Ordination to the Sacred Order of Priests: What Does a Fruitful Ministry Require?

by | Jun 5, 2021

’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

Each of us was given grace according to the measure of Christ’s gift. The gifts he gave were that some would be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, some pastors and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, until all of us come to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to maturity, to the measure of the full stature of Christ. We must no longer be children, tossed to and fro and blown about by every wind of doctrine, by people’s trickery, by their craftiness in deceitful scheming. But speaking the truth in love, we must grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and knitted together by every ligament with which it is equipped, as each part is working properly, promotes the body’s growth in building itself up in love.
Ephesians 4;7; 11-16

Jesus said, ‘I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.
John 10:1

Good morning. 

This I know: that I am not only among friends who are thrilled to be together, in this sacred space, to give praise and thanks to God, but also, that I am among those who have deep affection and admiration for at least one of the three to be ordained priests today. 

It is a privilege to be here with you in person and those present online. Having walked alongside Catherine, Hope, and Doug in the last few years, I know how grateful they are for you, their family, friends, teachers and mentors. “I was planted in really good soil,” Hope said yesterday, and she was, as were Catherine and Doug. Thanks to all who helped them become the magnificent human beings that they are, and for encouraging them on the journey of discernment and preparation for a life as a priest, a life under this particular vow and dedication.  

I speak now to you, Catherine, Hope, Doug: You come from different backgrounds and have had distinct life experiences. You have different temperaments and personality traits.You attended vastly different seminaries and have been shaped by them. Yet by virtue of the timing of your call and formation process, you have walked these last years together. I loved being in your company, watching and listening to you engage and encourage each other along. 

I want to say publicly what I told you yesterday when we met with Canon Phillips: we are grateful and proud to be the diocese from which this particular call in your life emerged. On behalf of all in the Diocese of Washington and all who will experience your priesthood wherever your vocation takes you, thank you for saying yes, and for walking the path so faithfully and toward this day, even when it was hard. I have no doubt that you will have long and fruitful ministries–probably not exactly in the way you imagine, because there is much beyond your knowledge or control. But I am confident, in the words of the Apostle Paul, that the One who has begun such a good within you will see it through to completion. 

In preparation for today I’ve been thinking about the qualities and attributes that make for a long and fruitful ordained ministry. I’ve been ordained for over 30 years, and for those years I’ve also been a student of what it takes to be a faithful, compassionate, and effective leader in the church.

For when we hear Jesus say, as we did just now, ‘I am the good shepherd’ it’s important to remember, as the priest who preached at my ordination sermon reminded me, that as priests, we are not the shepherd. We are one of the sheep following Jesus, the Good Shepherd of all. The quality of our leadership depends on the quality and depth of our followership. At the same time, as priests we assume roles associated with the shepherding of souls and are granted certain authorities that we dare not take lightly. We are to be a credible expression of what it looks like to follow Jesus.

To be clear, these attributes and qualities for a faithful, fruitful priesthood are so foundational that if you didn’t have them already, you wouldn’t be here. So I am not going to say anything that you don’t already know and isn’t already true about you. My hope is simply to encourage you to pay attention and to nurture these core attributes and qualities, for left untended, like all things, they can grow stale. We either grow in our walk of faith and leadership or we drift. And no one drifts upstream. As Doug said yesterday, today isn’t only the culmination of one journey but the beginning of another. 

So here we go: 

Quality and attribute number one: A love for Christ and His Gospel. 

At some point in your life you fell in love with Jesus and felt called to walk in His Way of Love in this world. That love, as you know, is mutual. He loves you. He loves you as he loves everyone in this Cathedral and every human being on the planet. It’s an incomprehensible, unfathomable love. Your love and mine, in response to his love, is fickle and distractible. As with all love, we either grow in our capacity to love Jesus or we don’t. Growth in love requires attentiveness and intentionality and those stakes-in-the-ground moments when we know we’ve crossed a new threshold. 

