Joanna Satorius. Photo: Cam Sanders

For the past 15 years, the Rev. Canon Joanna Satorius has gracefully and skillfully guided the transitions of laity, clergy and congregations throughout the Diocese of Los Angeles.

Now facing her Nov. 1, 2020 retirement is a “bittersweet and interesting” transition of her own.

“I recognize all the markers of it and yet I’m human,” she told The Episcopal News recently. “While I’m knowledgeable about what this takes, I feel it as well. I’m going through it. From time to time, I visit the bittersweet stuff, but it’s all put off in the future because there’s too much to do. Just like every other human, I can’t think about that right now.”

Diocesan Bishop John Harvey Taylor congratulated Satorius on her upcoming retirement and praised her ministry throughout the diocese.

“As I did from afar for many years, I’ve been observing Joanna and her ministry with profound respect, and sometimes astonishment, now that we are office colleagues,” Taylor told The Episcopal News.

“She combines a deep understanding of our missions’ and parishes’ precious and unique narratives with her equally powerful intuition about how the Holy Spirit is calling people to be in ministry together. Hers is a subtle, meditative, loving vocation of which our whole diocese has been the grateful beneficiary.”

Bishop Suffragan Diane Jardine Bruce agreed. “Joanna’s love for this diocese and for the clergy has shone brightly during her tenure as the head of Transition Ministry. Her prayer-filled care of congregations and clergy in transition has left a positive mark on our diocese. It has been a true joy to work with her these past 10 years!”

Similarly, the Rev. Canon Melissa McCarthy, canon to the ordinary, said: “Beyond her work with congregations in transition, Canon Satorius has been a trusted advisor to the bishops over many years. She brings wisdom and grace to her work as well as a clear head when difficult decisions need to be made.”

She added, “Canon Satorius has a unique gift for seeing the gifts of others as well as how those gifts may best be put to their highest and greatest use.”

Guiding sweeping change: from vocations to transitions, paper to digital

Previously rector of St. George’s Church in Riverside, Satorius began serving in 2003 with the Very Rev. Canon Mark Kowalewski in what was known then as the vocations office. A little more than a year later, Kowalewski was called as rector of St. John’s, Los Angeles, and became co-dean when it later transitioned to the Cathedral.

In 2005, Satorius was named a diocesan honorary canon and assumed the helm of the Vocations and Deployment office. Since then she has guided her own department, along with congregations, laity and clergy, through seasons of transition.

“I’ve probably been in every congregation in the diocese, except a few,” she said. “Most have gone through transitions. Over the years, I’ve come to know most of the leadership.”

And that’s just for starters. The office, “which has everything to do with clergy” as well as congregational development, has undergone its own transitions.

“When I inherited the department, everything we did was in paper files,” Satorius recalled. Moving to digital records was a huge undertaking but ultimately streamlined efficiency. The upgrade aided the office’s work and that of the Commission on Ministry, which assists in the vocational discernment process.

As department chair, she oversees that process for deacons and priests, as well as ongoing clergy and laity development. She serves as an intake officer for Title IV clergy disciplinary complaints. The office also organizes a yearly clergy conference and facilitates the Fresh Start program.

Archdeacon Charleen Crean considers the strength of the diocesan Fresh Start program a lasting legacy and credits Satorius for finding ways to continue the program after national funding for it evaporated.

“Joanna has been able to keep it going in the diocese, and to adapt it for lay leadership as well,” said Crean, who serves with Satorius in the Transitions office. “Fresh Start was designed as a monthly meeting of new rectors, vicars and priests-in-charge where the facilitator leads discussions, solicits comments and in general fosters a collegial spirit among the current cadre of newly deployed clergy.

“The Fresh Start initiative has now likewise been adapted for deacons in the diocese. This additional spin-off has likewise been quite effective for building community among the deacons of the diocese. Joanna has also started Fresh Start for laity at Bloy House. These classes follow the seminary schedule and allow laity to participate in the seminary’s worshipping community.”

Ned Bergert, former senior warden at the Church of the Blessed Sacrament in Placentia, recalled meeting Satorius while a Fresh Start student.

“I gained a real appreciation for her love of people and God and for the laity and the ordained, and our work together to lift people up and to do the work of the church,” he told The Episcopal News recently.

