The Reverend Jamie McElroy would be the first to tell you: this, all of this – his vocation, where he lives and what he lives for – was not in the plans. The Washington, D.C. born and newly appointed Episcopal priest at St. James Episcopal Church in Fondren says his path wasn’t even vaguely foreseen.
McElroy wasn’t religious as a kid or through young adulthood. His ambition, beginning in high school, was to follow in the footsteps of Pulitzer Prize winning journalist David Halberstam as a writer of narrative non-fiction. As an English major at Yale (class of 1995), Reverend McElroy had learned that Halberstam had gone to Harvard and taken a job in the rural south at a small newspaper. “That idea was romantic to me,” McElroy explained. Being a northerner, he called it “something outside of my experiences.”
His first job out of school landed him in Charlotte, North Carolina, working for a now defunct weekly, The Leader. It was during this time McElroy became fascinated with competitive cheerleading. His wife, Peyton, had once worked in the sport and, like his idols, Halberstam and Norman Mailer, the idea of finding an interesting subculture to burrow into and describe for the world was captivating. “My interest was in discovering what it was like to be a girl in this country; the idea of the intensity of competition, the athleticism but being well put-together was interesting,” he explained.
McElroy quit his job with The Leader in 1997 and spent a year entrenched with Kentucky’s Greenup County High School cheerleaders. From the experience came We’ve Got Spirit: The Life and Times of America’s Greatest Cheerleading Team, a work Esquire Magazine called “entertaining and well-reported.”
But there was nothing entertaining about it for the future minister. “I became concerned about how folks I was writing about would perceive the book,” he said. “As a work of writing, I felt proud, but as a human being, I felt great misgivings.” At the age of 24, he wondered what he had become, saying he was lucky enough to accomplish (being published), but feeling like, maybe, he was wrong.
Friends introduced he and Peyton to philosophy and theology. This brought up an interesting subject between the couple. McElroy said, “At some point, I asked her, ‘What if we started going to church?’ It was an experiment in my mind. I said at the time ‘I wanted to be the sort of person who believes in God.’ Which sort of gives it away that I didn’t.”
The McElroys began attending the Cathedral of St. John The Divine in New York City where he was baptized at 27. Two years after, while Peyton was earning her masters in philosophy of religion, he doing PR for Yale School of Music, McElroy approached his priest about ordination. Sponsored by the couple’s home church, he applied for seminary. McElroy was accepted at The Church Divinity School of the Pacific in Berkeley, California, a part of the Graduate Theological Union, in 2007.
McElroy took preaching from a Baptist, Christology from a Jesuit and ethics from a Franciscan. The consortium of seminaries allowed him to cherry pick from classes. One of those sessions, at the Center for Jewish Studies, was an ancient to medieval Hebrew thought class. “It was a polyglot experience of seminary and I appreciated the training I got,” he said. “I’ve drawn upon it in my ministry.”
From There to Here
Reverend McElroy’s move to Mississippi seems by chance. He would tell you it was all part of a journey, “following God’s bread crumbs.” More succinctly, he said, “It was one of those things.”
His first ministerial job was in the Silicon Valley of California, working in family ministry. Most recently, he spent three years as a canon, an associate priest, of sorts, at The Cathedral at St. Petersburg, Florida. But it was during the summer months of 2011 and 2012 he served as a chaplain in residence at Kanuga, an Episcopal retreat center in Hendersonville, North Carolina.
During that last summer, Rev. McElroy got to know a family from Jackson, Dr. Bill and Dr. Joanna Storey, a Millsaps College professor and pediatrician, respectively. “We had certain things in common with them and our children palled around at camp,” Rev. McElroy said. Dr. Bill Storey mentioned that his church, St. James Episcopal, was beginning a search for a new rector. While Rev. McElroy was very happy in Florida, his position is one you are “meant to move on from.” He said “As I reflected, it was good timing to consider a move.”
Father Christopher Powell served St. James for nearly a decade prior to David Knight, the church’s most recent interim rector. “(Christopher) did an amazing job here. I feel like this place is ‘teed up’ and in wonderful shape,” Rev. McElroy explained. “It’s an exciting time for the life of the parish.”
Part of the connection Rev. McElroy feels between his own ministry and experiences in the church and St. James is his interest in ministering to and with children. He said “Part of what’s so wonderful is that this sense of connection and fit is through that shared interest in children and parents. It’s an important element to me – how we hold children within the life of the church community.”
Rev. McElroy said the path for his ministry is clear. “My aim is to get more folks fully involved in the work here. Christopher did a great job developing programs and growing staff. Now, I think the parish is ready for volunteers and members to take ownership of program here, change it, develop it and become more fully stakeholders in the ministry of church.”
The McElroys have settled in to a home in Belhaven, a place with large trees and a screened-in porch. Peyton will be a visiting scholar at Millsaps College this fall, focusing on writing and research. Their children, John, 9 and Alice, 4 ½, are attending St. Andrew’s Episcopal School this fall.
We asked Rev. McElroy to talk to people who may be in the shoes he found himself in in his search for meaning…