In this episode, we were delighted to speak with Rev. Dr. Donna Claycomb Sokol. She is a Duke Divinity School alumna, board of visitors member, author, and pastor at Mount Vernon Place UMC in the heart of Washington, D.C. She and Rev. Maberry have a conversation about her ministry as a pastor in an urban church, managing change in the parish, political polarization in the US, and the inside scoop on who has the best job in Washington, D.C. Pastor Donna blogs at Words from Washington.
Here is an image of the Jones Prayer Room mentioned in this episode:
This interview was recorded separately due to the physical distancing required during the fall of 2020.
Download the episode transcript or click below to read it.
Divcast Series 2 Episode Donna Claycomb Sokol Transcript
Rev. Todd Maberry: Welcome to the Divcast, the podcast that gives you an insight into the Duke Divinity School community. I am Todd Maberry, your host for this episode, as well as 2006 MDIV grad and current senior director of Admissions, Recruitment and Student Finance. Today, we are featuring Reverend Dr. Donna Claycomb Sokol, who was a graduate of Duke Divinity School and the current pastor of Mount Vernon Place United Methodist Church in downtown Washington, D.C., just a few blocks away from the White House. Over the last 15 years, pastor Donna has led her congregation through a renewal and revitalization process that included a multimillion dollar property redevelopment. She's the co-author of the book, A New Day in the City: Urban Church Revival with another Duke graduate, Dr. Roger Owens. Please enjoy this timely conversation with Reverend Dr. Donna Claycomb Sokol. Reverend Dr. Claycomb Sokol, thank you for taking time to join me on this podcast.
Rev. Dr. Donna Claycomb Sokol: I'm so grateful to be with you. Thanks for the invitation.
TM: You and I share a kinship. We've known each other for many years. And the kinship that we share is we've both been responsible for admissions at Duke Divinity School. You were the director of admissions when I was a student and you recruited me. Although, my recruiting process was pretty easy. I never called admissions. I never visited. And I was a first generation college student. I had no idea what I was doing when it came to applying for grad school. But the first time we interacted is something I'll never forget. It's when you called me when I was a senior at my undergraduate institution. I remember exactly where I was when you called to share the good news that I had been admitted to Duke Divinity School. And that really meant a lot to me and our relationship over the years has meant a lot to me as well.
DCS: I love that. Where were you when I called you?
TM: I was actually in the president's dining room. And my roommate kind of ran in and was like, Duke is on the phone for you and stuff. So I rushed back to my dorm which wasn't very far away and you introduced yourself and shared the good news with me.
DCS: Oh, those calls were the best calls I got to make. Even better was a call to say, you've gotten a full ride or been awarded a full time or full scholarship. But those calls to say, congratulations and we really hope you'll come, were incredible gifts to make.
TM: Well, that's a practice we continue to this day, even in an age of texting and all of that. We still make the personal phone call because we think it matters. But I've been looking forward to this conversation because there are things about you I don't know. And one is, the story of how you came to Duke. So I'm curious, what is the story and who was the person or who were the people most responsible for helping you get to Duke?
DCS: Sure. So I was working in Washington, D.C. So I'd been in D.C. and was working on Capitol Hill. At the time, I was working for a Senator from Iowa and had experienced a call to ministry on a trip to New York City and knew I was being called into pastoral ministry. I also knew I wanted to go to a United Methodist seminary. And I thought that I wanted to be pretty close to Washington because of relationships that I'd formed in the city. So I only looked at two schools. I didn't know any of Duke's faculty at the time. I really was looking at Duke's location. And so, first I applied to Boston and I thought I would love to live in Boston. What a great thing to be in this city for three years. And then I remember renting a car and driving to Durham in October, and you know how beautiful the campus can be in October.
It's beautiful all the time, but especially in the month of October. And it was a picture perfect weather day. And I had this extraordinary visit, where by the end of it, I knew exactly that that's where I was being called. Again, I didn't know these names, like Stanley Hauerwas or Will Willimon, the names that many people at that time were the reason why people were enrolling at the Divinity School. I just knew that I felt a call to be there, and later ended up getting a scholarship, which confirmed that decision, and then showed up in August of '97 and never looked back.