Both he and his wife Sandy took Fresh Start classes for two semesters and found them to be “a great help when we started looking for a new priest. “Joanna came to the church numerous times, to meet with the vestry, and the search committee, to help us in finding a facilitator for our history day, to answer our questions. If there was ever a question or concern, she was available by phone to answer those questions.”

The Rev. Canon Hartshorn Murphy, retired rector of St. Augustine by-the-Sea Church in Santa Monica, has served twice, for six-month periods, as an interim transitions officer in the Los Angeles diocese.

He said Satorius has really stressed the history day among congregations in transition. “It is crucial for congregations to stop and to take the time to ask the questions, ‘Where have we been?’ ‘What’s our history, what are the patterns we repeat, and what can we do to stop repeating them?”

The Rev. Tom Quijada-Discavage, administrative assistant for Formation and Transition Ministry, agreed. “Working with Canon Joanna these past three years has been one of the great learning experiences in ministry.  In my estimation, Joanna has been responsible for building trust and healthy relationship in our clergy and congregational communities through an ever-changing, ongoing organic conversation,” he said. “She calls everyone to an authentic experience of faithful ministry and leadership.”

There have been other changes as well.

In 2010, the department’s name was changed from Vocations and Deployment to the Office of Transition Ministry and Formation.

“It wasn’t just a name change,” Satorius recalled. “We transitioned from finding jobs for clergy to bringing life to congregations. What that means is the community of clergy is viewed differently. They are viewed, along with congregations, as one of the most valuable resources of the diocese. My job is to safeguard them, through education and screening and resourcing to safeguard the health of congregations.”

Satorius: from artist to dog trainer, priest, transitions officer

Originally trained as an artist, Satorius — whose pet pugs and Frenchie bulldog have been her frequent officemates over the years — said her love of obedience training led her to ordination.

Born Joanna Roozen in Mequon, a Milwaukee suburb, she earned undergraduate and graduate degrees in drawing and printmaking. She and her husband Steve Satorius, an electrical engineer, moved around a lot, from New York’s Long Island, to Vancouver Harbor, to Bloomington, Illinois, where their two daughters, Gretl and Annalise, and her love of obedience training, were born.

Dog training “really shaped a lot of what I did, strangely enough,” she said. “We got a puppy and I wanted it to be a good citizen, so I took it to a puppy class.”

She exceled so much at instruction the teacher asked for her help with an untrainable Labrador retriever. Eventually, under Satorius’s tutelage, that Lab, “Jeep,” became an obedience trial champion, competing nationally and internationally. “She showed in agility,” according to Satorius, who subsequently taught at all levels; novice, puppy and advanced.

The couple moved to Lancaster and later divorced. Satorius joined St. Paul’s Episcopal Church. She began visiting convalescent homes and schools with her prized puppies, entertaining residents and students with agility demonstrations and teaching pet safety and obedience.

Eventually, she was asked to take Jeep to visit a woman in a rehabilitation facility who was missing her own pet. The visits continued and “one day the priest asked if I’d mind taking communion to her,” Satorius recalled.

That invitation was the beginning of a call to ordination, one she had never envisioned for herself. She earned her M.Div. at Bloy House and was ordained a deacon on June 18, 1994 and a priest on January 14, 1995.

She was called as rector of St. George’s in 1996, where she met Melissa McCarthy, then a parishioner.

“[Joanna’s] background in dog training, as crazy as this may sound, has given her a level of patience and a clear vision,” said McCarthy. “She knows how to bring out the best in our clergy and congregations and to match clergy with congregations in ways where both parties are transformed.”

The Rev. Canon Mary P. Trainor, retired rector of St. Joseph’s Church in Buena Park, and a former managing editor of The Episcopal News, says she became an Episcopalian and developed an interest in ordination under Satorius’s watch.

Then she was “negatively unchurched” but took her mother to St. George’s. “I only went to be a driver, but more happened,” she recalled in a telephone interview from Tucson, where she is now living.

“I felt instantly a kinship with everyone in church and with Joanna. I felt relaxed and challenged in a good way all at the same time. It was a very strong faith community, warm and extremely diverse.”

Satorius “had a way of bringing new things to us and lighting the fire within us to want to do it, too. I became an Episcopalian under her watch; her leadership style was to inspire you to always look deeper. Three of us came out of there to the priesthood — Melissa McCarthy, Christopher Potter, and me.”

