The Rev. Steven D. Paulikas is rector of All Saints' Church, a diverse and growing parish in the Park Slope neighborhood of Brooklyn. Steven has worked with the people of All Saints’ to build a Christian community of welcome and uncompromising love for all, and parish worship attendance and membership have almost tripled since his arrival in June 2011. He is a member of the Board of Directors of Episcopal Relief and Development and the Board of Governors of the Episcopal Church at Yale, and he facilitates the process of discernment for holy orders on the Diocese of Long Island’s Commission on Ministry. He is a candidate for the DPhil in the Faculty of Theology at the University of Oxford. While a Term Member of the Council on Foreign Relations, Steven co-chaired the New York Term Member Advisory Council. His opinion writing has recently appeared in The New York Times, The Guardian, and Quartz, and his essay on the political response to evil is featured in Modern Ethics in 77 Arguments: A Stone Reader.
Steven left his native Michigan to attend Yale University, where his involvement in campus chaplaincy helped nurture a call to ordained ministry. After receiving the MPhil degree in European Literature at the University of Cambridge, Steven moved to Lithuania, which his father’s family fled during the Second World War. He covered such historic events as Ukraine’s Orange Revolution and EU and NATO expansion as a Vilnius-based journalist for the BBC, Newsweek, and other international media. He returned to the United States to study at the General Theological Seminary and was ordained to the priesthood in June 2008 in the Diocese of Southern Ohio. Following ordination, he served as Assistant to the Rector at Grace Church Brooklyn Heights. He and his husband, Jesse Lazar, were married at All Saints’ Church in 2014. Steven is an amateur cellist.
The Episcopal Church in Europe is present in six countries and worships in five languages. Congregants may be native to their country, immigrants or expatriates, and come from a variety of denominations. How might you apply your experience to our situation?
My connection to the territory in which the Episcopal Church in Europe ministers begins in the displaced persons camp near Günzburg, Germany, where my father was born in November 1945. My grandparents had found their way there after escaping Lithuania with my three aunts under harrowing circumstances just before the Soviet occupation. He spent the first five years of his life in this place, which we would call a refugee camp, until the family immigrated to the United States in 1950.
Like many children of immigrants, I have always felt caught between two worlds—a fact that has formed me as a Christian. Through the experience of fleeing violence in Europe and making a new home in a foreign country, my family learned that our true home was with God alone. To be part of the Jesus movement is to live in an in-between world, a spiritual phenomenon understood by St. Paul, who wrote, “forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 4:13-14). As Christians, we are all sojourners, and one of the great gifts of Christian community is the sacred fellowship that develops between people of faith who have a variety of relationships with their land of residence. In this sense, the unique nature of the Episcopal Churches in Europe is a tremendous charism, and one that makes me excited and proud to be an Episcopalian.
I developed an early intense interest in the continent my family had been forced to flee. I studied German and French in school and Russian as undergraduate at Yale (I later studied Spanish) and then moved to England to continue these studies at Cambridge. After a year, I moved to Lithuania, where I built a brief but rich career as a journalist, which afforded me the unique chance to interview a range of characters from European heads of state to distinguished artists to human traffickers. This experience had the additional benefit of giving me practice communicating important information and concepts in my languages of proficiency—a skill that would be compatible with the range of linguistic and cultural environments of the churches of the Convocation.
All Saints’ Church, which I have had the privilege of leading since 2011, is a place of true diversity. A slight majority of members has come to New York from the Caribbean, and this diaspora group’s commitment to radical welcome has given rise to a community where no one race, class, or theology prevails. This diversity is only deepening as we continue to grow from a parish on the brink of closure into a thriving fellowship for all people. My experience at All Saints’ has taught me that if God truly desires the ministry of a church, God will also provide the resources necessary to carry out that ministry—whether in New York City or in Europe.
How do you currently exercise leadership? Give examples. What will leadership mean as Bishop in Charge of the Convocation and what will you need to change in your mode of operation?
As part of my discernment in this process, I have spent considerable time sitting and praying with the bishop ordination rite in the Book of Common Prayer. Contemplating the magnitude of these vows has renewed my respect for the ministry of the episcopate and sharpened the ways in which it differs from that of the priesthood, and especially the apostolic responsibility placed on the bishop to guard the faith while being a genuine pastor.
