Fairly early in his life as an Episcopal priest, Father Chris Gray discovered the key to good ministry. It sounds simple but does not come naturally to everyone, even those who have chosen the priestly life. He does not mind sharing this secret. It’s two-fold: “Show up and love your people.”
“I pretty much live by that model,” he admitted.
There are a number of factors that have helped him develop this approach to life. Some of those may be inherited.
He is the son of an Episcopal bishop, the grandson of an Episcopal bishop, the great-grandson of an Episcopal bishop … and the family line continues to go back into history. Additionally, he is one of five children, and every one of them is either clergy or married to a member of the clergy, so an attitude of service to God’s people is inbred in his family.
Another factor is his recognition of the blessings he has been given. His reaction to those blessings has been to pass them on in gratitude.
“I have been blessed in more ways than I can tell you,” he said, shaking his head as he recalled some of those blessings. “I was raised in Orlando, before Mickey Mouse. I got there in 1959. My father was an Episcopal priest and the dean of the cathedral there. I grew up in a nice, quiet, small southern town.”
That was Orlando then. He graduated from high school in 1967, in the early years of the Vietnam war. A year of community college seemed to hold no promise for him, so he joined the Army. “If you didn’t join, you were drafted if you were out of college,” he recalled.
The Army gave him his first view of the wider world, as he spent nine months in Berlin, Germany and 14 months in DaNang, South Vietnam. He was part of the Army Signal Corps.
At he end of his service, Chris returned to Orlando, went to school part-time and got a job at the newly opened Walt Disney World. He learned to be a carpenter’s apprentice there.
Orlando was the home of ABC Liquor, which would play an important part in his life at several key points. Jack Holloway, the owner and manager of the company, was a parishioner at the Episcopal cathedral in which Chris’ father served as bishop. He was a close friend of the family. In high school, Chris and some friends worked for the company over Christmas break.
“I ended up earning a lot of money, so I went back that summer and worked for him again for three months,” Chris recalled. “And then I did it for the next three years – summers and at Christmas – and it paid for my car insurance, my gas, my dates. It was a great job. So, when I came home from Vietnam, I went back and drove a truck for the company. That was kind of fun to do, since it took me all over the state of Florida.”
When Chris decided he had a calling to be a priest, Mr. Holloway gave him a gift of $1,000 – which went much further at that time than it does now.
Before seminary, however, he went to college at the University of Central Florida. While there, he worked at a bank, rising from teller to branch manager while he went to classes. He liked the banking business, but even more he liked a particular young woman he met there. Her name was Paula.
“I fell in love with her immediately,” he admitted. Marriage was still a few years off, however.
At that time, anyone who worked for the bank full-time could have their higher education paid for by the bank. Chris worked at a mall branch, so he worked from 12:30 to 6:30 p.m. six days a week and attended classes in the mornings. He finished his degree in two years, with the bank paying for all the costs.
By the time graduation came, Chris decided to answer the call he had been feeling so strongly – to enter the seminary.
“I entered the seminary in my mid-to-late 20s … in Wisconsin,” he said. “Wisconsin winters were rather brutal.”
This was when the $1,000 gift from ABC’s Jack Holloway turned into another blessing.
“That money paid for my trips back and forth; it paid for winter clothes for me; it paid for gas; car insurance; and other things. I just stretched that $1,000 out over the next two years. It was pretty remarkable.”
During his last year of seminary, Chris and Paula were married.
From the seminary, Chris – now Father Gray – was sent to a church in Port Orange, Florida, on the East Coast between Daytona and New Smirna. “It was a 90-year-old mission,” he said, “and it turns out that my great-grandfather, who was the first bishop of South Florida, dedicated that church in 1893!” Chris did not know about the family connection until he had been stationed there for at least six weeks.
“One day I was reading a plaque on the back wall of the church, and it had his signature on it.” His reaction was, “My gosh, I’m supposed to be here!” He and Paula were at that church for more than 12 years, and during that time the parish grew “from 150 people worshiping on a Sunday to 450 on a Sunday,” he said. “It was a great time to be on the coast of Florida – the ‘80s. The World War II generation was retiring – and coming to church. So it was a good place to be.”