Transition ministry – an “incredible joy”

Noting that the hardest thing for humans is to embrace change, Satorius said: “Every change involves a cycle of letting-go, mourning the loss, and yielding to the emergence of the new form.  This is the way of the artist.  Forms are continually passing away and evolving to reveal The Spirit at work in bringing about the new creation.”

She acknowledges her own difficulty in accepting change. Initially, when she was called to serve in the Transitions office: “I wasn’t sure that my gifts and skill set would be what would be needed here. I saw it as an administrative position, which it is, in part,” she said.

“But what I came to realize is that this position is a pastoral position,” she told The Episcopal News. “The main thing is, it’s a listening position. You need the same pastoral skills you need in a congregation—to work with the clergy and lay leadership to know and to hear what their needs are and to be able to adjust their call processes to serve them.”

Her tenure at the diocese “has been an incredible joy. Like any position, it’s got challenges and sometimes it feels like there’s more than you can handle. But what it comes to is, I have absolutely loved this work. It has been incredible. I’ve felt that way about St. George’s. I wouldn’t have missed it for the world.”

The Rev. Christine Purcell and others say Satorius is an ultimate matchmaker, open and compassionate, a great listener, welcoming and a skilled facilitator.

Purcell, a native Angeleno living in the East, wanted to return home several years ago. She contacted Satorius. “She is so easy to talk to, and engaging … and plugged in. She suggested going to five or six congregations to visit and introduce myself to clergy, to have a flyer or something that tells them about who I was and what has been my experience.”

That advice led to a great match—Purcell as an associate rector with St. Matthew’s, Pacific Palisades. “She is very skilled at what she does, and innately gifted at seeing people for who they are and grasping their skill sets.”

After the Rev. Peter Kang, a prison chaplain and associate rector at Grace Episcopal Church in St. Francisville, Louisiana, moved to the Southland to be with his wife Samantha, a doctoral student at UC-Santa Barbara.

Now the rector of St. Peter’s, Santa Maria, he said: “Joanna was one of the first people I met with. She immediately gave me referrals of people to talk to, connections to make. She got me oriented within the diocese. The Los Angeles diocese is much larger than the Diocese of Louisiana and there’s a lot more going on. She was really helpful.”

The Fresh Start program was particularly useful. “I was always appreciative of time spent with colleagues in conversation. It helped me develop a network of friends and connections here.”

The ability to encourage relationships between clergy and congregation is one of Satorius’ greatest skills, according to the Rev. Antonio Gallardo, vicar of St. Luke’s of the Mountains Church in La Crescenta.

He was on the staff of All Saints, Pasadena, and had no plans to leave when Satorius approached him about the opportunity at St. Luke’s, which has English-speaking and Spanish-speaking members. “Joanna put me at ease by saying that it was a discernment process, without an expectation that I need to decide to go to St. Luke’s,” Gallardo said. “That statement changed my perspective about the process, and allowed me to enter with the openness of heart and mind needed to explore.”

Satorius arranged for Gallardo to meet twice with the senior warden, then with the full bishop’s committee at St. Luke’s. “So, by the time I decided to say yes to the call at St. Luke’s I consider that I had all the information available, and had met with all the people that I needed to meet, and I have to thank Joanna for that,” he said.

The Rev. Patricia Stansfield said she wanted to transition from the Anglican Church of Canada to the Episcopal Church but couldn’t get her foot in the door.

Until she picked up the phone one day and called Satorius. “Right off the bat, she was so open about talking about how the process works in the L.A. diocese, even though I wasn’t in the ministry profile database. Her tremendous openness and trust, and the Holy Spirit, worked out the call process.”

Satorius also connected her with resources, introducing her IRIS—the Interfaith Refugee and Immigration Service, an institution of the diocese—to assist her in obtaining a work visa. “They were wonderful,” Stansfield said. “I just really appreciated her sense of trusting and opening up the process rather than driving a process, like some places.”

The announcement for the next diocesan Transitions Officer will soon be posted, according to McCarthy.

“It is our hope that we may have someone in place in time to do some work with Canon Satorius before her retirement,” she said. “In the meantime, the Rev. Thomas Quijada-Discavage and the Venerable Charleen Crean continue their important work in the Office for Formation and Transition and are available to assist as needed.”