I’m thinking now of a time in Jesus’ ministry when, according to the Gospel of John,  Jesus said some hard things that caused many of his followers, as the text says, “to no longer go about with him.” So Jesus turns to the Twelve and asks the question that moves me when I read it, “And what about you, do you also wish to go away?” Think of the vulnerability he must have felt in that moment. Simon Peter (in one of those moments when you can’t help but love the guy) says: “Lord, where would we go? You have the words of eternal life.” (John 6:67-68) They had come too far to turn back, although there were still awful moments of denial in the near future. But even then, Jesus still loved them, and chose them to be the ones to carry his movement forward. You remember how after the resurrection, Jesus would ask that same Simon who had denied him three times, “Do you love me?” “Three times he asked, “Do you love me.” With tears in his eyes, Simon says, ‘yes, Lord, you know that I love you.” (John 21:15-17) Of course Jesus knew. He wanted Simon in his shame to know that Jesus knew. Jesus knows that you love him, too. But this is a love to invest in your entire life and beyond.

The second quality and attribute essential for a faithful and fruitful priesthood is like unto the first, for it is the second half of the Great Commandment: to love other people as you love yourself, and as Jesus would later say more pointedly, “love others as I love you.” (John 13:34) What did Jesus say to Simon after asking him if he loved him? “Feed my sheep.” In other words, love as you have been loved and forgive as you have been forgiven. 

You have such love in your hearts already. The task before you is to grow in your capacity to love. Such growth comes through on-going relationships and learning from failure. It comes through genuine curiosity about the life experiences of another. As we all know, sometimes love comes so easily that it seems to pour out from us. At other times it is excruciatingly hard. Easy or hard, Scripture could not be more clear that love is the call. “If we say we love God, and do not love our fellow human beings, we are liars. For if we cannot love another human being whom we can see, we cannot love God whom we have not seen.” (1 John 4:20) Love doesn’t mean that we are pushovers or doormats, saying and doing what others want us to say or do. Love can be an emotion but it is not defined by emotion, but by deeds. 

Those of us who wear the signs and carry the symbol of religious life have a particular responsibility to grow in love. You know as well as I that it is perfectly possible to profess the Christian faith and, as one theologian diplomatically put it, “still be a jerk.” It’s easy to claim the mantle of Christianity and still be arrogant, boastful and rude, not to mention mean, catty, and cruel. Or, conversely, to be so squishy as to stand for nothing. 

The wondrous Benedictine nun Joan Chittister has particularly pointed words for those of us in the religious life, echoing, of course, Jesus’ critique of the religious leaders of his day;

The spiritual life is not a collection of asceticisms; it is a way of being in the world that is open to God and open to others. . . . It is so easy to tell ourselves that we have overlooked the needs of others because we were attending to the needs of God; to go to church instead of going to a friend whose depression depresses us; to want silence rather than the demands of children; to read a book about religion than to listen to a spouse talk about their work or their loneliness. It is so much easier to practice the privations of the privatized religion of prayers and penances than it is to make fools out of ourselves for the Christian religion of justice and peace. . . The godly are those who never talk destructively about another person and who can be counted one to bring an open heart to a closed and clawing world. 1

This is aspirational love–what Dostoevsky called love in action, as opposed to love in dreams–that requires labor and fortitude. He also wrote this: “But I predict that just when you see with horror that in spite of all your efforts you are getting further from your goal instead of nearer to it–at that very moment I predict that you will reach it and behold clearly the miraculous power of the Lord who has been all the time loving and mysteriously guiding you.”2

We will always fall short, and continually be brought up short in our efforts to love. A faithful and fruitful priesthood depends upon your capacity to grow in love, to get better at it as you live, and by your example and your teaching, to help others do the same. 

The last quality and attribute that I’ll mention today is something we discussed at length yesterday: self awareness, that is, knowing who you are and growing in that knowledge by continual reflection, self-examination, and by paying attention to how others experience you. Self awareness requires a life-long commitment to what the letter to the Ephesians describes as ‘spiritual maturity,’ growing into the full measure of the stature of Christ.   