TM: That's wonderful. Well, you graduated with your MDIV and then you had a brief stint as a pastor in North Carolina before serving as the director of admissions for several years. And then in 2005, you were appointed as the pastor of Mount Vernon Place United Methodist Church. And I was looking at your blog, you have a blog, wordsfromwashington.blogspot.com, and you told a story about Mabel who was a 97 year old, and one of the first people you talked to. Would you quickly tell the story of meeting Mabel for the first time and what Mabel said to you?
DCS: I love telling the story of Mabel. So when I first got to Mount Vernon Place, we were a congregation that had an average age of 82. And that is not a joke. That is a literal fact that our average age was 82. And our chairperson of staff parish relations was a 97 year old woman, Mabel Wright. Mabel was from North Carolina originally, but had lived in Washington for decades. And she had been part of our church in the '40s when we had 4,000 members standing room only in a sanctuary that seated 700 people. So Mabel had seen her congregation at its height. And then she had also seen her congregation dwindle. And she had stuck with it and still believed in it. So the first night that I met Mabel, Mabel was leading staff parish relations, and she ended it by saying, "Donna, Mount Vernon Place is in the center of Washington. Washington needs Mount Vernon Place, and Mount Vernon Place needs you, and don't you ever forget that you have the best job in Washington."
At the time, I really didn't know what I was getting my feet into. And it was a hard place. It is a hard place to go to a congregation that is in significant decline and lead change, but Mabel never allowed me to be in her presence without repeating those words. In fact, the only time that Mabel didn't repeat those words when I was with her was the day she died. And I was with her when she died, and she wasn't in a place where she was able to talk then. But Mabel would never, ever allow me to be with her without reminding me that pastoral ministry is a role that can be considered to be the best job in whatever city or community that a person finds themselves in. And so yes, Mabel is someone I cannot wait to see again when we all get to heaven.
TM: Thanks for sharing that. And I should name that we're recording this in October of 2020. So you've been at the church roughly 15 years. So my question is, that quote, you have the best job in Washington, D.C., is that still true? And what are some stories that illustrate what it's like to be a pastor in D.C. these days?
DCS: So, I think the best job in Washington is a front row seat to the lives of individuals. And so, when I hear someone say I've been called to ministry, and can you please tell me about the ordination process to be the person who receives that call, what an extraordinary gift. To be welcomed into people's lives who are going through heartache and pain, and for you to know some of that heartache and pain that other people don't know, what an incredible gift. The best job. So those are some, or even when you, this past week on Sunday morning, we baptized a man in his 50s, and we did it on the front porch of the church. And so to watch this person profess his faith in Jesus for the very first time as a middle aged man, those are extraordinary opportunities. And, I also think about something Beth Larocca-Pitts, who's now a pastor in Georgia, but she used to teach on the faculty of Duke and she was my Old Testament professor.
And on the first day of Old Testament, she read a long passage from someone named W.E. Sangster. And it talks about all of the different roles that a pastor can play. And then, Sangster referred to pastoral ministry as a joy for which no one is truly worthy. And I think about those elements of ministry when we get to be privy to those joys or those privileges that no one is worthy of and yet we get to be there. So those are the times that I really use that saying, best job in Washington. But it also is a privilege to be in Washington. We are in downtown D.C. We are about equal between the Capitol and the White House. So I could walk to either of those places in 20 minutes. I walked to the dentist last week, so I walked right in front of the White House in order to get to the dentist. And so you can soak up so much of what's happening in our city.
Right now, I see the heartache and the pain of so many hotels that are closed and that some of them may not ever reopen. Same with restaurants. We got a whole summer without tourists in our city. And so you're really able to feel some of the pain. Today when I was driving into the city, I saw a helicopter hovering over the White House. And so then you immediately turn to the president. And I wish my first thought was to pray for him. It's not always that, but you're reminded of joy and pain, of possibility, of hope, and of also deep disappointment, depending upon what's happening in the landscape around us.
