Priesthood: What It Takes To Thrive

by | Jun 22, 2017

Ordination June 17, 2017

What follows are excerpts from the sermon Bishop Mariann preached at the ordination service on June 18, 2017: The sermon in its entirety can be found here.

A luminary bishop of the 1970s and 80s, John Coburn of Massachusetts, was once asked if he had a motto in life. He hadn’t thought about it before, he said, but upon reflection he realized that he did: You never can tell.

He used two illustrations to make his point. “I’ve presided over dozens of marriage ceremonies,” he said. “I know that a percentage of those marriages ended in divorce. But if I were to have guessed which marriages would make it and which ones wouldn’t, at least 50% of the time I would have guessed wrong. Some of the couples that seemed ideally suited for each other didn’t make it past 5 years; others whose relationship seemed rocky at best have gone on to have long and healthy marriages. You never can tell.”

“I’ve presided at many ordination services,” he continued. “Some priests whom I assumed would be mediocre at best have gone on to serve with faithful and fruitful distinction. A few of our brightest stars are now in jail. You never can tell.”

The Diocese of Washington has identified seven qualities and attributes that we believe the Episcopal Church needs now in its ordained leaders. These seven qualities have one thing in common: they are indicators of resilience.

The first quality is without question both the most important and painfully insufficient on its own: a compelling spiritual life and a passion for the Gospel. We need priests who know and love God, who know and love Christ. We need clergy with a vision for the Episcopal Church and desire to guide others into a deeper relationship with Christ. There is nothing more important for Christian leadership.

But it’s not enough. The assumption that it is enough has brought down many a priest and stalled many a congregation. And it’s pervasive. The Methodist pastor Tom Berlin describes a meeting of church and seminary leaders gathered to answer this question, “What is your ideal picture of the excellent pastoral leader of the future?” One person responded, “The ideal pastoral leader is grounded in the faith tradition, strongly connected to God, steeped in on-going prayer, and faithful in taking weekly sabbath time.” Many nodded in agreement.

But Tom gently pointed out that something was glaringly missing: “Thousands of congregations across the country are struggling right now. That means that children are not being taught the faith, disciples are not being made, lives are not being transformed, the poor are not being blessed, communities are not being redeemed. And in most cases the problems have little do with the pastor’s prayer life or whether the pastor takes weekly sabbath time.” (Tom Berlin and Lovett H. Weems, Jr., Bearing Fruit: Ministry with Real Results (Abingdon Press: Nashville, 2011))

The church needs more from its clergy than a strong personal faith.

The second quality we look for: the ability to communicate the Gospel in ways that people and communities find engaging and relevant to their lives.

The scriptural mandate for expansive, creative communication is clear. The Rev. Patricia Lyons calls this “the Pentecost Pedagogy” in her case for teaching the Christian faith through the stories of Harry Potter. Even in the most seemingly homogeneous context, there are many languages spoken.

Remember rule number one: communication is a function of relationship. As Rabbi Friedman used to say, “People can only hear you if they are moving toward you. They can’t hear if you are chasing them, or if they are moving away.”

Communication also involves more than words. People often say that preaching is a priest’s most important task. But I’ve come to realize that what matters most about preaching is the relationship between what I say in the pulpit and how I lead in every other facet of ministry.

Communication is a tender subject in our church these days, particularly communication in worship. Many faithful Episcopalians seem truly puzzled by our congregation’s declining membership. “If people only knew what we have here,” they lament, “surely they would come.” I suspect people do know and don’t come, or come once and leave. Remember that the point of our communication is to share the love of Christ with people. The languages we choose to speak determine which groups of people we have the potential of reaching. It’s important not to confuse our preference, or that of our church, with the message itself.

The last of the seven qualities I’ll mention here is actually three-in-one: spiritual maturity, self-awareness, and authenticity. Which is to say that we are all works in progress and we must work at our progress.

Here are a few core practices that promote personal growth:

Self reflection. We all need time and space alone, and a standard within ourselves to which we hold ourselves accountable.

Seeking the feedback of others. Unless we ask, we will never know how our actions affect other people.

Asking for help. I can’t encourage clergy enough to find a mentor, someone who is a bit further down whatever road they feel called to walk or who know something they need to learn.

These practices reinforce a commitment to learning and growth. They help enable us and the communities we lead to thrive in challenging circumstances. For while we never can tell where the road will take us, we can determine the kind of leaders we become along the way.