The Dannals’ years 2004-2013

From the George Street Voice, August 2013

It was a sign of things to come at St. George’s. Before accepting the call to become the parish’s new rector in 2004, Jim Dannals decided to talk face to face with the Vestry.

He wanted to make sure the Vestry members believed what was outlined in the parish profile: about wanting greater diversity in services; about what later would be referred to as “radical hospitality” — opening ourselves to a diversity of people. As Dannals puts it, “I was excited about their goals … but I needed to ask them: ‘Are you who you say you are and who you say you want to be?’”

He told the Vestry that these initiatives would not come without cost, that there would be pushback from those resistant to change. And he wanted to make sure that, when the going got tough, the leadership would be prepared to stick together.

All the answers came back in the affirmative, and thus began the nearly decade-long chapter of St. George’s history with the Rev. James C. Dannals as rector – a “Florida boy” with a Yale degree who would preside over some of the greatest growth in ministry in the almost three-century history of the parish.

There would be hiccups along the way. Indeed, on that very first Sunday in December 2004, Dannals, not realizing it was an anniversary for the Battle of Fredericksburg, noticed a 6-foot-4-inch “Confederate soldier” in the congregation and wondered what he had gotten himself into.

But by the time Dannals completed his last sermon at St. George’s on July 21, the list of parish accomplishments was extraordinary. They included:

  • An expansion of services, including a 9 a.m. “jazz mass” and a Sunday-evening Celtic service that began as an experiment and is now heading into its sixth year without missing a Sunday.
  • A heralded restoration and redesign of the nave to align theologically with the “open table” of communion.
  • The purchase and installation of a world-class organ that underlined St. George’s passionate commitment to the ministry of music in the parish and the community.
  • An array of new communication outlets, many of them digital, that provided the glue to connect a growing parish.
  • A varied and rich program of Christian education for all ages, combining creative learning for youngsters with adult forums that reaffirmed St. George’s role as a gathering place for important parish and community discussions.
  • An outreach and mission program that feeds hundreds in the community, and that connects St. George’s to places like Haiti, Honduras and the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
  • An emphasis on children that has featured upfront “rug space” during services and a preschool, with scholarships for those who need financial assistance.
  • The hiring of a parish staff Dannals calls the best with which he has ever worked.

If there’s a theme to all these efforts and events, Dannals thinks it may be “oneness.” That’s the term he uses to describe a community that is grown by radical hospitality, and that sends the message that  everybody’s gift is important and that everybody has something to contribute. It’s a “oneness” that goes well beyond tolerance – a oneness that reflects the fact that by serving others we are changed, we are transformed. “No matter how much we disagree,” says Dannals, “we are one … We often don’t recognize our oneness, but unity is what God is all about. We are the ones who create the false categories that produce fear.”

One of the priorities Dannals stressed was collegiality among staff, Vestry and other parish leaders – a collegiality based on trust and mutual respect. He certainly has that kind of relationship with his associate rector, Gay Rahn.

At St. George’s, for the third time in their careers, Dannals and Rahn formed a leadership team. Perhaps unique in the church, this lasting relationship was built, says Dannals, on a “deep and abiding trust.” It produced a partnership in which each member complements the other. As one parishioner put it, “It’s Mother Earth working with Mr. Type A.”

The trust has allowed Rahn to serve as a “reality check” for Dannals. In fact, they even have a shorthand for that – the metaphor of a proposed Alaska golf course. As the story goes, a crazily optimistic developer sets out to create a course on a piece of Alaskan swamp land that’s swarming with giant mosquitoes. That’s why Rahn has noted more than once, in commenting on a Dannals idea, “That sounds like the Alaskan golf course.” Rahn also has been known to say, “If Jim Dannals has any more vision, I’ll go blind.”

Though it evolved into a rich friendship, the Dannals/Rahn partnership had a bit of a rocky start. She remembers the persistence of Dannals in trying to lure her to their first assignment together in Jacksonville. It got to the point where Rahn, knowing Dannals was calling, would tell her secretary to tell him that “she’s out of the office.” She’d then walk out into the hallway.