TM: Thanks for that reflection and building off of that, can you describe a time or two when you felt alive as a pastor or as a minister in D.C.?
DCS: I feel alive all the time. I think so many gifts that we are given in our location is the gift of welcoming tourists and convention center guests, pre COVID. And some of those relationships that are formed through people who think that they're going to be in our church one time, but then who build their next visit around being able to be in Washington on a Sunday so that they can worship with us. So I think about those privileges about being in the heart of a place where you're surrounded by hotels. And one of the prayers we pray when we're worshiping in person is, God, if there's anyone right across the street, because a huge Marriott, the rooms look into our church, they oversee our church. And so we always pray, God, if there's anyone that's opening their shades right now and needs to be led into this place, will you please lead them here?
And, I think about the number of times that that prayer has been answered by people who think that they're in Washington for a meeting, a convention, or as a tourist. And then to have a relationship formed with these people. I'll never forget, one person came up and it was during communion. And he said, my name is Peter. I'm a physician. And I'm in town for a conference. I came inside because your building is so beautiful. And he said, it's been a long time since I've experienced God. Will you please pray that I can feel that again? And so those gifts, and I think that that's probably something that happens in other downtown churches where you're surrounded by hotels and have a really beautiful building that leads people inside.
But, those are the things that I think about. There are also times when there's someone who has been entrusted with extraordinary power that's sitting in your pews, whether it's a member of Congress or a member of the cabinet. And that doesn't happen very often, but when it does, you also thank God, can you use me today? Can you use my voice, my message, in a way that might impact how this person goes and lives and leads?
TM: You're talking a lot about how just even your location really impacts your pastoral ministry. And once again, referring to your blog, you were referring there, when you showed up to your church, there was a giant gate in front of the church. And you eventually let a redevelopment process that removed that gate and then welcomed in all kinds of different people. Maybe talk a little bit about that and some stories that came out of how just the building has changed since you've been a part of it.
DCS: Sure. Well, I always think about students or young people who say, I really want to be an urban pastor. And one of those times, I'm like, well, you do like to come out and help me clean up our porch on Sunday morning when people have been sleeping and living there over the weekend. So we're in the heart of downtown, which means that we are surrounded by condominiums that sell for one of the highest costs per square foot. And we're surrounded by people who have no place to go home at night. And we seek to be a place that intentionally welcomes both of those people, both of those types of people, both of those economic backgrounds. And we've always been in, I mean, downtown Washington has had people experiencing homelessness as residents in downtown for many decades. And so the congregation that was here before I got here, their way of handling it, we have beautiful porches that are ideal for sleeping on. And their way of handling it was to install these huge gates.
And I thought they immediately shouted, get away. Please don't come in then. So I knew that one of my first tasks was to figure out how do we get those gates down. There are now some days when I wonder, oh my goodness, it would be so much easier if they were still up because trying to figure out how to keep people off of the porches and to provide a safe place for people to sleep, instead of one that is not ideal when it comes to safety. So yes, and then we have the opportunity to sell property in 2005, 2006 and completely redeveloped the entire property. And that's how the gates came down initially.
TM: Wow. Well, as a pastor, there are moments of challenge all along the way. Do you recall any significant moments of challenge in your current appointment? And how did you get through it?
DCS: I mean, there are multiple challenges. Being a pastor is an extraordinary privilege, and it's also filled with heartache. I think one of the most heartbreaking aspects of pastoral ministry and even more so over the last three and a half years has been the number of people who have left over political disagreements. And so, I'm feeling like this place or that my messaging changed, even though I don't think my messaging changed in this administration. But I think it was heard differently. And so anytime a person leaves the church, regardless of what the reason is, can be so filled with heartache and pain. So I think about that. I think sometimes, I mean, Todd, you know me. I'm rather aggressive. That's not supposed to be a joke.
