An interview with the Rev. Barkley Thompson

Jill and Barkley Thompson

Jill and Barkley Thompson

You were raised in the Methodist Church. How did you come into the Episcopal faith?

As a child and youth, I was at the church every time the door was open. My family attended First United Methodist Church in Paragould, Arkansas, every Sunday, and additionally I was there for youth group, potluck suppers, etc. Throughout high school I also attended St. Mary’s Catholic Church with a friend most Saturday evenings. In addition to the Methodist theology of hospitality and grace, I fell in love with Catholic sacramental and liturgical worship. I yearned even as a teenager for a church tradition that would combine the best of what I experienced in the Methodist and Catholic Churches. My freshman year of college I shared this yearning with my adviser in the philosophy and religion department, and he wisely encouraged me to attend the local Episcopal church: St. Peter’s in Conway, Arkansas. The moment I crossed the threshold from narthex to nave, I had a deep sense that I had come home. I’ve been in the Episcopal Church ever since, and four years later I married a cradle Episcopalian from Trinity Cathedral in Little Rock.

Beyond that, my paternal grandfather’s family were Episcopalian (he was born and raised at Christ Church, as a matter of fact), and my father attended the Episcopal Church until my grandfather died when my dad was fourteen. At that point, my grandmother returned with my dad to the Methodist Church.

What drew you to the priesthood and to the Seminary of the Southwest?

I have felt a sense of God’s calling since adolescence. I recall a moment when I was twelve or thirteen, standing in the darkened and empty sanctuary of First United Methodist Church in Paragould, when I uttered to God aloud that I was his. Obviously, I didn’t know at the time exactly what that meant or how it would play out, but I was earnest, and my sentiment was true. The first person with whom I spoke about a calling to the priesthood was the Rev. Sam Portaro, who was then the Episcopal chaplain at the University of Chicago where I was in graduate school. Sam was a great encourager, and I will be forever grateful to him.

Seminary of the Southwest was a natural choice for me, because of family connections to Texas. Even so, it was also a providential choice. I had an experience during my campus visit to the seminary that palpably displayed God’s will. It’s too much to share in this interview, but I’ll gladly share it with folks when I arrive in Houston!

Tell us about your family and how they play a role in your ministry.

Our menagerie consists of Jill and me, our children Griffin (12) and Eliza (8), Wrigley the 14-year-old beagle, a puppy named Maggie (short for Mary Magdalene), and Sally the cat.

Everywhere I’ve served, Jill, the kids and I have found our network of social relationships in and through the church. This was true of Jill and me even before I was ordained. Friendships first based upon a shared faith in Christ are true and abiding.

Jill has engaged in the ministry of the church in her own areas of passion and interest. In recent years, she has helped with children’s ministry, and last year she co-led St. John’s “Club 45,” which is St. John’s pre-youth group for fourth- and fifth-graders. In her professional life, Jill is a physical therapist. That and motherhood are her vocations.

What attracted you to the Cathedral and to Houston?

Many, many things! To name a few:

Christ Church is distinctive even among cathedrals in the Episcopal Church in the combination of its size, vibrancy, and location in the very center of a major U.S. city. The possibilities at Christ Church for sharing the Gospel from the pulpit, via outreach and mission, and by hosting speakers and events is profound and inspired my discernment from the first moment I became aware I’d been nominated to the search committee. Christ Church is able to serve as the agent of Christ’s love to an incredible range of people encompassing all walks of life.

The Cathedral’s pursuit of justice, service, and hospitality kindles my heart. When Jill and I toured The Beacon, we were blown away by the tangible impact for good the Cathedral is making in the daily lives of Beacon clients.

The search committee was also clear that the Cathedral sought in its next dean a compelling preacher and teacher. I experience my priesthood primarily as a call to preach and teach. The proclamation of the Gospel, I believe, should make explicit the points of contact between God’s vision for the world and our daily living. No other role is more important for a priest.