Then there was Dannals’ tendency to rock back and forth while standing during the liturgy. “It would drive me absolutely crazy,” Rahn remembers. She tried elbowing him to get him to stop rocking, but it didn’t work. Later she discovered that Dannals’ mother had been elbowing him since he was a little boy. “I finally gave up,” she said, but not before recognizing that the rocking could actually become contagious. She nipped that tendency in the bud.

Reflecting on his theme of “oneness,” Dannals thinks his collaboration with Rahn is an example of how men and women can work together as friends and is a “real model of the unity between masculine and feminine” – a combination that’s critical to understanding ministry and even the nature of God.

In retrospect, Rahn feels she made the right decision to rejoin Dannals. She’s had “a lot of fun,” she says, thanks to his encouragement to push the envelope. “He’s willing to let you do something that involves taking a chance,” she says, “and you know he’ll be there to support you whether it works out or not.” But though some may see Dannals as an agent for change, Rahn says that he “is a very traditional person when it comes to the precepts of the Gospel. When you look at those, he’s right in line with them, with the core of who we are in the baptismal covenant.”

A self-professed workaholic, Dannals was not immune from controversy. Several of his senior wardens encouraged him to tone down some of his letter and email drafts before they were sent. A few folks drifted away, while new members continued to show up. Though Dannals could be angered, he also modeled the importance of forgiveness – for himself and for others. “So much human pain is due to the lack of forgiveness,” says Dannals, who devoted two of his last sermons at St. George’s to that topic.

Dannals made a point of building a strong relationship with his longtime predecessor as rector, Charles Sydnor, who believes Dannals has helped lead the parish on a continuing path toward long-sought goals. “Jim has greatly expanded the church with a genuinely inclusive approach,” particularly concerning the LGBT community, says Sydnor. “It’s the kind of community we’re supposed to be.”

Sydnor notes that St. George’s, under Dannals’ leadership, developed many opportunities for spiritual growth, such as the Lenten Weekend series. Those options help build the foundation for the expanded program of mission trips. “Spirituality and mission are connected, like breathing in and breathing out.”

Sydnor also cites Dannals’ ability to create an environment in which John Vreeland, director of music ministries, and others have created “a superb music program.” Combined with “the beautifully renovated” nave, it becomes “a wonderful combination that allows people to live into Christ,” says Sydnor. The Sunday-evening Celtic service is one more “entry point” for people to connect with the community of faith, he adds.

“I perceive in Jim and from Jim a refreshing calmness and quietness” during liturgy, says Sydnor. “He’s a non-anxious presence. He doesn’t hurry … Jim is serious about worship, but still lively and warm.”

Despite the exhilaration of his years at St. George’s, a time he describes as the most satisfying in his life of ministry, Dannals sensed that the parish had developed a large enough group of lay leaders that he could depart knowing that growth would continue. Therefore, it’s on to a retirement with wife, Carolyn, in Asheville, N.C. He hopes to do some farming, along with the occasional call to ministry. He plans to continue to offer presentations on the spiritual compass known as the Enneagram. Those who know Dannals well figure he will continue to set a fast pace.

His legacy will be discussed for years to come; though one former parish leader says he thinks the die is already cast. Ed Jones, who served as chair of the Rector Search Committee that recommended Dannals for the job of rector, says, “Jim came to us at a time when we had put together an extremely ambitious list of goals and aspirations. We had a strong foundation and were ready for a spurt of growth on a number of fronts. It amazes me that, working with Jim, we have exceeded those high expectations.”

There were times, though, when Dannals’ energy would run low. He remembers those Sundays, around 3:30 PM, when he was feeling dead tired, still facing a 5:30 PM Celtic service. “Whose dumb idea was that?” he remembers muttering.

But those were the exceptions. With Dannals’ encouragement, a three-century-old parish in a century-and-a-half-old building sprouted all the signs of a growing, creative community of faith. Big posters of church activities often decorate the metal fencing around the old cemetery. Sunday morning has become a time, not just for sacred silence, but also for funky jazz. Friendships and collaborative programs have been launched with other Christian denominations, as well as the Jewish and Muslim communities. A service commemorating the sesquicentennial of the Emancipation Proclamation reflected St. George’s role as a spiritual catalyst for the community.

The parish has grown and changed over the last decade, with new faces virtually every week and activities on almost every day. It seems destined to continue on that vibrant path. The Vestry told the truth to Jim Dannals in 2004. St. George’s has become the parish it said it wanted to be.