TM: I wouldn't use that. I wouldn't use the word aggressive. You're direct.
DCS: Okay. I'm very direct. And so sometimes, my direct leadership can move at a pace that has the capacity to leave people behind. And so when I learn those missteps of places that I should have been a little bit more thoughtful or a little bit more patient, knowing that I hurt someone or stepped over someone or left them behind, those are hard moments. Right now, I think about, we just had one of my dearest leaders. He was one of my earliest leaders and then shared the steering committee that provided leadership for our redevelopment. And he had a really, really bad fall and had to have brain surgery, and so has now been relocated to another state. And it's someone who means the world to me and I didn't get to say goodbye, because of COVID.
DCS: And so, there are situations like that that are filled with so much heartache and pain. Yeah. So some of that is my mistakes or mishaps or my pace. And then some of it is just the downright sadness of life. And some of it is the deep polarization that is prevalent throughout our country right now, and the ways in which it's also manifested in the church.
TM: Yeah. And following up on that, you and I were talking earlier. We're a little more than a month out from an election in this country that has a lot of polarization. You and I are both clergy in the United Methodist Church which has a lot of conflict right now. We're also in the middle of a global pandemic. So how are you thinking as a pastor right now about how to care for your community and lead them during this time?
DCS: Yeah, so one, I took a course this summer that Susan Beaumont led. And her book is How to Lead When You Don't Know Where You're Going: Leadership for a Liminal Season. And it was written before COVID, and yet the whole content of the book couldn't be more needed for this time. And she talks about some of the leadership shifts that are needed. So from advocating to attending, from knowing to questioning or pondering. And so some of these leadership stances that aren't always celebrated. We want our leaders to come in and have a big vision and then the steps for how we're going to make that vision a reality. And so I'm trying to change my posture of leadership in this season has been really important. But also, we're really focused to do that. Not many congregations get a chance to vacate their property twice.
And so we did that during the redevelopment, and we've also moved all of our ministry outside of the walls right now. And so we're being super careful about how do we discern what to bring back and when to bring it back, and to not automatically assume that a year from now, if there's a vaccine that's widely available and things are relatively reopened, that everything that was happening here in January of 2020 will be happening again in July of 2021. And so those postures of really turning to wonder and seeing wonder as a spiritual discipline instead of, oh my goodness, we have to do this, this and this and it has to be done by this date.
TM: That's wonderful. Well, and you mentioned education over the summer, and I kind of want to bring it full circle back to Duke. How did Duke equip you to be effective as a minister? And I'm thinking specifically, who are some of the, either the professors or the courses or the material that you were exposed to that continue to inform your ministry now?
DCS: Sure. I am profoundly grateful for Duke Divinity School and the relationships that I formed there and the formation. I think that for me, the classroom was extraordinarily important. But just as important to me were my field education experiences. And I actually did four units of field education. I did it often and had very diverse placements, from Highlands, North Carolina, which is a mountain resort community, to East Bend, North Carolina, which is in the height of tobacco country, to a medium-sized church in Raleigh, to Duke chapel. So I think about Duke's field education. I still continue to believe that Duke's field education is second to none, that it's an extraordinary gift, and also the ways that it's funded through the Duke endowment is unparalleled. So I want to name that. In the classroom by far, Dr. Peter Storey had the most profound impact on me. Peter Storey was a Bishop in the Methodist Church in Southern Africa, and then was a leader in the movement to end apartheid.
And with the church was Mandela's chaplain when Mandela was a prisoner on Robben Island. And Peter came in my last year. It was his first year teaching at Duke, and so I got to take both of his classes. God and Caesar: The Church's Role in Ending Apartheid, and The Local Church and Mission of God's World. And the ways that those two courses shaped and formed me are profound. But just as significant is the relationship that I continue to have with Peter today. So I've been to South Africa four times since I graduated. I talked with Peter on WhatsApp yesterday, he's messaged me today. He's going to do something with our church. So I think the way that that relationship continues to be sustained is also amazing. Will Willimon was Dean of the chapel when I was at Duke, who's now back and teaching. Bishop Willimon played a really important role in naming my gifts early on and continuing to name them and giving me opportunities to use them.
