Conversations

Reverend Blaney Pridgen III, Rector of St. Mary's Episcopal Church in Irmo

Reverend Blaney Pridgen III

Reverend Blaney Pridgen III

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MidlandsBiz:
What is the mission of St. Mary's?

Blaney Pridgen:
The mission of any Christian Church is to know Christ and to make Christ known.  To know Christ means worship, living in Christian community, a lifelong pursuit of Christian formation and prayer, and sharing your faith with others.  In the context of a parish, it means not only welcoming people who are seeking Christ, but also being a community that embodies Christian principals outside of the physical confines of the church, in the way we reach out to the world, especially to the poor and victims of injustice.

MidlandsBiz:
How does a new church enhance that mission?  Why build a new church?  Why not give the money to the poor?

Blaney Pridgen:
One of the charter members of this church, Mitchell Tibshrany, refers to our beautiful new church as a tool for evangelism.  The new church will hopefully attract people into the community of the faith and their experience here will turn them into disciples who will go out and do the work of Christ. 

The goal is to have a place where people will be, I believe, responsive to God's call on their life and to be servants to a broken world.  You can't do that without having a building where you worship and hold Bible study classes.

Last year out of a $500,000 a budget, St. Mary's devoted over $43,000 in outreach projects both here in Columbia and also in Haiti.  Over the next decade and beyond, we look to build on these outreach programs.

MidlandsBiz:
What goals do you have for the new church?  What is your membership now and where do you hope to be in a couple of years?

Blaney Pridgen:
We have 1,000 members on the books about 400 of whom are genuinely active.  In the next five years, I would like to see an additional 200 active members.

MidlandsBiz:
Describe as best you can the unique style of construction that was used to build the church?

Blaney Pridgen:
Tilt up construction has been around for a long time to build large square buildings such as Wal-Mart's and hotels.  More recently it has been used in smaller, more detailed type construction projects such as ours.  Essentially our new church is a huge, concrete edifice tied together with a roof system.  It's sound proof which is important in our location, it's very efficient in terms of heating and air conditioning, and it was economical compared to other forms of construction. 

MidlandsBiz:
What special architectural features are you most excited about at the new church?

Blaney Pridgen:
I describe the church architecturally as Contemporary meets Gothic.  While the outside of the church may resemble a mini Gothic cathedral, the inside layout liturgically is very contemporary and follows trends that have developed since the middle part of the 20th century.  The beautiful stained glass windows also reflect this theme of old meets new – Gothic in design, but with more modern figures.

One of my favorite part of the church is the great big sixty year old bell that we call Bernard the Evangel.  There's something about the tolling of a real bell that I just love.

MidlandsBiz:
What events do you have planned to celebrate the opening of the new church?

Blaney Pridgen:
On March 30th at 4:00 pm. Bishop Henderson of the Diocese of Upper South Carolina will be here to consecrate the new church.  And on Saturday, April 12th we are hosting an open house from 10:00 to 2:00 pm.  Everybody is welcome to come on by and check us out on the 12th.

MidlandsBiz:
Talk briefly about how you became an Episcopal priest

Blaney Pridgen:
I grew up a Presbyterian, but I was also a card carrying member of the sixties.  I left the church, but not my faith when I was 18. 

I had both a religious and intellectual experience when I took a graduate course in Victorian literature here at USC.  I read the theologians of the Oxford movement in the mid 19th century England.  I was impressed with the way they approached theology, so much so that I marched right over to the local Episcopal Church and was confirmed at age 26.  A year and a half later I went to speak to the Bishop about going to seminary.

It was that course – studying the essays of Thomas Carlisle, Ruskin, and Newman that was the single greatest thing that inspired me to seek holy orders in the Episcopal Church. 

MidlandsBiz:
Do heads of churches have to be good business men as well as good religious leaders?

Blaney Pridgen:
I supervise six paid employees; I have a budget that I have to meet every year.  And to a certain extent, successful clergy have to look on their parishioners as clients. 

Our support of the Diocese of Upper South Carolina is also somewhat akin to that of a business to a franchiser.  That franchisee relationship, so to speak, entails certain business responsibilities.

But it would be a mistake to use too many business models in talking about a priest's mission in a parish.

Some of the big churches are studied in business schools as models of a customer focused approach.  I see my job as a parish priest as a dual role of "Comforting the afflicted and afflicting the comfortable".  If I am going to be successful at motivating a "comfortable" crowd to a new life in Christ, as the spiritual leader of this church I sometimes have to be willing to treat our parishioners as more than simply a "customer".  I may have to do some things that may actually drive the customer away. 

MidlandsBiz:
How would you describe your leadership style? 

Blaney Pridgen:
I have a dual role here at the church.  I have the job of "Rector" or CEO of this organization.  But I am also a priest.  And there are inherent contradictions in that duality.  One of these days I would like to be a better Christian in every sense of the word, but for now, that gets in the way of being a Rector for a very diverse group of people.

All clergy of all denominations need to remind themselves that they are serving volunteer organizations.  If I had to describe my leadership style I would have to say it's collaborative; I work collaboratively with the leadership of St. Mary's. 

MidlandsBiz:
What is the most difficult situation you have faced as the head of a church? 

