LONGMEADOW— It’s an honor says the Rev. Charlotte H. LaForest to be the first female rector of St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church at 335 Longmeadow St.
“Women clergy, as with women in many other fields, are still subject to questions in many places about competency or whether they can manage to perform well at work if they have young children,” said the 36-year-old mother of three. But the Longmeadow church — which numbers 656 — has “been incredibly supportive.”
In fact, the senior and junior wardens of the church — both women — “have offered nonstop encouragement,” she added. “The congregation has welcomed me so warmly.”
Married to Eric LaForest, a teacher at the Loomis Chaffee School and the Keller Family Director of the Norton Family Center for the Common Good, the new rector previously served as the assistant rector at St. James’s Episcopal Church in West Hartford, Connecticut, and as the assistant rector at St. John’s Episcopal Church in Essex, Connecticut.
Her ministry would be incomplete without the opportunity to preach. “I love to bring the stories of scripture into conversation with the issues of our everyday lives,” she said. “My preaching is an extension of the work I do in pastoral care and spiritual formation and is shaped by the community I serve as I listen for the Holy Spirit’s guidance as to the needs and concerns of those gathered.”
LaForest has experience ministering with all age groups and has particular reasons to love each one: “I love the holy chaos of ministry with young children and the unpredictability of questions about God and the world posed by school-aged children. I enjoy helping teenagers and young adults explore their faith, their identity and their role in the church and wider world. I love to explore how adults of all ages can support one another and connect with their faith in the midst of the busyness of career and family, sharing resources like apps and websites as well as contemplative practices and retreat opportunities to take some time out to rest, breathe and reconnect. I love the discernment of ‘what comes next’ that happens around retirement and will never cease to be honored by the experience of walking with individuals and their families through their last days.”
Prior to seminary she worked as a hospice chaplain in the Boston area.
Though born in Mineola, New York, she considers Jacksonville, Florida, her hometown. She majored in German and psychology at Georgetown University and earned a master’s degree in social work and a master’s in pastoral ministry from Boston College. She also has a master of divinity degree from Yale University and a Diploma in Anglican Studies from the Berkeley Divinity School at Yale.
“As a child I knew very few female priests and no young female priests, and it wasn’t until I encountered someone in ministry who was a young woman, a mom, a real person that I could relate to, that I could even conceive of being called to the priesthood myself,” she said.
Her appointment as rector at St. Andrews’s was effective Jan. 6.
LaForest learned of the opening for a rector at St. Andrew’s on Facebook. “It was clear from the profile that St. Andrew’s is a vibrant community who wants to grow spiritually to care for each other and to seek out ways to serve the wider community,” she said. “The creative spirit of St. Andrew’s was also apparent in their willingness to try new things, such as Church Without Walls and Celtic Worship. This made me want to see what new things we could try out together in the future.”
St. Andrew’s invites parishioners to be involved in one of six key ministry areas of parish life: caring for one another within the community, learning and growing in faith together, children and youth ministries, communications, worship ministries and mission ministry.
St. Andrew’s coordinates the Church Without Walls ministry in partnership with area Episcopal, Methodist and Congregational churches. Church Without Walls meets weekly in Court Square in downtown Springfield for worship, fellowship, communion and a meal with individuals who live outside in Springfield.
St. Andrew’s, LaForest said, faces the challenge that many churches face as the relevance of church is questioned in modern society: How to continue to share the good news of God’s love in ways that are relevant for people now?
For her, this begins with clarifying what the good news is. “Rather than a list of rules to follow to have a shot at an eternal reward, the good news is the fact that you are loved beyond measure, and before time, by the God who created you and cares for you,” she said. “This is not a love that has to be earned. It just is. When we claim that love we are also faced with the reality that God loves everyone else God has made that way too, and so we seek to learn how to see others the way that God might see them, to love and care for them the way God calls us to. We have a perfect model for this in Jesus, who loved deeply each person who met, who was willing to do anything, even die on a cross, to show this love for the world, and who, in the resurrection, showed us that nothing, not even death, could overcome it.”
When this is the message, a church can’t just be about what happens within its building. “It’s about how we live our lives. And it includes everyone, which means all kinds of injustices in the world matter as the work of the church,” she continued. “It’s more important than ever to speak these truths loudly, to proclaim that that love, healing, truth and freedom are possible despite the hatred and injustice that we see around us in the world.”
For more information, go to st-andrews-longmeadow.org.