at St. Thomas, where he led a service on Palm Sunday that combined the Liturgy of the Palms and Luke’s Gospel Liturgy of the Passion. Even though technically he was still serving as our supply priest, it became abundantly clear that his presence was already making a significant impact on the congregation. It seemed apparent to me, at least, that there seemed to be spiritual symmetry in his presence at St. Thomas during a reading of the story of Jesus and his triumphant entry into Jerusalem, a simple act of faith that carried far greater significance than could have been anticipated during a period when finding a new rector was fraught with many uncertainties. To suggest this was, therefore, an auspicious occasion may be as understated as Father Cole was about his many accomplishments, which have become abundantly apparent each time he helps lead a service.