Blaney Pridgen:
Maintaining a public, spiritual leadership role while experiencing personal tragedy has been the most difficult situation for me.  Climbing up into the pulpit and publicly declaring the Good News of Christ while personally experiencing tragedies that challenge my faith – that's been the hardest part.

My wife and I lost our son at age 25. 

I try to be as transparent as possible as a parish priest.  If the people that I serve can't see the person that is Blaney, then they will not be able to see the person whom I proclaim as my Savior, Jesus Christ.

MidlandsBiz:
What are you most proud of at St. Mary's?  What are you most proud of within the Episcopal Church?

Blaney Pridgen:
I am most proud of the warmth and friendliness of the Christian community here.  The active members have a great awareness of the need to have a ministry both inside and outside the church.  It's very refreshing to serve people who understand what it means to be a disciple. 

The Episcopal Church is in love with freedom while at the same time worshipping in an orthodox Christian context.  We are just as interested in the questions we ask as the answers we discover.

The Episcopal Church is not afraid of the culture in which it worships – and I'm proud of that.  It's a place where humanists like me are welcome. 

MidlandsBiz:
What's a humanist?

Blaney Pridgen:
A humanist is one who fiercely believes in the dignity of the human spirit and who is very animated by peace and justice issues.  They also believe that the arts are not just an important part of our culture, but in fact a necessary part of human existence.

MidlandsBiz:
At the national level, the ordination to Bishop of Gene Robinson who is openly gay has caused a huge strain on the Church and put the future of a united worldwide Anglican Communion into question.

Blaney Pridgen:
If you are a student of Christian history, you know that denominations are always fracturing to one degree or another.  In this time, when there is such extreme political, religious and racial polarization in our culture, rifts are bound to happen.

The issues that we are facing as a church are rooted in openly wrestling with issues of human sexuality, not just the issue of Bishop Robinson.  There's a power struggle between folk who are more literal and those who are less literal in the way they approach Holy Scripture.

Some people see things in terms of black and white; others see black, gray and white.

As a church, we need to decide what is more important – the gospel of Jesus Christ or issues of this particular culture in this particular time.  What is more important justice or unity?  How do you maintain justice and unity at the same time? That's the important question that we have to try and answer.

As I look at Christian history, the gospel of Jesus Christ always has won out.

MidlandsBiz:
Are you for the justice side or the unity side?  Do you have to take a stand as a parish priest?

MidlandsBiz:
I think you do.  I'm on the justice side.

MidlandsBiz:
And by that you mean that you do not have a problem with an openly gay Bishop?

Blaney Pridgen:
No I don't.

MidlandsBiz:
What is your favorite book of the Old Testament? 

Blaney Pridgen:
My favorite books of the Old Testament are First and Second Samuel.  I think that I have read everything in print that has ever been written about these two wonderful books.

It's the saga of the establishment of ancient Israel from the judgeship of Samuel to King Saul, King David and King Solomon and the many intrigues therein.  I love these books so much that I have been laboring for some time now over a novel that it is a pretty radical retelling of these two chapters.

I love the richness of the themes.  God uses people in spite on themselves, and often uses very broken and sinful people to carry out his will.

MidlandsBiz:
The New Testament?

Blaney Pridgen:
Philippians - Paul's letter to his favorite church in Philippi.  It's a very short, personal epistle, very to the point.  You can sit down and read the entire chapter in 15 minutes.  In fact, for me, it has been a wonderful 15 minutes hundreds of times in my life.

It also contains in the second chapter the Carmen Christi where Paul quotes a few verses of what is commonly believed to be the oldest literature in the New Testament.  There you will find the famous words about Jesus emptying himself and taking on full humanity and not exercising the full glory that he possessed in his ministry.  To me, these are some of the most powerful words in all of the New Testament.

MidlandsBiz:
What about any secular literature?

Blaney Pridgen:
I just finished a great book called Crazy for God by Frank Schaeffer.

The Schaeffers were seminal figures in the establishment of what we know today as evangelicalism and the moral majority.  He was a published author and well known speaker.  He talks about how he has maintained his Christianity despite retreating from that form of highly politicized evangelicalism.

MidlandsBiz:
What are your thoughts on recent translations of the Bible such The Message?

Blaney Pridgen:
I do like Peterson's The Message and I find myself using it to supplement my reading of the Bible at least a couple of times a week.  You have to be careful, though, of sweeping paraphrases of Holy Scripture because inevitably you are going to be treated with the translator's theological prejudices. 

Of contemporary translations I still really like Good News for Modern Man which was a very popular translation in the mid twentieth century. 

The only paraphrase that I find repugnant is the Living Bible; it has some unfortunate prejudices woven into its translations. 

MidlandsBiz:
What is prayer?

Blaney Pridgen:
Prayer is living ones life consciously in the presence of God.  Whether it's traditional prayer or quiet reflection – listening to God is just as important as talking to God. 

MidlandsBiz:
Does prayer work?

Blaney Pridgen:
Can our prayer manipulate the mind of God to do what we want God to do – I don't think so.  But the yearnings of the human soul are never in vain in the heart and mind of God.  Can we bring every part of our life to God in prayer, and seek to be formed after the mind of Christ because of that prayer – does that work?  Yes. 

If I'm honest and regular in my prayers, my mind becomes formed after the mind of Christ, and in that process, prayer works and prayers are answered.

The more important question to ask about prayer is not to see whether prayer changes things, but whether prayer changes me.