Yesterday we reflected on a passage about self awareness written by Rowan Williams, the former Archbishop of Canterbury, in small book on the Christian belief entitled Tokens of Trust3:

There are things in my life that I’m aware of, there are the things that I’m not aware of, and there are the things that I try not to be aware of, that I’m ashamed of or frightened by. But all that I am is the working out of what God has made, and who God has called into a dedicated life, a life under vows. Some of this has worked out well; some not so well. I have learned to make good use of some of what God has given me and I’ve made a mess of some of the rest, and some I just haven’t come to terms with yet but all of it is whom God has loved, and whom God has called. 

To walk through life knowing that there are things about ourselves that we are aware of, some that we are unaware of; and some that we work hard to keep from our conscious awareness is the path of humility. To trust that all that we are is what God has made and God has called into a dedicated life is to walk that journey with quiet confidence. It involves expanding our awareness by allowing others, and life itself, to continually teach us about who we are in all our gifts and vulnerabilities as we daily make our imperfect offering. 

The on-going process of self awareness is, at times, exhilarating, as we discover things about ourselves we didn’t know were true or possible; and other times really hard, when we dare to ask others to give us feedback. It’s important to have people in our lives who love us enough to give honest feedback about our lives and our work, so we can learn what it’s like for others to be in our presence and better understand what we’re like under pressure. 

And about those things that bring us shame and that we don’t want to deal with–suffice it to say that we all have them. It takes energy to keep them buried in our unconscious. We can tell when those parts of us are being disturbed by the level of our defensiveness or shame. It’s tempting to lash out in those moments or collapse into despair, neither of which is particularly helpful or edifying. They are instructive clues, however, that we’re in vulnerable territory, beyond our awareness. Then we can bring those less than helpful or edifying reactions to God in prayer and explore the mystery of who we are and whom God is called. As we grow in awareness and maturity we give God more to work with in and through us. 

As I bring this sermon to a close, you may have noticed two things about my words to these soon-to-be priests. 

First, nothing I’ve said touched upon the specifics of their actual work in the church. That’s because we don’t know what work will be. There is much fluidity in the work priests do these days, some of it for pay, some not. There are a few classic ministry positions that offer a living wage as well as a relatively clear vocational path, but not as many as there are people called to the priesthood. Even those positions, in most cases, require leadership skills well beyond your priestly training and sacramental notions of what a priest does. More and more positions require the capacity to lead stressed communities through processes of transformation that require our own transformation as well. Moreover, as William Temple once famously said, “It is a mistake to suppose that God is only, or even chiefly, concerned with religion.” 

The qualities and attributes I’ve described will serve Hope, Catherine and Doug well no matter where their vocation takes them.

Second, you’ll notice that these qualities and attributes are not exclusive to the priesthood but to anyone, as Roman Williams wrote, who lives under vows. Yes, they have been called to this life, to this vow. But all human beings are called to a life under vows–baptismal vows for Christians and all manner of vows that we share with the rest of humanity. The great heresy of our time, as the Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggeman is known to say, is the idea that anyone can live an uncalled life, a life with no reference point beyond the self.

Hope, Catherine, and Doug: Your calling as a priest, your life under this vow, is meant to help others discover and live well under their vows, whatever they may be. For those drawn to Jesus and His Way of Love, you are to be a witness, an example, a fellow traveller and a guide on the life-long journey of becoming more like him and joining in the great Jesus movement to help realize God’s dream for all. 

It’s more than you or any of us can do alone or perfectly. But you have the core qualities and attributes inside you, and you have thus far nurtured them well. So go in humility and confidence into your ministry as priests. Remember that you are not called to perfection, but to faithfulness. And be confident of this, that the One who has begun this good work in you will see it through to completion. Amen. 

1 Joan Chittister, O.S.B, The Rule of Benedict: Insights for the Ages (Crossroad: New York, 2004), p.23.
2 Fyodor Dostoevsky, The Brothers Karamazov 
3 Rowan Williams, Tokens of Trust: An Introduction to Christian Faith (Westminster Knox Press: Louisville, 2007).