Chatting with Angela: Journeying through motherhood and ministry

In 2011 my husband and I moved with Seb, then a one year old, to Durham, North Carolina in order for Cody to attend a masters program at Duke University. There we met Angela Compton Nelson and her husband, Jeff. In the spring they welcomed their daughter, Juniper Magdalene, and we were able to meet her briefly and reconnect with Jeff and Angela during a whirlwind 3 hour visit in Durham. I am continually inspired by Angela’s life and ideas as she shares them on Instagram, and was eager to ask her a few questions about her life and faith. Here she shares her approach to beginning religious education with their 8 month old daughter, incorporating symbols of the Christian faith at home, some of the sources that inspire her, and her journey and calling as a minister.

What activities and concerns fill your day within your roles of minister and religious educator?

My main job is as a Director of Christian Education at an Episcopal Church. I also serve as an associate minister at a Nazarene house church that meets on Sunday evenings.

At the Episcopal Church, I oversee programming and education for the nursery through high school, minus youth group. So I do Church School, VBS, Intergenerational events, confirmation, and acolytes, among other things.

At the house church, I work with our senior pastor on various ministries. We’ve been working on developing intergenerational services, serving on the church board, working with the liturgy, and sometimes teaching or preaching. This year, both Jeff and I are hoping to be ordained, so we are preparing for how that might shift our roles a bit.

Job titles aside, what would you say you create in a typical day through your roles as theologian, mother and wife?

I think I spend almost all of my time creating! At work I write our Church’s Sunday School curriculum for elementary school and junior high, while at home I work with Jeff to create our home, something that has mattered to both of us a great deal. We want to have a space that is restful for us, while being hospitable to others. As a mother, I spend a lot of time creating an engaging and enriching environment for my daughter.

Yes! It’s quite apparent from your instagram account that you are paying close attention to how your daughter learns and experiences her environment at this young age. How have you begun to teach your daughter about liturgy and the church calendar, even as an infant?

After reading some literature from Maria Montessori, I was given the language of the “absorbent mind.” Children are always learning; their minds are like sponges, ready to absorb everything from their environment (and later, make conscious meaning from their experiences). I try to think intentionally about Juniper’s environment and how she can experience patterns of liturgical life through sensory play.

I just did a series on the liturgical year at work. While Jeff and I were working on the presentation materials (using the Godly Play story, “The Circle of the Church Year”) and calendar samples (I made felt liturgical calendars with the families), we described what we were doing. Jeff practiced the story for her. I don’t think she really got the story, but this time in her life is kind of like a training ground for us. How will we begin to practice the work of inviting her into worship so that she can receive the gifts of worship when she is ready? Working with families had made me realize that parenting in the liturgy is a learned skill and not one that always comes naturally. We have to learn to describe things well now, trusting that she will come to find meaning in them when she is able and the time is right.

Sensory play with simple objects is important in our house. I make Juniper treasure baskets with various household items that she can safely explore. While we were working on the circle of the year, I put out a basket of circles from around the house. She has more sensory baskets coming soon—purple for Advent, nativity objects for Christmas, various rough linens for Lent. It’s a small way to reach her where she is.

Regarding the liturgy: we keep her in it. This is so much easier for us now than it will be later, but I am convinced that children need to know that the Sanctuary is for them just as much as it is for adults. I anticipate that this will be a huge learning opportunity for us as she gets older and wigglier. Even though Juniper is unable understand much of what is going on, she can and does take the Eucharist, a profound gift and mystery even for the most liturgically savvy. Fortunately, the Eucharist isn’t about what we can or do understand, but is God’s work.

We have a picture of her baptism hanging in her room, which is just one more thing we do to remind her of God’s work in her life. When I started working at an Episcopal Church, I was surprised at how many children were baptized as infants. Growing up in a tradition that practiced believer’s baptism, I always thought that meant people wouldn’t have a connection with baptism because they couldn’t remember it. Now I know that a lot of effort goes into sharing the memory of baptism with children and that they actively participate in and experience many baptisms, a gift of our parish. We are trying to learn how to tell her about that most important moment in her life.