As different as the roles of bishop and priest may be, I believe that my style of collaborative, consensus-based Christian leadership is likely well-suited to the unique challenges that face the next Bishop in Charge of the Convocation. Through my role as rector, I have understood that my authority is derived primarily from the trust the people of All Saints’ and I have placed in one another. These relationships are gifts of the Holy Spirit, and I take pains to nurture them both as a pastor and for the sake of the continuing good governance of our parish.
Collaboration and consensus in decision-making has ensured that all parish leaders have ownership in important changes and that we all understand where God is leading us. I meet on a regular basis with the Wardens, who function both as invaluable counselors to me and, together with me, as a de facto executive committee of the parish. We take ideas in this small forum to crucial stakeholders and then to the Vestry as a whole for honest and open debate. This orderly and deliberate process has resulted in unanimous Vestry decisions on practically every vote taken in the last seven years. It has also allowed us to continue developing the resources necessary to grow, most notably in the Vestry’s approval of funding for three new staff positions, each of which was developed in response to emerging ministry needs identified by the Vestry.
Our sense of mutual trust has also allowed the Wardens and Vestry to guide me when necessary. In my second year at All Saints’, I was leading the Vestry in yet another collaborative ministry discernment exercise when one exasperated member said, “Fr. P., we’ve all been here a lot longer than you, and we’ve already tried all the ideas we have. Now we want you to try your ideas.” For me, this was an invaluable lesson in my responsibility, on occasion, to demonstrate mutual trust by exercising some of the unilateral authority given to me by my office for the benefit of the community as a whole.
It is the joy of a bishop “to follow him who came, not to be served, but to serve” (BCP, p. 517). As Bishop in Charge, I would have to lead through service, nurturing the trust of clergy colleagues and laypeople scattered across the Convocation while representing their witness to the wider Church and society. I would have to adjust to the leadership of such a complex organization, but I believe that the skills of listening and analysis that lead to consensus-building could bring us all a long way toward God’s vision of ministry for us.
Give one or two examples of conflict management situations you have dealt with and explain the lessons you have learned. Describe the difference in dealing with conflict in the church and elsewhere.
I began a five-year term membership in the Council on Foreign Relations in 2012. The Council brings together foreign policy leaders to engage with speakers such as world leaders and policy experts in a variety of formats. Term members are emerging leaders in their 30’s who come from a variety of fields. It is an intimidating environment on its own, and the five years of my term, I was usually the only religious leader and the only openly gay person in the room.
In the first year of my term, I attended a roundtable on the role of women in the Arab spring uprisings. There were three female guests from the Arab world, all of them Muslim. In the open discussion portion of the presentation, three male life members (i.e., people vastly senior to me) made openly anti-Muslim and misogynistic remarks. The hierarchical culture of the Council avoids open confrontation, but while I honored this and said nothing at the time, I left disturbed and in a state of something like silent conflict with these men and the organization that did nothing to counter their remarks, which left the speakers obviously insulted.
This experience of subtle conflict in which I was not the authority figure was a moment of personal growth that gave me a sense of mission, which I discerned was to help educate the membership on religious literacy and to be an outspoken moral voice consistent with my understanding of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. I decided to channel my frustration into an effort to make lasting and meaningful change in the institution that would prevent incidents like the one I had experienced. I approached the ever-helpful program staff of the Council with my concerns and a proposal for events. Within a year, we had held a roundtable called “Islam 101” and another with a Ugandan MP who is an outspoken supporter of LGBT rights in his country. The events were well-attended and fun, and I had the honor of chairing both. Two years later, I was appointed co-chair of the New York Term Members Advisory Council, the de facto shared leadership position of New York-based term members.
I learned through this experience that responding to conflict with a constructive, long-term vision for change builds authority and moves the system in a healthier direction. Conflict is as old as the Church, and as a priest, I often find myself toggling between positions of authority and disempowerment. Yet experiences like the one at the Council have given me a heightened sensitivity to use what authority I have to empower actors who have a vision for a lasting way forward. Unlike most secular institutions, we are called in the Church to be a permanent witness to Jesus Christ. This limitless time horizon means that our resources are best deployed toward long-term conflict mitigation and prevention. While acute conflicts will always arise, they must not be given ultimate priority over our mission to embody the peace that passes all understanding.
