June 17, 2017
Priesthood: You Never Can Tell
Then I heard the voice of the Lord saying, ‘Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?’ And I said, ‘Here am I; send me!’ Isaiah 6:8
When I met with the seven soon-to-be priests this week, I asked about you, those who would be here today to pray God’s blessing and celebrate with them their ordination. They spoke of you with such gratitude and love. On their behalf and that of all who will benefit from what you have helped them claim for themselves and offer in service to Christ, I thank you. They also spoke wistfully of those who cannot be there today and those who have crossed over Jordan and are here in spirit. May we pause to give thanks for them as well.
With your blessing, I’d like to remind Kyle, Cara, Marcella, Eva, Serena, Teresa, and Richard of the qualities and attributes we see in them that give us confidence in their priesthood. I’d also like to suggest a few disciplines that will hold them in good stead no matter where their lives and vocations take them. You are, of course, welcome to listen.
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. His motto was, “You never can tell.”
He used two illustrations to make his point. “I’ve presided over dozens of marriage ceremonies,” he said. “Statistically and anecdotally, I know that a percentage of those marriages ended in divorce. But if I were to have guessed at the ceremonies themselves 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.”
His second illustration was of the ordination of priests. “I’ve presided at many ordination services. Some priests whom I rather uncharitably assumed would be mediocre at best have gone on to serve with faithful and fruitful distinction. Others that I thought were among our most gifted stalled out after only a few years. A few of our brightest stars are now in jail. You never can tell.”
You may remember that from the outset of the long discernment process, before you said a word, we who were given authority to decide if this diocese would sponsor you for ordination assumed that you had been called by God into ministry. Your call was a given. The only question before us was whether or not you sufficiently demonstrated the qualities and attributes that the Diocese of Washington believes the Episcopal Church needs now in its ordained leaders.
I won’t rehearse all seven here, but I want you to know, without a doubt, that we see them in you–in varying stages of development and fruition, to be sure, but they are there. And those qualities, we believe, will help you thrive in ministry no matter the circumstances. That doesn’t mean you’ll always have a full time job in a healthy, thriving congregation. But what it does mean is that your vocation will be both sturdy and flexible enough to adapt to changing circumstances and that your resilience and creativity will enable you to thrive in challenging situations.
The first quality priests need to thrive in ministry 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’s ministry and a desire to guide our people to greater faithfulness and spiritual depth. Each of you, in your own way, has that passion; and it is compelling. There is nothing more important for Christian leadership than a deep love of God — and a lifetime cultivation of that love so that it not grow stale or rote.
But it’s also not enough. The assumption that it is enough has brought down many a priest and stalled many a congregation. And it’s pervasive. Some of you know Tom Berlin, the lead pastor of Floris Methodist Church in Herndon, Virginia, Tom Berlin, who also serves as a Trustee at Wesley Seminary. He’s written several books on fruitfulness in ministry, which I commend to you. In one, he 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 us than the tending of our own spiritual lives. The good news is that you have more.
The second quality we see in you: the ability to communicate the Gospel in ways that people and communities find engaging and relevant to their lives:
Communication, we all know, is multifaceted. No matter the context, if we want to reach people with good news, we need to speak multiple languages, both human and technological. And we need to speak in a variety of settings: from the pulpit, in personal conversation, and through social media to name only three.
The scriptural mandate for expansive, creative communication is clear. One of own priests, Patricia Lyons, calls this “the Pentecost Pedagogy” in her case for teaching the Christian faith through the stories of Harry Potter (Patricia Lyons, Teaching Faith with Harry Potter: A Guidebook for Parents and Educators for Multigenerational Faith Formation (Church Publishing, New York, 2017)). Even in the most seemingly homogeneous context, there are many languages spoken. For some gathered here today, their primary faith language is intellectual; for others, it’s emotional. Across generations, those who speak one language have different meanings for the same words. And it only gets more complicated from there.
Thus, communication, while one of your gifts, will require your vigilant attention. 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. It’s often said that preaching is a priest’s or pastor’s most important task. It is important, which becomes painfully obvious for clergy who aren’t very good at it. I used to believe that preaching was the most important thing I did. But I’ve come to realize that what matters most about preaching is the relationship between my words from 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 at our 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, because the way we communicate doesn’t actually speak to them. 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 today 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. We see the fruits of all three in you, and yet they are the endeavors of a lifetime.
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 words and actions affect other people.
- Asking for help. It is a requirement for ordination that you have experience with spiritual direction, and I’m glad for that. Most ordinands I know have have had a turn or two in therapy, and I’m very glad for that. Now I encourage you to find a mentor, someone who is a bit further down whatever road you feel called to walk. For many years mine was a Lutheran pastor, Chris Nelson. In the same general area of Minneapolis, the congregation he served was three times larger than the one I served. I wanted to figure out how he helped his congregation grow and what I could do to help the one I served grow, too. So I asked him to help me, and he did. He graciously and generously talked me through, and during that season of ministry, I learned more from Chris about leadership than anyone else (Chris Nelson died this week having been diagnosed with cancer earlier this year. May he rest in peace and rise in glory. You can learn more about Chris Nelson and Bethlehem Lutheran Church, Minneapolis here).
Hear in all these practices a life-long commitment to learning and growth. For while you never can tell where the road will take you, you can determine the kind of person you become along the way.
One of ways I used to protect myself from being hurt or disappointed in the church–which happens a lot, by the way–was to always have a Plan B. I would put my name in for a position I wanted and have a Plan B in case I wasn’t chosen. I would take a risk in the congregation and have a Plan B in case I failed. I told myself having such a plan would help whenever I landed hard on the other side of disappointment or failure, which is something we could debate. It was a fruitful exercise in that it gave me a bit of emotional distance and a means of picking myself up and starting again. Those things are important.
But also important is the courage to be committed. I learned this from our younger son who chose another high security profession: theatre. While he was studying for his theatre degree, one of my well-meaning friends asked him, in my hearing, “Patrick, do you have a Plan B?” He was quiet for a moment and said, “I’ve never thought of it that way, actually. This is my Plan A, and I’ll take it as far I can. If I have to make a change down the road, well, that will be my new Plan A.”
You never can tell. But you needn’t doubt, my colleagues in Christ, that you have what you need to embark on this vocation. Should you doubt, look around at the people who know and love you. They don’t doubt the rightness of your vocation, and neither do I, in large part because of your commitment to grow, and your capacity to be flexible, resilient, creative, joyful Christians leaders.
We don’t know where God is taking you, but wherever that is, we are willing to follow. Because the church God is creating is going to be led by the likes of you.
What will that church look like? You never can tell. But surely we can trust that it is God’s next Plan A.