Grandparents in Ministry: Abuelo, Granddaddy, Grandfather

Grandparents in Ministry: Abuelo, Granddaddy, Grandfather

Abuelo, my favorite name

As the congregation moved from Mikell Chapel to the post-quinceañera reception, the young woman whose service we had just celebrated said to me, Padre Bill, estás entre mis abuelos,” or, “Father Bill, now you are among my grandfathers.”

Each week I can be found on the Cathedral Close of the Cathedral of St. Philip, where I have been an Associate Priest for the past 18 years.

Some days I am seeing patients at the counseling center, and on Sunday I am serving in one of the many services offered throughout the day in this wonderful, sacred space.

Among those services is Catedral de San Felipe, our Hispanic ministry held in Mikell Chapel each Sunday.

My learning curve is rapidly ascending both in terms of my language skills and my role in relation to the congregation.

They have several names for me, including “Padre Guillermo,” and more recently, “Abuelo,” meaning “Grandfather.”

The latter is perhaps my favorite name.


Working in ministry as an un abuelo multiplicado por tres

As of Christmas Eve 2018 when our granddaughter Sophia was born, joining our twin grandchildren Jack and Alice, who call me “Granddaddy,” I am now un abuelo multiplicado por tres or, a grandfather times three.

Our grandchildren Alice and Jack, now 2 ½ live in Billings, Montana, and we visit as often as

Jack Harkins

we can.

So, how am I living into this new normal of being a grandfather, and how has it changed my ministry, my perspectives on life—and perhaps my sense of self and being in the world, or dasein, as Heideggar called it?

Erik Erikson’s stages of psychosocial development included “generativity versus stagnation”.

Typically, this stage takes place during middle adulthood between the ages of approximately 40 and 65, so becoming un abuelo is, in this sense, right on time for me.

During this developmental stage—if one reaches it at all, the alternative is “stagnation”—adults strive to create or nurture things that will outlast them, often by parenting grandchildren, and contributing to positive, “generative” changes that benefit the common good.

Alice Harkins

Vicky and I spent much of our married life raising our two sons, and now, to see them have careers and children of their own gives us a deep sense of joy.

Sophia Harkins

We’ve had deeply satisfying careers, but these cannot compare to the delight in bearing witness to the unfolding of the lives of our sons, and, now, to see our grandchildren being born, grow and develop their own wonderfully distinctive lives.

And this is not all. A subtext in Erikson’s developmental narrative is that we become more connected to those aspects of our world that allow for transcendence of self.

We become more deeply aware that we are part of something larger than ourselves, a kind of operational theology of abundance.


Wendell Berry hints at this when he says:

“Ask the questions that have no answers. Invest in the millennium. Plant sequoias. Say that your main crop is the forest that you did not plant, that you will not live to harvest.”


As the Abuelo comes alive

I recently returned from northern Colorado and a week of trail running, hiking, and fellowship with friends of some 35 years.

Each year we reconnect with one another, laugh, hike, and read and write.

And we do all of this deep in a sub-alpine forest, engaging in what the Japanese call “shinrin-yoku,” or “forest bathing,” determined to increase levels of serotonin, dopamine, healthy cellular development, and an awareness of connection to God’s Creation—giving birth to empathy and compassion.

And speaking of empathy, perhaps we can learn something from trees about being in community during what some are calling an “epidemic of polarization and loneliness” in our culture.

Trees live communally in ways we are only beginning to understand.


In his remarkable novel The Overstory Richard Powers writes about what we might call “grandparent trees”:

“Before it dies, a Douglas fir, half a millennium old, will send its storehouse of chemicals back down into its roots and out through its fungal partners, donating its riches to the community pool in a last will and testament. We might well call these ancient benefactors giving trees…Trees communicate, over the air and through their roots…they take care of each other. Link enough trees together, and a forest grows aware. ”


In his recent book The Second Mountain, David Brooks says this about the cultivation of generative moments of transcendence:

“The universe is alive and connected, these moments tell us. There are dimensions of existence you never could have imagined before. Quantum particles inexplicably flip together, even though they are separated by vast differences of time and space. Somehow the world is alive and communicating with itself. There is some interconnecting animating force, and we are awash in that force, which we with our paltry vocabulary call love.”


Becoming a grandfather has indeed made me more aware of the beauty of non-binary, liminal spaces, where we greet the other with dignity and respect, and where, as Emmanuel Levinas said, we welcome the infinite mystery of the Face of the other.

In becoming un abuelo, I see artificial borders become diffuse and disappear.

As one of my Hispanic parishioners said to me, “Padre, quiero sentirme vivo,” or, “Father, I want to feel alive.”

As the abuelo in me comes alive, my connection to all of Creation comes alive as well, with more clarity, urgency and meaning.


Happy Grandparents Day (Sep 8th) to all the abuelos and grandparents alike!

In addition to his grandfather duties, Dr. Bill (William) Harkins is interested in practical applications of pastoral theology and counseling to parish and clinical settings. Other interests include the dialogue between philosophy, psychoanalysis, and religious studies, especially the work of Donald Winnicott and Emmanuel Levinas; narrative and family systems theory in conversation with pastoral theology; issues of difference/diversity in pastoral theology; men’s studies in religion; and congregational consultation in times of conflict and transition. Dr. Harkins is a licensed Marriage and Family therapist, an approved supervisor in AAMFT, and a Diplomat in AAPC. He serves as a psychological health faculty member for CREDO, a wellness program for ECUSA and PCUSA clergy. He is an ordained Episcopal priest, and serves as Canon Associate at the Cathedral of St. Philip.

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