Faces of Dryden: Dryden welcomes Reverend Virginia Coakley

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By Cathy Wakeman

 

The season of new beginnings is all around us. This past week hosted the beginning of the new school year. This week, Rosh Hashanah, the holiday of the Jewish New Year.

As Faces of Dryden began, it has provided the opportunity to interview and get to know the people, the faces, that make Dryden the unique place that it is. The first interview for this column took place back in July before the first Faces of Dryden appeared in print. It has waited until this season of new beginnings, where it belongs.

Reverend Virginia Coakley was installed as a member of the Presbytery and Pastor of the First Presbyterian Church of Dryden on May 20, 2018. Rev. Coakley’s path to pastoring and to Dryden has had many twists and turns. Each of these growing experiences has led her closer to her mission and her position here.

In the Presbyterian tradition, the path to a pastorate begins with a Pastor Nominating Committee, which was commissioned in October 2016. They created a Minister Information Form that was approved in February 2017. By that November, the group had looked at the Minister Information Forms of over 150 candidates. After reviewing and interviewing a small group of selected candidates, the nominating committee heard each of them preach at a neutral site before inviting them to speak to the congregation here in Dryden. This process was among the least of Coakley’s hurdles.

Meeting at the Dryden Community Café over tea on a summer morning, Virginia, as she asked to be called, shared about her calling to Dryden and the groundbreaking role that she will play. Not only is Virginia the first new pastor at Dryden Presbyterian in 32 years, she is the first female pastor in the church’s 200-year history. Virginia expressed “sitting with the weight of that responsibility”.

But she is familiar with sitting with the weight of dreams. She recalled dreaming in Mrs. Begley’s fifth-grade class about being a social worker. In high school, she volunteered in a nursing home in Brighton, Massachusetts. Here she discovered the patience to listen to the residents share their life stories over and over again. Her dream to get her degree in social work stayed with her, leading her to work in the prison system for 20 years. She juggled working, going to school and parenting as the dream slowly unfolded. Her career led throughout the caring professions, providing post-release support to prisoners, supporting teen parents, and working in assisted living facilities. Still, the dream of that degree, the Masters in Social Work, stayed with her.

When school became a reality, she was impacted by some private reading. The Purpose Driven Life by Rick Warren, Virginia explained, asks the reader to consider their spiritual gifts, their heart’s desires, their ability, personality, and life experience. As she processed these parts of her life, she says, “I heard God say, ‘I could get more use from you with a Master’s of Divinity’.” These clear words didn’t seem to fit the dream, or the reality, Virginia recalls. Being an introvert, going to school full-time, working part-time and being a single parent did not seem to be the pathway to an MDiv. The ordination exams at the end of the MDiv program alone were a daunting hurdle. There are five separate exams, and no one is expected to pass the first time through, Virginia explained.

And then came a huge life hurdle, what Virginia refers to as the summer of death. In the span of a few short years, she lost her best friend, father, mother, grandmother, and supervisor at work. She recalls, “Just keeping my head above water was enough work.”

On the other side of this process was a 10-year position as campus minister and a year in temporary pastorate.

This is the road that led Virginia to Dryden, to her new beginning here. What does the dream look like now?

Virginia explained that in the Presbyterian tradition, responsibilities are shared. “There is shared mission, shared power, shared leadership. There are no big ‘I’s or little ‘U’s. Everyone has a vote. The pastor is the moderator.” Within this structure, Virginia’s goal is to “work with the church to be true to their vision in the ways that make the most sense and to share the gospel of Jesus Christ with as many people as possible.”

Her biggest task at the beginning is building relationships. As she has met with parishioners, community members, and local area pastors, she has gained an appreciation for the town. “People here are hard working. They have a love of the land, a strong work ethic and a strong commitment to getting the job done.”

Michelle Brackin, a member of the nominating committee, shares “Rev. Virginia’s warmth and energy made her a stand out from the rest. Her experience as head of Protestant Ministries at Holy Cross University, along with shepherding a large church in the Boston area, gave her the skills and passion Dryden Presbyterian Church was looking for.”

Welcome, Pastor Virginia. Thank you for allowing Dryden to be part of your dream. The best of success to you in your new beginning here.

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