Where God leads

St Stephen's new rector is Oak Harbor's first woman priest.

“When Carol Harlacher took the pulpit as the new rector of St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church on Trinity Sunday, she talked about unity.God can’t bless us when we’re divided, she told her new congregation.She didn’t think it necessary to mention that she is the first woman to serve as the rector of St. Stephens – and the first woman priest to lead an Oak Harbor church. She doesn’t think that fact is particularly important.There may be some inbuilt dynamics as to how we function as women, she said, in an interview last week. But as a pastor or a shepherd for your parish, I don’t think it would be any different for a man or a woman as long as that person is a faithful servant of God.Nevertheless, it was a surprise to the Vestry, the group leading the search for a new rector, when Harlacher appeared as one of the leading candidates for the position.The senior warden told me it was a surprise to all of them to have a woman as one of the three final candidates and even more of surprise to feel that she was the final choice, Harlacher said.Senior warden of the Vestry Chuck Hertzler said that the search for a rector had been on-going for the past year and a half, while the Rev. Dean Scovell traveled from Issaquah each Sunday to serve as interim pastor.We acknowledge Jesus Christ as the head of our church, Hertzler said. We felt him leading us, and when he led us to Carol we were surprised. But we had confidence that he was leading us and it gave us the confidence. When it got down to us, it was an easy decision.Hertzler said he is pleased with the reaction of the congregation, which has been pretty good.However, a few members have withdrawn, Harlacher said, and she’s sorry about that.I will be talking to each of them, she said. I want them to know that they will hear the same gospel as before.She added: It is a painful thing to be a cause for division when you don’t want to be. I have never had an agenda as a woman. I don’t feel that this is my right. It’s where God has led me.Women have been ordained to the ministry in the Episcopal church since 1976, Harlacher said. But there are still not as many women rectors as we might have thought there would be. But I don’t want to see women in those positions just to prove a point.Of the 103 churches in the Episcopal Diocese of Olympia, which covers Washington State west of the Cascades, 22 women priests are in charge of congregations as rectors or vicars, a spokesperson for the diocese said. In Oak Harbor, one other woman, Melody Young, has completed her studies for the ministry but has not yet been ordained. At present she serves as Christian education chair and divorce recovery workshop leader at Whidbey Presbyterian Church. Harlacher has received a warm welcome from Oak Harbor’s Christian Impact group, which has been made up entirely of male ministers until now.The road to the ministry has been a long one for Harlacher, who was born and raised in Harrisburg, Pa. Her first career was as a registered nurse. She specialized in obstetrics from 1973 to the min 1980s, when she left nursing to study for the ministry. During that time, she followed her love of music by serving as organist and choir master at different times and different churches.She married Richard Harlacher, who is also an Episcopal priest, in 1974. In 1980, she went back to college and earned a bachelor of arts degree in sacred music.Not long after, her lifetime of activity in her church, often as a leader of youth and women’s programs, led to the realization, through prayer, that she felt called to the priesthood. I told my husband, ‘I think I’m supposed to be a priest,’ and I cried, she said. He said, ‘Well, I’m not surprised.’ She was ordained in 1991, after six years of study, but she didn’t immediately seek a parish because another longtime dream was in progress at about the same time.We had a long wait for children, Harlacher said. She and Richard had been married for more than 20 years in 1994 when they learned that they would be able to adopt their daughter, Anna, just three weeks after her birth. Harlacher has a picture of the smiling five-year-old on her desk, in a frame that proclaims Mommy’s pride and joy! Anna, a special needs child who has Down syndrome, will be in school full-time this fall, and Harlacher is now ready to take on her first parish. She feels that St. Stephen’s, with its mix of both traditional and contemporary forms of worship, was just the right match. I believe that this is where the Lord wants me to be, she said. “