I just used or told you about Beth Larocca-Pitts and that quote on my first day of seminary, which I will never, ever forget that quote. Of course, in Black Church Studies with Willie Jennings changed my life and made me realize just how much I did not know and needed to know. So those are the names that are the people that come to mind. Duke basketball was also an extraordinary part. I was really involved in the graduate professional school student council and was co-chair of the committee that distributes basketball tickets. And that was also something that I'll never forget. I think everyone should have the Duke Carolina game in Cameron on their bucket list. Then I got to go to the State of the Union once and be inside Congress when the president was giving the State of the Union. And the only thing that ever compares to that is watching Duke play Carolina inside of Cameron in terms of top opportunities or experiences in life. I should put my wedding up there too, which took place at Duke chapel. So I should add that to. Three amazing experiences.
TM: That's all wonderful. And I echo a lot of what you just said between the field ed and Bishop Storey as being an important professor for me, and Bishop Willimon and Dr. Jennings of course. Yeah. The type of people who teach at Duke, I think, have the ability to form a person in ways that extend throughout a lifetime, as you just demonstrated with some relationships that have continued for you.
TM: Donna, I'd love to wrap us up by doing something that I hope is a little fun. And I'm going to ask you seven questions in kind of a lightning fashion where I'm just getting you to think a little bit about your tastes and preferences. So the first one is, would you consider yourself an early bird or night owl?
DCS: Early bird.
TM: And what would you say is a good book that you've read recently?
DCS: I'm not reading near enough right now. I'm going to say Caste and I think it's incredibly important.
TM: Yeah. Yeah. What's a small thing that you miss about Duke?
DCS: The beauty of the campus. That's no small thing, but the beauty of the campus.
TM: Yeah. You mentioned coming here in October for the first time. It's October, today. I'm on campus. I'm looking out my window and it's amazing right now. The trees are changing color. It's a perfect day. What's a movie or a show that you're watching on a streaming service that you saw recently?
DCS: Outlander. My husband will be totally horrified that I said that out loud because he's like watching, you're watching that dirty show again. Outlander, it's the last series we finished on Netflix. He really is going to be ashamed that I just admitted that out loud.
TM: What's a piece of advice you have for someone considering a call to ministry?
DCS: Oh, to follow it with your whole heart and don't look back.
TM: What's recent music that you've heard?
DCS: I'm living such a sheltered life right now. Where the Streets Have No Name.
TM: Nice. Okay, last one. Who is your favorite Duke basketball player of all time?
DCS: Shane Battier. “Who's your daddy, Battier?” Yes. Shane Battier.
TM: Well, Donna, I've really enjoyed this conversation. I noticed that you preached at Mount Vernon Place this past Sunday on manna in the wilderness and talking about those times when you're in a period of being in the wilderness, and yet you find sustenance and you find joy. And I'll say, just being able to have this conversation with you in the middle of all that's happening has been a little bit of manna for me.
DCS: Ah, God bless you, Todd. Thank you. Thank you so much. And thanks for the privilege of sharing this time with you.
TM: All the best. Thanks for listening to the Divcast. Be sure to subscribe to our feed available anywhere you find podcasts. You can send us feedback and questions by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org. Our executive producer is Morgan Hendrix. Sound design is by Brandon Holmes. Editing support provided by Kinsley Whitworth. Research help came from Brooklyn Rearden, MDiv 2022. Our music is from Christian DaPonte MDiv 2021. We are ending with a ‘div did you know’, which is a fact or interesting aspect about the Duke Divinity community that you may or may not know. Did you know that Duke Divinity School has a dedicated prayer room? Directly adjacent to the Goodson Chapel organ loft, you will find the Jones Prayer Room, which is always available for anyone who needs a space for silent prayer. I hope you will join us again on a Divcast.