I love the idea of church season sensory baskets, and displaying a physical reminder of Juniper’s baptism. It’s extremely inspiring to me to see how you are using these early months and years as a training ground for yourselves as you learn how to teach your daughter. Are there any other ways you and Jeff bring liturgy into your home? Has it influenced the way you decorate, eat your meals, and entertain?

Over the past several years, we have been working on observing Advent and Christmas well. We try not to get caught up in the Christmas rush and stress during Advent, making minimal purchases and purchasing meaningful or experience-based gifts when we do. We use an Advent wreath and sometimes try to adopt a discipline. We decorate our tree with purple and red. We make New Year’s resolutions since Advent is the start of the new year in the church. Come Christmas, we try to celebrate Christmas (with all of its joy and challenge) for the full 12 days. We take our tree down after the start of Epiphany on January 6. We chalk our doors with a blessing on Epiphany. We light a Paschal candle at meals during Eastertide.

Right now we are working on praying more and having symbols that represent the season present in our home. 

We are also working on incorporating prayer and symbols into our day and home. I have been struck by the way those disciplines and reminders ground our coming and going and set the tone for our family. What have been the greatest benefits, personally and professionally, of being guided by the liturgical calendar not only on Sundays but in your daily life?

I’ve learned from my job and the people with whom I work that the practices of the day (prayer or the daily office) and the practices of the week (Sabbath, celebrating the Lord’s day) are the starting place for living liturgically. The patterns of the day and week orient our entire lives to God and the work of God in the world. The seasons and liturgical year give further shape and specificity to the day and week. The pattern of the liturgical year, week, and day is a great discipline, gift, and means of grace. It means that we have direction and a starting point when we desire “life in Christ” seriously.

What are your favorite sources, online or elsewhere for learning to bring liturgy and the church calendar into your home?

The best source for me has been practices of the local parish and the disciplines of the Christian life. The more time one spends with the daily office, the Psalms, or practices living alongside others in Christian community, the more various themes and images begin to emerge. You really get a sense of the gathering and growing light in Advent if you worship with a community that reads Isaiah, lights Advent candles, and sings “disperse the gloomy clouds of night.”

The time spent inhabiting these seasons together gives rise to activities in each season. I was fortunate to step into a role in a parish that had done a lot of work (for many years) creating meaningful spaces for all members to observe Church seasons together and in their homes. I have learned a lot from this congregation.

Online, I love the blog Watkins Every Flavor Bean and the group of Christian Educators at Forma, an Episcopal Christian Educators network. The Building Faith Blog kept by some folks at Virginia Theological Seminary is amazing. There are also a lot of wonderful Catholic bloggers who focus on formation in the home (Catholic Icing, for example). I adapt some of the things they do for my own context, but they are wonderful resources.

Thank you for those suggestions! I especially love your emphasis on watching and learning from the people in your church community. It’s so easy to simply open your google search when you want the answer to a question, or an idea, but the truth is that we are surrounded by so many amazing, godly people, who have a wealth of ideas. When we connect with the people around us and ask for advice or ideas, we’re deepening our relationships and the connections in our community.

What does/will Advent and Christmas look like for you and your church this year?

On the first Sunday of Advent, our church always makes Advent wreaths. It’s such a fun event and it’s a truly intergenerational event. On December 6 we had an event, called Nativity Nights, a fellowship event during which households created handmade nativity sets. Each family went home with characters of the nativity and a very simple list of readings to take them through Advent, Christmas, and the beginning of Epiphany.

Jeff’s family is coming to town the week before Christmas this year. We might come up with some fun, Advent-themed activities for all of us. Last year, we bought our parents copies of Sybil MacBeth’s The Season of the Nativity and shared that observing the seasons was how we planned to order our household. It’s a wonderful book, which I have written about here. I highly recommend it as it’s a wonderful, fun introduction to the Nativity seasons and is full of so many beautiful ideas that at least several can work for anyone. I bought copies for the parents at Holy Family to check out and so far everyone really loves it.

The Season of the Nativity looks so neat. I am eager to check it out! What a beautiful and sensitive way to invite your family into traditions that might be unfamiliar. You have been on a long journey towards ministry, most recently receiving an MDiv from Duke. Can you point to any transformative moments that have helped define your focus and goals for your career and ministry?