I was also impressed also by the long-standing tradition of lay leadership at the Cathedral. As a rector — and now a dean — empowering lay ministry is a priority and passion.

Finally, our family connections both to Houston and to Christ Church served as a powerful lure to be in discernment with the Cathedral. And, Jill and I fell in love with Texas during our time at the Seminary of the Southwest in Austin.

What have your previous parishes taught you spiritually and practically?

Spiritually, my experience serving parishes has reminded me again and again that it’s crucial for the priest to pray. This may seem self-evident, but in the crush of activity at a large parish, it’s all too easy for prayer to be the thing that’s nudged off of the priest’s daily agenda. It can’t be allowed to happen. Only by regularly centering oneself in God can the priest — rector or dean — shepherd the congregation toward that same center.

Practically, I am reminded again and again in my vocation that we never know the inner struggles of those we meet. The parishioner whose life seems the most together is often the one barely hanging on to faith. Approaching fellow Christians with a discerning ear and an open heart can, quite literally, be the difference between life and death. The smallest occasion of grace can be life-changing to one in need.

What do you see as the greatest challenges and opportunities in urban ministry?

In Roanoke, St. John’s (where I presently serve) sits equidistant between the Wells Fargo Tower and Roanoke Memorial Hospital (a level-one trauma center), which means that the parish exists in the very heart of the commercial, banking, governmental and healthcare center of southwestern Virginia. When the bells of St. John’s ring each hour, they serve as a reminder that God resides not only in Sunday worship, but also in the midst of each of these parts of our collective lives. God has something to say about how we do business, how we treat our citizens, and how we care for those who are hurting. God lays claim to all of us, and because the incarnate God abides among us, all of life is holy. Urban, downtown parishes bear the responsibility for reminding the city of this truth, and that responsibility is a challenge, an opportunity and a privilege.

Nurturing cohesive community can be a challenge for urban, downtown parishes. Especially in a large city in which most parishioners don’t live near the church, providing consistent opportunities for community and inspiring a sense of primary identity with the church are vitally important and not always easy. And yet, when such an identity is instilled, the Gospel is carried from the church out into the city in concentric circles, which can lead to growth in impact, numbers and spirit. I look forward not only to becoming part of the Cathedral community but also nurturing the sense of community among our people.

What has been your most memorable moment as a priest? As a person?

My most memorable moment as a priest was the day Bishop Don E. Johnson consecrated the new Church of the Holy Apostles in Collierville, Tennessee. Holy Apostles was the first parish I served. In 2003 it was a “re-start” congregation of forty parishioners. Over the course of four years we grew the church to over four hundred communicants, bought land at the edge of suburban growth, and built the first new church in the diocese in over a decade. The entire process was an act of faith, and the day it culminated in Bishop Johnson consecrating the new campus was unforgettable. It was marked by utter joy.

As a person, my most memorable moment happened on a stretch of bleak highway in Greene County, Arkansas when I was 16 years old. Our more Protestant brothers and sisters would call it a “conversion experience.” I hesitate to do so, because I had already known the love of God in my life up until that moment. Even so, that night I experienced the presence of the Risen Christ in an entirely life-changing way. It is not exaggeration to say that the life I live today still emanates from that day.

Which sports teams does your family root for, and can we change your mind?

In our house, we are zealous Arkansas Razorback fans, but we also cheer for both Texas A&M (my father’s alma mater) and the Longhorns. (Living three years in Austin, as we did in seminary, will make a Texas fan of anyone.)

What else would you like us to know about you?

I love traditional Southern barber shops. In Southern culture, the barber is akin to the priest. He lays on hands; he hears confession; he dispenses pastoral counsel and advice. As soon as I move to Houston, I’ll begin my quest for just the right barber shop.

Finally, what I want you most to know is how excited I am to be joining you in shared ministry. God is good, and God has good things in store for us together!


Cathedral names Rev. Barkley Thompson as next dean
A greeting from our new dean (video)