Helping others face significant life decisions is certainly part of the job for the leader of a religious congregation. For Rev. Shannon White, pastor of Wilton Presbyterian Church, she knew how critical it would be to devote considerable care before making her own major change.
“I thought and prayed about it for a long time. Discerning the movement of God in one’s life is crucial. And I really came to the conclusion that I had done what I had been called here to Wilton Presbyterian to do, and it was time for me to hand the reins over to the next visionary leader. You know, it’s really important to know when it’s time to leave and to leave well… when things are in place and ready to be handed off to the next person.”
Rev. White recently announced her departure and set her last service for June 13. While not yet ready to announce her own specific plans, she said an interim minister would be in place at WPC for what she estimated would be a year and a half while a national search for a permanent replacement is conducted.
Hers will be very large shoes to fill. After graduating from Princeton Theological Seminary and ordained as a minister in 1990, Rev. White served in congregations in Scarsdale and Greenwich before coming to Wilton in 2013.
She brought with her an unusual mix of ministry and media experience. White had hosted a radio program as well as worked as a television news reporter, earning two Emmy award nominations along the way. She also helped produce several interfaith documentaries for the CBS News Religion Unit.
GOOD Morning Wilton spoke with Rev. White about her decision and asked her to share her reflections on her tenure as pastor of WPC. The conversation with Rev. White was so touching we’ve shared it verbatim below (albeit edited for flow and brevity).
GMW: You’ve been pastor of Wilton Presbyterian for over eight years. As you reflect on your experiences with the Wilton community, what stands out in your mind?
Rev. White: There’s several things. Number one, it’s a very special community. This community has talented people, so even though they may be involved professionally, they’re interested in volunteerism, some of the most involved volunteers that I’ve experienced.
I’ll say too that in my first sermon here — and I’ve been very open about this — I told the congregation that I, at that point, had been 20 years sober and that I was a member of AA. I knew that I wanted my ministry to be marked by authenticity and real talk, because communities like this can easily hide behind the exterior, and how people look versus how people really are.
We’ve seen people suffer. We’ve seen a lot of mental health struggles. Mental health and mental health ministry has been a theme of my time here, and the congregation has followed along with that. It did my heart good to hear our Faith in Action committee say that their main focus for the coming year is going to be mental health ministries, for teens, particularly.
The other thing too, something unique about this community, as opposed to other communities that I’ve served in, is the commitment to interfaith and ecumenical ministry is extraordinary. The fact that we have so many [faiths] in our small community, we have a Hindu community, Muslim, Jewish and Christian, multi-denominational, it’s extraordinary. The Wilton Interfaith Clergy Association are very close friends. We all work together. We do things together programmatically, and we like being together and like talking about things. It doesn’t mean that we all agree on everything, but [it’s] a very good working relationship.
GMW: Why do you think it’s so valuable for the community to have that? Not just a number of different churches, but the fact that you have an interfaith clergy group working together?
Rev. White: It’s essential. The community’s varied, right? This is still one of those communities where a lot of the population attend some house of worship. Or even if they don’t attend worship regularly, they’re connected on some level. Particularly in this age where there’s so much strife, it is essential that we find commonality, and provide an opportunity for people to put their faith into action … to do service together. It’s not just the clergy, it is laypeople. Laypeople are just as committed to working together and finding common ground as the clergy. There’s a real desire there.
GMW: During the pandemic, you spoke often about the importance of maintaining connections with people. As the pandemic winds down, what advice do you have for people who may have lost some of those connections?
Rev. White: The first thing would be reaching out. So the person feeling the struggle, if there’s any way that they have energy to reach out to someone that they have had a connection with in the past, do so. When you reach out, there’s space then for the holy to reach in. There’s something in the reaching out that is significant.
And then if you are a person who has connections to reach out to someone who may be struggling, you can never underestimate the power of that connection, even what may seem insignificant. A smile or a ‘how are you’ can make all the difference for someone.
Also, take advantage of the shift to online. There’s still people that are not comfortable coming back in person yet. So reach out online to view services.
[WPC has] a couple of members who are very open about mental health struggles who want to talk about it so that they reduce stigma. Stigma will keep people stuck and in pain and could have tragic results. So people that are willing to share their stories need to do so, so [others] know that that’s just a part of life. Not everybody is always up and on.
There’s a significant piece, that we haven’t necessarily seen the worst of it yet. As people come out of [the pandemic] we’re going to need to be attuned to that. And if we can’t talk openly and honestly about mental health struggles, then we are not being the church.
GMW: You’ve also been a proponent for social justice and racial equality in particular. In the one year since the killing of George Floyd, what progress, if any, do you see in the movement to address racial inequality?
Rev. White: That’s a hard one. I’ve done some personal work on my own, where I’m in conversation and looking at my own biases and where my own white privilege comes in. [Some people say they] don’t have any privilege. Just to acknowledge that, to acknowledge that there’s nothing wrong with having things and opportunities, but you just need to recognize that not everybody has those same [opportunities].
We have an ongoing racial justice and awareness small group that’s been meeting … people that are committed to examining their own lives and learning more and seeing what difference they can make.
We have a long way to go. Wilton is a privileged community. We can never know what a person outside of our experience has experienced. We have to constantly be listening and asking for people to share their stories, because it’s only when we do that, that we really learn what the truth is. If I go around just assuming that everyone is having the same experience I am, I’m going to be totally out of touch.
Again, we can always do more.
GMW: What do you think Wilton has learned during your time here, and what kind of work do you believe the community needs to do moving forward?
Rev. White: I think mental health has been a conversation that has been more out in the open. I’m thrilled to have been a part of that. I do think that we have taken steps forward to address mental health needs. There’s been much more open conversation about that.
You know, houses worship are not out of touch, we can address [these issues] too. I think we need to continue naming things and calling them for where they are and not shaming people about them, but just recognizing that they are part of human life and struggle, and that there is hope in facing those struggles so that you can walk through them to a better life and a more balanced life.
GMW: What is the most important parting counsel you would give the Wilton community before you go?
Rev. White: Be honest about who you are, because that invites other people to be honest about who they are.
Special Acknowledgement to St. Matthew’s
White spoke in glowing terms about the Wilton Presbyterian community as well as St. Matthew’s Episcopal Church.
The two congregations have a rare relationship in WEPCO, the Wilton Episcopal and Presbyterian operating entity that was formed to run the large complex at 48 New Canaan Rd. But WEPCO is more than just a joint tenant arrangement; the two congregations work closely together on youth groups, religious education and many other programs and activities, even some worship.
“There are only seven relationships like this in the entire country,” White said. “It’s so extraordinary.”
GMW reached out to Rev. Marissa Rohrbach, rector of St. Matthew’s, about White’s impending departure from WPC.
“It’s been such a privilege to have Shannon as a colleague and friend these three years that I’ve served in Wilton as rector of St. Matthew’s,” Rohrback said. “Shannon has given a great deal to WPC, to our joint venture at WEPCO, to our community, and to our interfaith clergy group. I’m glad to know her and I give thanks for all we’ve shared.”
She continued, speaking about this year’s 50th anniversary of WEPCO’s formation, “I’m glad to know the good people of WPC as well who have been partners in ministry [with] us at St. Matt’s for more than 50 years. I look forward to celebrating that milestone, to all that lies ahead of us, and to the discovery of new neighbors and new partners in the season to come.”