Wednesday, August 21, 2013

What’s the peirnt?

A good friend and I have a question that we pose to each other from time-to-time:  What’s the peirnt?  It is an intentional misspelling and mispronunciation of the last word, and intended to reflect a question from old mob movies – the original and stated question being, What’s the point?

I sometimes find myself wondering that, as it relates to ordained ministry and its exercise in the parish. 

Perhaps the most dramatic illustration I can offer came in a meeting several years ago with either the vestry or search committee of a congregation (the grace of God has caused me to forget which congregation it was).  As the congregational leaders and I discussed the responsibilities and expectations of their next priest, one member said rather caustically, “I want them to pray on their own time.”

I later shared that observation with the senior priest who was then my spiritual director. His response: “That is a ditch I would die in.” His question was, What is the point?

As I work frequently with search committees and vestries, I see the always-present (but sometimes unstated) question arise again and again: What are the expectations of the new rector or vicar?

The person mentioned above clearly thought that it was not the priest’s responsibility to pray – at least on “church time.”

There is a variety of stated and unstated expectations of a cleric – some clear and expected, some unclear and unanticipated.  Some reasonable and some unreasonable. I recall on my first Sunday in one of the parishes I served that an elderly, senior member came to me after the service: “Thank you, Mr. Johnson, for not saying anything personal in your sermon.”  I knew the roots of her concern (they were well-entwined with the congregation’s history), but it was clearly an unstated expectation that I would not get too personal in my sermon.  What if someone else had been called and had been unaware?

But that is a very small example which illustrates a larger point:  There are many expectations of a parish cleric.  Such as…

… Being present in the office on a regular basis.

… Making pastoral calls as needed.

… Assuring smooth functioning of the parish office.

… Visiting newcomers soon after they visit the parish.

Or, visiting newcomers which have expressed no interest in the parish, but someone in the parish has met them.

… Sharing information about pastoral concerns (such as someone’s hospitalization), while preserving appropriate confidences.

… Always being solemn when appropriate, and always being happy when expected.

… Seeing that adequate training is offered for lay readers, Eucharistic ministers, acolytes and others – even if attendance is not convenient for them.

… Preaching sermons that are not too long and not too short.

… Not dealing with social or political topics from the pulpit – unless the congregation largely agrees with the perspective.

… Increasing attendance by young families.

… Assuring the ongoing functioning of a multi-faceted Christian education program.

… Being responsible for the sound financial condition of the congregation (or, conversely, having nothing to do with what Will Campbell called “filthy lucre”).

… An ancillary point: Never talk about money.

… Being the “moral police” (generally directed toward “someone else”) of the congregation while saying nothing of inappropriate behavior.
... Growing the congregation without changing the congregation's methods of functioning or its means of relating to newcomers.

… Being available and responsive 24/7, regardless of the impact on the cleric’s family.

… And, of course, the biggy: Don’t let conflict enter the congregation and, if you do, assume responsibility for it.

Those are among the expectations I have encountered over 12+ years of working with congregations and clergy, and over 14 years of parochial ministry before that.

One of the challenges faced by many clergy is that, with unstated expectations, one person’s perspective is perceived as valid as another’s.

The fact is that priests take vows before the Bishop which summarize their responsibilities as ordained people.  Since we, as Episcopalians, articulate our theology in our prayers and liturgy, it only makes sense that the vows taken before a Bishop at ordination would articulate our understanding of the ordained ministry. The Bishop’s address to the ordinand includes the following:

As a priest, it will be your task to proclaim by word and deed the Gospel of Jesus Christ, and to fashion your life in accordance with its precepts. You are to love and serve the people among whom you work, caring alike for young and old, strong and weak, rich and poor. You are to preach, to declare God’s forgiveness to penitent sinners, to pronounce God’s blessing, to share in the administration of Holy Baptism and in the celebration of the mysteries of Christ’s Body and Blood, and to perform the other ministrations entrusted to you.

The vows, containing the essential duties of a priest, follow:

Bishop             Do you now in the presence of the Church commit                                       yourself to this trust and responsibility?
            Answer            I do.

Bishop             Will you respect and be guided by the pastoral direction 
                        and leadership of your bishop?
            Answer            I will.

Bishop             Will you be diligent in the reading and study of the                                      Holy Scriptures, and in seeking the knowledge of                                         such things as may make you a stronger and more                                                able minister of Christ?
             Answer            I will.

Bishop             Will you endeavor so to minister the Word of God                                       and the sacraments of the New Covenant, that the                                               reconciling love of Christ may be known and                                           received?
            Answer            I will.

 Bishop             Will you undertake to be a faithful pastor to all                                             whom you are called to serve, laboring together                                            with them and with your fellow ministers to build                                              up the family of God?
            Answer            I will.

 Bishop             Will you do your best to pattern your life [and that                                       of your family, or household, or community] in                                                 accordance with the teachings of Christ, so that you                                        may be a wholesome example to your people?
            Answer            I will.

Bishop             Will you persevere in prayer, both in public and in                                        private, asking God’s grace, both for yourself and for 
                        others, offering all your labors to God, through the 
                        mediation of Jesus Christ, and in the sanctification                                              of the Holy Spirit?
            Answer            I will.

Bishop             May the Lord who has given you the will to do these 
                        things give you the grace and power to perform them.
            Answer            Amen.

These vows express the essential theological raison d’etre for the priesthood, and they provide the basic job description for a priest.

But there is more:  The canons of the Episcopal Church (especially Title III, Canon 9 – Of the Life and Work of Priests) provide some meat on the bone for a priest’s functioning.  Among those duties are the following:

      ·         Seeing that people under their charge receive instructions in the Holy Scriptures; in
             the Catechism; in the Doctrine, Discipline and Worship of the Episcopal Church; and in
             “the exercise of their ministry as baptized persons.”

·         The instruction of all persons in the topics of Christian stewardship, including a reverence for God’s creation and the right use of God’s gifts; generous and consistent giving of time, talent and treasure for the mission and ministry of the Church at home and abroad; the biblical standard of the tithe for financial stewardship; and the responsibility of all persons to make a will as prescribed in The Book of Common Prayer.

·         The proper preparation and instruction for Baptismal candidates and their sponsors;

·         Similarly, candidates for Confirmation, Reception and Reaffirmation should be properly prepared;

·         To announce the scheduled visit of the Bishop;

·         To read in public worship or otherwise disseminate a Pastoral Letter from the House of Bishops;

·         To keep faithful and accurate records of all members (including those who have received communion three times in the previous year) and of baptisms, confirmations, deaths, transfers and other changes in membership status.

As you can see, the calling of a priest – including a Rector or Vicar – is largely to the nourishment and development of the spiritual life both in his or her own life and the life of those in the congregation.  This is the work of deepening the journey from which the meaning of life may emerge.

Contemporary critics of the Church write and speak about how the focus of the Church has moved more toward matters of secular life.  Those critics may be right, but from a direction they did not intend. The role of the priest has developed into one of meeting people’s expectations in what is largely a consumer culture. The expectations are frequently associated with mundane matters rather than the transformational deepening of one’s faith.

The priest is called to pray and draw deeply on his or her spiritual journey, taking the fruits of that journey to share with the congregation so that their lives might benefit from those insights. The benefits the priest derives from a deep and profound spiritual life will enrich his or her preaching, teaching and caring for God’s people.

Referring to the earlier quotation from the Vestry or search committee member: If the priest prays only on his or her own time, the congregation may very well get that for which they hope.


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