Donald Muller Returns to Southern Ocean County

Priest Who Once Served in Beach Haven Helping Out in Tuckerton
By Rick Mellerup | Jul 10, 2019
Courtesy of: Church of the Holy Spirit

Tuckerton, NJ — Just when the Rev. Canon Donald Muller thought he was out, they pulled him back in. The Episcopal priest and his wife, Lynn, had retired to Barnegat Township in July 2018. But that same month the Rev. Martha McKee, the vicar of Tuckerton’s Church of the Holy Spirit, retired and returned to her home state of Texas.

While Holy Spirit’s vestry began to search for a new vicar, services were officiated by a series of supply priests, most often the Rev. Dr. Walter Hartt. But Holy Spirit needed a more constant presence, and Hartt was slowing down with age (he still faithfully conducts Wednesday afternoon services), so when the calendar turned to 2019, Muller agreed to serve as supply priest through the busy season of Lent and Holy Week.

The Holy Spirit congregation really liked Muller, so when he announced at the end of one service that the Bishop William H. Stokes of the Episcopal Diocese of New Jersey had agreed to appoint him as interim priest in charge at Holy Spirit until a permanent vicar could be appointed, the church building rang with applause.

If the name Muller sounds familiar to longtime residents of Southern Ocean County, that’s because he served as the rector of Beach Haven’s Holy Innocents’ Episcopal Church for 10½ years starting in February 1986.

Southern Ocean County’s population was exploding during Muller’s tenure in Beach Haven. Stafford Township’s population increased from 13,325 in 1990 to 22,532 in 2000; Barnegat Township and Little Egg Harbor Township saw their populations increase by 24.8 percent and 19.6 percent respectively over that same decade.

Stafford’s Southern Ocean County Hospital, now called the Southern Ocean Medical Center but still affectionately know as SOCH by many locals, grew correspondingly. SOCH opened in 1972, with 54 beds and 17 physicians. Today SOMC can boast of 176 beds and 230 physicians.

Muller was a big part of SOCH/SOMC’s growth.

“I was the first clergy member to be on the board of SOCH,” said Muller, who also was a member of the hospital’s ethics committee and end of life committee. He also formed SOCH’s first pastoral committee, which recruited members of the clergy to visit each new admission each day.

That experience taught Muller the need for Christians to get out of their churches and into the community. Today’s churches, he said, face many new challenges as compared to when he was ordained back in 1980.

Sundays, he said, used to be relatively sacrosanct. Going to church was a tradition among many families. Sports leagues and schools usually left Sundays alone. But over the years youth football leagues, complete with cheerleaders, started playing their games on Sunday mornings.

“Schools used to leave Sundays alone,” Muller said. “Now they schedule marching band competitions on Sundays.”

Toss in the fact that some churches started offering Saturday evening services, and Sundays, to many people, became just another day in the week.

For years mainline Protestant churches used to be crowded on Christmas and Easter. Clergy and church members used to ponder how they could get those “Christmas and Easter Christians” to attend church more regularly. But Muller has noticed that the even the number of visitors at Christmas and Easter services has been falling.

“How do we bring the love of Jesus to a world that has changed?” he asked. “How do we fit in people’s lives today?”

That, said Muller, is the church’s biggest challenge today.

Muller was born in New York City and grew up on Long Island and then Washingtonville, Orange County, N.Y., where he graduated from high school. He attended Manhattan College, where he earned a bachelor’s degree in government. But by his senior year he felt called to the ministry.

The problem was the bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of New York at that time wanted potential seminarians to work for two years before entering seminary. So he commuted to the city for two years resolving “third party liability claims for Empire Mutual.”

During that time, Muller stayed involved with the church.

“I did a lot of youth work; I even helped out with a Roman Catholic youth group,” he said.

Still, after two years Muller was definitely ready for seminary. His choice of seminaries, though, was, at first glance, rather strange. Instead of the General Theological Seminary of the Episcopal Church in New York City, he attended the Nashotah House Theological Seminary in Nashotah, Wisc. Why?

“It’s the high church seminary,” explained Muller, who said his archdeacon in his home church had been “kind of my mentor” and had attended Nashotah House.

Indeed it is a high church seminary, in the Anglo-Catholic tradition, quite conservative in its theology and especially in its ritual. A true high church Episcopal church would be, to the casual observer, very hard to differentiate from a Roman Catholic or British Anglican church.

Upon ordination, he became the curate (think assistant rector) at the Parish of Christ the Redeemer in Pelham Manor, Westchester County, for two years. From June 1982 to 1986, Muller served as the rector of the Church of the Divine Love in Montrose, Westchester County. In February 1986, Muller and Lynn moved to Beach Haven, where he was the rector of Holy Innocents’. In 1996 they left for Wilkes-Barre, Pa., where he was the rector of Saint Stephen’s Pro-Cathedral.

A pro-cathedral is a parish church that serves as a co-cathedral of a large Episcopal diocese, such as the 14-county Diocese of Bethlehem. It was there where Muller was awarded the title of “canon.” Just what is a canon?

“It’s kind of equal to monsignor,” said Muller, who explained it is basically an honorific given to those who are on a bishop’s working staff. “It is a minor prelate in the old language.”

Along the way Muller earned a doctoral degree from the Graduate Theological Foundation, a school that specializes in online, on-site and distance learning opportunities based in Mishawaka, Ind.

After 7½ years in Wilkes-Barre, the Mullers moved to St. Peter’s Church in Medford, where he served as rector until his retirement on July 1, 2018. Of course, Muller’s retirement was short-lived.

So why did the Mullers retire in Barnegat?

“We love the area, Southern Ocean County,” he said. “We enjoy the pace of life.”

At the comment that the pace of life isn’t too slow on LBI in the summer, he said with a laugh, “That’s why we’re in Barnegat.”

Barnegat is also fairly proximate to the couple’s two sons and to Philadelphia and New York City. Muller especially likes taking about five trips into NYC a year, usually to see a show. As for Philly, he still hasn’t become comfortable with its layout as compared to Manhattan’s grid layout.

— Rick Mellerup

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