I sort of got to Christian Ed. through an interest in liturgy and sacraments. That interest started during my time attending a small urban church in Southeast San Diego. The way church happened was something I had never seen before. In the grand scope of the church’s history, what was happening at the church was nothing new. Christians have lived together intentionally, lived simply, and extended great hospitality to their neighbors for much of Christian history. They have also observed an (at least) weekly Eucharist. It’s been relatively unremarkable. But this experience was so transformative for me that I started to think about the whole Christian life differently. I found it interesting that God uses the most ordinary things—bread, water wine, oil, time, dust and ash, as means of grace, to transform our lives and make us holy.

There were other things, too: a class on Christian Worship, an urban term before my senior year, and living in intentional community after graduation. In Divinity School, I ended up in a class on catechesis, the process of preparation for baptism. I loved this class so much, particularly our reflections on liturgical space (architecture, etc.). It made me think about practice, worship, and space differently. Truthfully, I am not quite sure where this will all lead. My focus has been more in the moment since my daughter was born!

Divinity school is in the past for you and Jeff, but it was something you did simultaneously. Looking back, are there any things that you can see as having been key to maintaining a close relationship through the demands of graduate school? Are there any things you wish you had done differently in regards to your relationship or your relationships with others in your community?

We get asked this a lot and the truth is that we wonder how couples who aren’t in school together make it work. More amazing is couples who make it through with kids! Most of our time, in and outside of class was spent together, so staying close wasn’t too much a challenge. Just as in college, we shared so much common language and interest. Not to mention, graduate school made an excellent “common enemy” (though neither us actually thought it was an enemy); we were quite understanding of one another and often on the same page.

There is quite a bit we wish we had done differently though. Since we both prioritized academics, we didn’t always maintain the most balanced lives and we should have given more time to non-divinity school, life-giving things: building relationships, sharing meals with others, eating well and being active, being outside more regularly (something we did a lot more when we lived in Southern California). Since graduating, we have had to do a lot more work establishing structures and boundaries around work/study/etc.

You and Jeff seem to still work with each other a lot. How do you compliment and challenge each other? Is it hard to turn “work” off?

We do get to work together a lot and have from our earliest days. Turning work (school) off has always been difficult, especially now that our hobbies overlap with our jobs.

Jeff is the single best conversation partner I’ve ever had. He is great at listening, so when he speaks, he often says exactly what needs to be said with great clarity. He’s also quite fun and since we are both idea people, we feed off of one another. We can let our ideas get too big and we often make quite a bit of work for ourselves.

I love getting a window into your background and interests up to the present day. What are some of your wild dreams for the future?

Beyond sleeping long enough to dream at all… (when do baby’s start to sleep through the night?) We would both like to publish some children’s books, finish paying off student loans, walk the Camino in Spain, visit Turkey, and live in Barcelona. I would like to take Jeff to Ghana where I studied abroad in college and maybe become trained as a Montessori teacher. I think we both have more school in our future. Taken altogether, these seem like wild dreams to me.

I have long been wanting to hear the story behind your choice for the middle name Magdalene for your daughter. Can you share with us the significance of this name?

In college, I took a class on Women in Christianity. In it, we read an article about Mary Magdalene and how she has been called the Apostle to the Apostles because she was the first to see and then proclaim the risen Lord. Since then, Mary Magdalene has been my favorite saint. I love that a woman was the first to see Christ risen and the first to tell the disciples.

When we were naming Juniper, we thought a lot about what we most wanted for her.  We wanted her name to give her a story (we didn’t know she was a she though). Not just any story, but the best story. We want Juniper to know that her whole life belongs to God and whatever profession she has, proclaiming the resurrection (and birth, death, and ascension) of Christ is to be her life’s work.

We had another possible middle name selected. Pauline, after Pauli Murray, the first black woman to be ordained a Priest in the Episcopal Church (A Durham native!). We have greatly enjoyed visiting each of the Pauli Murray murals in Durham. We decided that if our daughter was born in Lent (she was due the Wednesday of Holy Week), she would be given Pauline. If she was born in Eastertide, she would be Magdalene. She was born in Eastertide (Orthodox Easter, in fact) and on a Sunday during church, so Magdalene it was!

Thank you so much for sharing part of your story with us, Angela! XO

jeff and angela family

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