“That church was the very first church my great-grandfather dedicated as bishop, out of many, many churches he dedicated during his 20 years as a bishop. My very first church was one of his, and probably my very last church was one of his, as well, in a sense.” History tells that his great-grandfather traveled all over South Florida as bishop, even stopping in Boca Grande from time to time. He thought highly of the area’s potential, and he decided to invest in two parcels of land here. Each one cost $1. He held onto those parcels for many years, anticipating their use for a future church.
“So, Boca Grande has a special place in my heart. My great-grandfather was here on this island 114 years ago, buying up property for a future church. And now I get to work in his future church,” Fr. Gray said.
In fact, he has been working in this “future church” off and on for six years. He first came to St. Andrew’s parish in 2016, but he had some heart issues and some knee issues, so he dropped out after a couple of months. Mother Michelle Robertshaw brought on someone else then. This sort of exchange went on for several years, with Fr. Gray assisting from time to time.
“Now I have been here since COVID started, so I am working two part-time jobs. One is here and one is at the diocese from which I am retiring soon.” He preaches a couple of times a month, runs the men’s group, and does some pastoral visits for Mother Michelle. “And I enjoy it. It’s fun. My wife says I failed at retirement.” He doesn’t mind that failure. In fact, he is happy he gets to continue his interaction with people here and in Venice, where he lives and serves on a board or two and is chaplain of the Venice Yacht Club.
He has not failed completely at retirement. He was rector of St. Mark’s church in Venice for 20 years and retired from that position successfully, although he is still part of that parish. “While I was there we rebuilt the church, rebuilt the preschool, rebuilt the rectory and turned it into an office space, and we rebuilt the parish hall,” he said. “We turned the building around, we turned the whole parish around. In fact, we grew it to be one of the top 100 churches in the country in terms of attendance and size while I was there.”
Fr. Gray said the biggest surprise of his life was in Venice, at St. Mark’s. During the 8 a.m. service one Sunday after all the parish hall renovations were complete, the members of the vestry, or parish leaders, announced to the congregation that the new hall was to be named “Gray Hall,” after their reactor.
“I was dumbfounded,” he said. It took him completely by surprise. “I’d only been there 10 years, and it was the most humbling experience of my life to have them do this. You usually have to die to get your name on a building. They really surprised me. I didn’t know what to say. Yes, I’ve been blessed with great congregations, loving people, and that’s why I failed at retirement.”
Both of his long-running ministries have filled his heart. “I loved the people that were there, hated leaving each one, but I felt a call from God to move on from the first one; and it was time to retire from the second one after 32 years of active ministry. When I retired, the bishop asked me if I would come work for the diocese part-time, doing stewardship work, helping congregations with fundraising and so forth. I had had some experience with that with our national church, so for the last 12 years I have been doing that work on a part-time basis.”
He added that “I still enjoy doing what I do. And this place (St. Andrew’s) is a great place, full of loving folks. I feel so bad right now because so many of them are not going to be able to get back down here, at least this winter, because their homes are not habitable. But we do broadcast every Sunday morning, and I hope they are all tuning in when we do that.”
He also noted that he is very proud “of the vestry and Mother Michelle. Since the Baptist church couldn’t meet in their building, they’ve opened the doors here. And so, we finish our service at 10:30 and they come over for their service at 11. It’s a wonderful way to utilize this beautiful space in here, sharing it with another church that can’t meet in their own space. We are all learning how to share our space with each other.”
He went on, “And poor Mother Michelle, who can’t get back into her house right away. They’ve dried it out and ripped all the floors out, and the wallboards, up to four feet, so they have to find a construction company that can come out and fix it for her. She’s done an outstanding job. She’s been here 10 or 11 years now, and she’s really grown the parish. It’s a joy to work with her. She’s become a special friend.”
Fr. Gray and Paula have two grown children, Margie and Christopher. Both live in the Venice/Sarasota area.
When he is not doing church work, Fr. Gray he loves to play golf, read detective novels and watch old movies. He and Paula have done a good bit of international traveling, and not too long ago they fulfilled one of Paula’s “bucket list” desires, to fly in a hot air balloon. He also loves a good meal, and Paula believes his heavenly reward will be a gourmet buffet.
Fr. Gray is a natural storyteller. He is quick with a hearty laugh, a word of praise or an uplifting idea. He is in awe of the life he’s been given, in which his job is to be part of people’s lives, telling them good things about themselves or about how God loves them. “My life is so full of happiness and blessing,” he said. “God has been good to me in so many ways.” These are the things that make him show up every day and love the people.