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Friday, June 12, 2015

The Reluctant Verger - Curtis Barnes: First Verger at St. Paul's Church Nantucket

Curtis Barnes on Sunday at Saint Paul's Episcopal Church on Nantucket Island, Massachusetts

By David Deutsch, Verger at St. Mark's Episcopal Church, Capitol Hill, Washington DC

“I think of myself as the reluctant verger.” These were the first words I heard from Curtis Barnes, a most energetic young man of 82 years, who greeted me with a twinkle in his eye. Curtis has the title of “verger” at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church on Nantucket Island, Massachusetts. This is a new official designation at St. Paul’s, as no person with the title of “verger” had heretofore existed. Because Curtis has worked patiently, tirelessly, and competently behind the scenes at St. Paul’s for more than 20 years, the vestry along with interim rector the Rev. Dr. Gale Davis officially made Curtis Barnes the first St. Paul’s verger in the spring of 2015. So why does he call himself “the reluctant” verger?

Curtis is not interested in highfalutin titles, fancy vestments, and positions that seem to elevate him above others who volunteer for service jobs during the Sunday liturgy: Readers, intercessors, lay servers, altar guild, etc. Curtis puts it this way:

"I view my real ministry as enabling 100 volunteers at St. Paul’s to participate in the service. I try to include those who just come to the island for only two or three weeks. I tell them they cannot make a mistake in their ministry. God does not grade. Everything you do is right in God’s eyes and enriching."

"Ordained ministry and lay ministry are still a tug for me. But my ministry is here on Nantucket raising up people for service in God’s Church."

Curtis’ philosophy—spiritual verger theology if you will—may have had its beginnings back in the late 80s. For the second time in his life he felt called to ordained ministry. With the blessing of the Rev. Douglas Tompkins, rector of St. Paul’s Nantucket, he commuted to Episcopal Divinity School in Boston eventually withdrawing from his real estate business on Nantucket to live at EDS his third year. The time came in December to meet with Bishop David Johnson for the thumbs up/thumbs down to continue the ordination process, which all aspirants go through. When Curtis entered the office, Bishop Johnson turned to him and said, “Curtis, I have decided that I am not moving you forward in the process. Your ministry is elsewhere in the church. I want you to go back and take care of my people on Nantucket.” Curtis left the room with tears running down his face. He went back to Nantucket to take care of the people of St. Paul’s.

Despite this painful revelation, Curtis’ life had, in fact, prepared him well for his lay ministry in the church. And he thrived. He came out of an academic career with a background in academic administration. He was an assistant marshal at Syracuse University, and senior marshal at University of Pennsylvania and Tufts. As a marshal he learned to plan for moving 12,000 people around. When he arrived on Nantucket, he put his skills to work at St. Paul’s.

In the late 1990s through today St. Paul’s went through a period of volatility, during which it had an assortment of rectors, interim rectors, supply clergy, and priests-in-charge. During these times, the critical stability came from Curtis Barnes who not only scheduled the Rota for service volunteers and trained them, but also scheduled the supply clergy. Curtis provided continuity for the clergy as well. The interview you are reading took place between the time Curtis was running a rehearsal for Children’s Sunday which includes a Methodist minister and earlier in the morning the planning of a funeral which includes a Catholic priest. Oh yes, he also meets with and rehearses the baptismal candidates and their families. Curtis might see himself as the “reluctant verger,” but the recognition—and authority— he recently received from the vestry and interim rector Rev. Dr. Gale Davis seems totally right and proper. And, rest assured, Curtis only vests occasionally in his black verger cassock and gray chimere, spending most of his Sunday mornings serving in a plain white alb just like the other servers.


What causes Curtis Barnes the biggest headache? He says it is not those with volunteer duties who find they cannot make it to church on a particular Sunday and call him to let him know. Curtis is always prepared to tap another volunteer on the spot or do the task himself. What gives Curtis Barnes the biggest headache are those who DO NOT CALL to let him know that they cannot participate that Sunday. That is what irks him the most.  This certainly will sound familiar to many vergers. Yet he has developed several important skills to help him as a verger, including:
  • Listening
  • Compassion
  • Being sensitive to the concerns of others
  • Being supportive to those who might be nervous
  • Reassuring all that under God’s roof there are no mistakes
And you know what? Curtis Barnes may call himself “the reluctant verger,” but he sounds like the real deal to this writer. St. Paul's is blessed to have such a committed and energetic verger assisting the rector, the congregation, and God.

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Abstract:  Read about a very dedicated servant of God, who, after 20 years of faithful, planning, training, coordination and careful attention to detail at St. Paul's in Nantucket, is now formally recognized as the parish verger.

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