How do you take care of yourself spiritually, emotionally and physically?
I have learned that self-care and care of the other are simply two aspects of the same healing action of the Holy Spirit. While I still struggle to put my knowledge into action, I have developed some tools and habits that, by God’s grace, have kept me healthy in body, mind, and spirit and that will be crucial to maintaining my wellbeing in any future ministry.
Chief among these disciplines is my attempt to remain authentic in both work and recreation. I strive to be fully present in worship, whether I am leading or just participating. As a consequence, Sundays are enriching rather than draining, and I look forward to them as much as I do to my own private devotions. I say the Daily Office most days of the week, practice centering prayer, and journal most days. Practicing authenticity alone and with others means these private acts translate into my public actions; I worship along with the congregation on Sundays, find a place of inner quiet even in (especially in) trying pastoral circumstances, and preach the Gospel from a place of lived experience.
I have been a reluctant athlete since childhood, but I find that regarding physical activity as a spiritual practice has helped me maintain my physical health. Depending on the season, I run, lift weights, or attend yoga classes three or four times per week. I have been a pescetarian for most of my life, and I view this discipline as a permanent fast that reminds me of the sanctity of life in all its forms. During the inevitable periods when I am not attending to my physical health, I find that the burdens of pastoral ministry are far more difficult to bear, and so I understand my time spent at the gym or on a run to be for everyone’s benefit.
Feeding my extraverted personality is key to maintaining my emotional health. Jesse is a talented clergy spouse who lovingly holds me accountable for my own health. We have a rich network of supportive family and friends both here in New York and scattered throughout the world. I often spend my day off either with them or by myself enjoying beauty of some sort, whether at a museum, watching a film, or at a performance.
Music is a constant source of refreshment and inspiration, and my tastes are eclectic and well- defined, for better or worse! I am an amateur cellist, and I tend to form easy friendships with musicians or other enthusiasts of the types of music I love, especially minimalism, electronic music, and chamber music of any sort. I am always eager to enjoy the communion of listening to any kind of music that moves those people I respect and love.
Why are you a Christian, and why an Anglican (Episcopalian) Christian? What difference does your faith make in your life and how do you talk about it?
God called me into the vocation of being a Christian. I had a deep longing as a teenager to attend church, which I started doing on my own at the age of twelve. I eventually found my way into our local Episcopal parish, where the faith that was within me was nurtured and formed. God and I worked on this formation together; God endowed me with this longing, which I made the choice to pursue. This all took place under the loving umbrella of the Episcopal Church, yet for reasons that have never been clear to me. I have no Anglican heritage, yet our tradition has always felt like home.
Coming to Christianity and Anglicanism in this way has allowed me to be a full participant and leader in our spiritual body while maintaining the capacity simultaneously to stand outside it and view it with a critical eye. This gift has, I believe, served me well as my faith has matured and the responsibilities of ministry have increased. It has also emboldened me to critique the harmful impact of false theologies, which, I believe, are poisoning our faith. Last summer, Pastor Robert Jeffress used a bizarre interpretation of Romans to claim that the Bible gives the president the right to make a pre-emptive nuclear strike. I was so outraged at this theologically groundless statement that I wrote an essay for The New York Times explaining why his exegesis was false. I did this because I felt a responsibility to defend Scripture and the tradition of our faith against dangerous misinterpretation. At the same time, I wanted to awaken a secular audience to the inescapable impact of theology on our common life. I believe these are the twin tasks of a Christian thinker in our time.
I realized after five years of ordained life that I needed more theological tools to equip me to articulate the way in which faith structures my reality. I was drawn to the work of Paul Ricoeur in seminary, and I decided to embark on a course of doctoral studies on his writings. Ricoeur’s intellectually unassailable faith has strengthened my own and helped me to find a new voice. I ran across a statement that has become somewhat axiomatic to my understanding of my own faith in an essay he wrote about evil for the journal Esprit: C’est précisement le risque de la foi : croire « malgré ». Faith is a tremendous risk, and I have devoted my life to taking the risk of believing “despite” all the reasons not to have faith. This belief has delivered me through life’s trials and strengthened me to lift up those who have succumbed to them. Each time I have risked faith, God has stood in the breach—and if God is on our side, who could be against us?