The Rt. Rev. Phoebe Roaf served as an Education for Ministry (EfM) mentor before she was elected bishop of the Diocese of West Tennessee in May 2019. She says people come into Year 1 with one particular frame of reference, and the Hebrew Scriptures can really challenge their worldview. “I enjoy seeing the light bulbs go off,” she says. She loves that EfM is more about embracing questions than expecting definitive answers. The overarching question the bishop has drawn from the program, and asks in all parts of her life is, “Where is God at work?”


Roaf’s introduction to EfM came during law school. “As if I didn’t have enough reading to do already,” she says with a laugh. Parishioners at St. Michael’s in Little Rock, Arkansas, raved about the program. “They talked about how it was more than a Bible study. They told me how theological reflection in a small group setting impacts all aspects of your life, not just on Sunday morning.”


In those days, participants studied from a series of red binders and completed four-quadrant drawings. “I prefer the more conversational style EfM uses now,” she admits, “but I was hooked.” She was thrilled to learn that “poor Moses” had not written the first five books of the Bible by himself, and to learn about the four sources. “It was messy, unsettled, real. That really drew me in, the fact that it was not neat and clean. Our Hebrew forefathers and foremothers put multiple versions of the same story in the Bible, and we’ve got to sort it all out.”


Roaf says EfM invites people to work out their faith with fear and trembling. “Sometimes it is easier to say, here it is, here’s this sheet of paper. You do these five things, we’ll check the box, and you’re in.” That particular paradigm is comforting, but there’s not much agency in that. I’m more like Jacob or Israel; I want to wrestle with God.”


Roaf did not enroll in EfM to prepare for ordination. She was preparing for life as an attorney, after all. By the time she graduated from EfM, she was already practicing law in New Orleans, Louisiana. She wants to emphasize that EfM is not intended as a path to ordination. Rather, EfM encourages participants to ask, “What is my ministry?”


During the 12-year gap between graduating from EfM and becoming a priest and a mentor, Roaf served on a vestry, led a Journey to Adulthood class, and served as a lector. “All these ministries were great training for becoming a parish priest, but they were not preparations for ministry; I already had a ministry by serving the Church.”


“Look at the catechism,” she says. “When you look at the ministry of the baptized, lay people are listed first.” Each baptized Christian must seek their role in the Church. “Do I want to run for the vestry? Do I want to take a leadership role with the altar guild or the youth group or the discernment commission?”


For Roaf, EfM reinforced her desire to serve in the Church, but she thought her calling was to be a faithful laywoman. Raised in Arkansas in the ‘60s and ‘70s, young Roaf did not know any female priests. She had not seen an African American priest. “And I’m someone who really needs to see someone like me in a particular role. It was not a dream of mine to be ordained. It took a long time—three congregations in three cities over 15 years where I was a laywoman. People kept asking me if I had ever considered ordination, or if I had thought about going to seminary.”


She says, “In The Episcopal Church, we discern in community. That’s one of the wonderful things about our denomination. It’s good to have other people acknowledge and recognize your call—and in my case, almost identify my call. I’m not sure I would be sitting here at this desk if other people had not seen that in me and encouraged me to pursue it.”


Roaf attended Virginia Theological Seminary, where she added a master of divinity degree to a bachelor’s degree from Harvard, a master’s degree in public policy from Princeton, and a J.D. from the University of Arkansas at Little Rock. She returned to New Orleans, serving as associate rector at Trinity Episcopal Church. Next, she was called to St. Philip’s Episcopal Church in Richmond, Virginia.


St. Philip’s had no EfM program when she arrived in 2011. The church had been supplied for some time by beloved retired priest Bill Wells. “We were so different,” Roaf says. “Bill is a white man, close to my father’s age. He went to seminary straight out of college and had been ordained for more than 40 years. We were looking for an opportunity to become friends, and we felt our two different perspectives would be good for an EfM group.” For six years, Roaf and Wells served as EfM co-mentors.


As bishop of West Tennessee, Roaf actively supports a number of EfM groups. The diocese has a long history with EfM and the School of Theology, where the program was developed. “I came into a system with well-established groups, where people understood the origins of EfM,” Roaf says. Still, she makes sure the clergy in her diocese know she is an EfM mentor and that the groups have her support.


Roaf also sees a place for EfM in mission work. She wants to launch an EfM group at Thistle and Bee, the Memphis affiliate of Thistle Farms. “I meet with the women once a quarter to listen to them and learn about their journey. They have a real hunger to learn more about the Bible and to have an experience of God and church that is not judgmental and condemning.”


“For the women of Thistle and Bee,” she continues, “church has often been about judgment and condemnation, with very little grace. Those of us who are fully in the Church need to reflect upon that. If I am the only experience of God somebody is going to have today—what does that look like? What does that feel like? Jesus so often walked away from those encounters with people having felt seen, heard, respected, and stretched.”


Roaf has encouraged a couple of EfM graduates to receive mentor training and start a program at Thistle and Bee. “I hope we can have a group in 2022 or 2023. I think it would be a paradigm-shifting experience for them.”


In the meantime, EfM continues to inform Bishop Roaf’s spiritual journey and leadership style. “Where is God in this moment?” she notes. “That’s the foundational question for me. I use this all the time, not just personally but also in meetings. Sometimes we need to get pulled back to the purpose of the Church. This question draws us back to what’s most essential.”