The Rev. Danáe Ashley, T'08, loves dancing "with wild abandon to Celtic music and serious karaoke" as well as being a priest and a practicing, licensed marriage and family counselor. An emerging breed of "free-range" priests, she does not, however, consider herself bi-vocational. "Two pieces of work, one vocation" she states. Perhaps it was her mother's early instruction in Highland dancing that instilled a rhythm to her life. She is able to step from church to private practice, and back again while maintaining an intentional presence with all whom she ministers. As part-time associate rector at St. Andrew's Episcopal Church in Seattle, Washington, Ashley works 20 hours a week and two Sundays a month. "If the rector or a parishioner needs me, I have a cell phone, I am extremely accessible," explains Ashley. Her remaining work hours are spent as a licensed marriage and family therapist at her practice, Soul Spa Seattle, where she offers mental health counseling for individuals, couples, and groups.
Living into her vocation, Ashley finds that 90% of what she does is relational, and so for her the CEO model of priesthood was not a fit. She has served as a rector, interim, priest-in-charge but discovered that as an associate priest she has the flexibility to continue her vocation as a marriage and family counselor. Her private practice enables her to extend the ministry beyond the walls of the church and into the world. "I am called to be a priest and love to hear people's stories," says Ashley.
One of the most intriguing parts for Ashley is to "walk with people in a sacramental way, marking important times in their lives." She recalls her time in seminary as being a microcosm of what her current ministry has become and it marked a turning point for her own call. "Seminary was about how to become a parish priest—learning how to lead worship and read a budget, but not a large focus on pastoral care." It was there, however, that Ashley met professors Susanna Metz and Julia Gatta. "Both women were so different," remembers Ashley. "I was inspired by how they could be completely themselves and also be priests."
Encouraged by a classmate to take Prepare/Enrich, a science-based assessment tool for premarital counseling, Ashley began to see another aspect to her call as priest. She started Jungian analysis during her first call in Denver, North Carolina, and continued that work throughout her first four calls. It was this intentional time spent on her own healing that brought Ashley to Adler Graduate School, where she earned a master degree in marriage and family therapy.
Ashley observes people coming to church for a variety of reasons and "they are ready to be made whole." In her ministry at St. Andrew's, Ashley witnesses the healing process that her training in counseling brings her "own flock." She states that people "bring pain to church" and she understands that when "pain is not transformed it is transmitted and therefore not healed." Ashley shares in the deep joy parishioners experience during this transformational process.
Her private practice allows her to continue her ministry outside the walls of St. Andrew's and into the busy parking lot her private practice shares with Costco, Starbucks, and Home Depot. Determined to break economic barriers, Soul Spa Seattle, LLC, offers an open door and flexible payment plan for people in need of therapy. She serves a wide variety of people, many who work in tech and shift hours in 24-hour cycles. Ashley is determined to provide guidance and healing to people who work in zones where churches are rarely attended and in jobs where Sundays are rarely a day of rest. Soul Spa Seattle offers Sunday sessions as well.
Her practice is specifically non-denominational and she is bound by a code of ethics not to proselytize. But she is who she is and does not deny that she is a priest in The Episcopal Church. It is the back-bone of her ministry and enables her to be in community with all people. "People choose me because they know they can bring their spiritual life into the therapeutic process," states Ashley.
Knowing that "part-time" actually requires full-time attention, Ashley remains careful about her own limitations and energy use. "If my balance is off, I'm not good for anyone else,"; she mentions. Pushing for self-care, she encourages colleagues to shed the vestment of "sacrificing myself on the altar of the church." Being healthy and attentive to one's own spirituality is Ashley's way of modeling the gospel message.
In light of her own experience, Ashley created an interfaith group called Clergy Care Circle. She moderates a two-hour, once-a-month session of therapeutic spiritual direction for fellow clergy of all denominations. "Being a priest can really be isolating," shares Ashely. "Without care and support, clergy are vulnerable to burn-out and making mistakes."
Ashley's goal is to work herself out of a job by bringing people into healthy life-giving relationships. She is happily married to a professional musician and finds time to take Irish dancing lessons, garden, and historical costuming. Perhaps it is her ability to recognize the significance of the sacred in an antiquity, after all it was her love of the sacraments and the poetry of the Book of Common Prayer that led her into The Episcopal church in the first place. But today she calls herself a "pioneer" gone west, creating relevant ways to bring the Gospel into a new decade.