Lifting their Hands – On not leaving pastoral ministry

Being a pastor sucks.  It is also wonderful in ways no other job is.  But there are days even years when the consolations of ministry are few and far between, and the critiques and mistakes form a flood that overwhelms the best of intentions.

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The Very Rev. Rebecca McClain asked me early on in mentoring me into the priesthood of the Episcopal Church what I thought it meant to be a priest.  My answer then is still one I am working out.  I said, “Being a priest means promising to be fully human, bearer of the  image of God and flesh and blood, broken and healed, in front of a group of people, no matter what.”  The vows of ordination are about the roles we play in the church.  But before all of the roles is this simple understanding that I hold about being a human being, a child of God in Christ, a Spirit-led person in front of a congregation.  To be honest about our humanity in its glories and failures sounds nice, but it is hard.  Rebecca and others have helped me to put flesh and blood to it, but it is often not supported and loved by the very people among whom we struggle to live it out.

To lead others toward their full humanity in God in Christ just makes it worse.  People don’t want to change, don’t want to take ownership of their life with God or others, much less practice self-sacrificial love.  People don’t want you to change them or their church, no matter what reasons you offer for doing so.  I know; I work in the church.

I was realizing all of this in the middle of seminary.  I was in my seventh year of ministry by then, having worked in churches and a diocese prior to seminary.  By the seventh year most people leave ministry, and I was ready to join them.  My life was ugly at the time, mostly due to my own shortcomings and sins, and plenty of both.  I was an exile from every community that I could turn to.  I was out of touch with my family, my home community, my various churches.

I was sitting in the dark.  I was actually sitting in the dark of a small chapel at a youth retreat preparing a Youth Encounter team that would be welcoming and leading other youth through a weekend experience of Christ a month leader.  I was a spiritual director for the youth and young adult commission of the diocese, and I was there at the request of the director,  whom we will call Julie.  But I was struggling with leaving ministry altogether.

I was sitting on the side with another spiritual director watching Julie lead the eucharist for the youth.  I don’t remember the sermon.  I was in the tunnel vision of struggle and doubt wondering why I would stay.  I was asking God, What is there in ministry that I would die for? What could I possibly do as a priest that would matter enough for me to give my life to it? Suffering and self-centeredness are natural allies.

As the service turned toward the eucharist, the most intimate and holy space for us as followers of Christ, Julie called two teens up to be the table.  One was this boy with significant developmental issues that made him socially awkward and sometimes very difficult, he was lovable and frustrating at the same time.  The youth had earlier in the day reached the point of excommunicating him and even cruelly pushing him away when one senior girl, a gorgeous popular teen, reached out to him and used her popularity to pull him back into the group and build him up.

Julie had these two come forward and be the table by holding the elements of communion, the bread and the wine.  And Julie, with her wild red hair and her effusive enthusiasm, began to pray the eucharistic prayer from the prayer book from memory.  I was engaged and leaned forward beginning to feel like here in this moment God was answering my questions.

When she reached the place in the prayer where the priest would normally take up the elements and elevate them, she instead bent down on her knees and lifted their hands.  In the moment when the profane becomes holy, she knelt and lifted their hands.

She lifted their hands!  They became more than sacred furniture.  She made them priests, the hands of Christ, bringing their full and broken humanity into the divine act of God in Christ.  It was holy.  It was priesthood.

Now I don’t know if one person there saw what I saw.  But I just began to sob there in the darkness.  I might have said, “Amen.”  But I know I said, “I will die for that.”

So I stayed, and I stay to lift up other people’s hands.  I am still pretty broken as a human being.  Mississippi pastors say we are all dirt and divinity.  I can’t say that I have Julie’s flair and instincts or Rebecca’s maturity, but I know why I am here, why I am still trying to do more than just preach and preside as a holy person doing holy things on holy furniture.

I am heir to that moment when Christ chose to call his disciples brothers and sisters, to take up the cross and set us free, to redeem human beings to be what God made us to be: a royal priesthood of sons and daughters, heirs, and stewards of the creation and each other.  I am heir to the God who comes and lifts us up, who loves us and commands us to love others, who kneels when we expect him to stand.

You are more than sacred furniture to God.  You are his daughter, his son, his beloved heir to the rule of love and grace.  Despite myself, I am still a pastor, and I will lift your hands until you hold them up yourself and make the world holy.

 

 

“The creation waits in eager longing for the revealing of the children of God.”  from Paul’s letter to the Romans

Who Has Authority in Community

In my last post I questioned the profiteer from the past who attempts to hold authority by claiming it from some external place.  So who do we give authentic authority to in community?  This may be one of the  make-or-break questions of church leadership.

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Some people take the room the moment they enter it.  This couple in my first solo parish had that power, or rather the wife did.  She was a presence in every room she entered, and everyone responded to it.  She could build up and destroy.  And usually she destroyed.

My parishioner was a natural born leader with charisma.  She drew attention and people to herself.  She was truly magnetic.  But she used it constantly to complain and control through negative talk.  Every story was negative unless was about her.  Every opinion was negative unless it was about her.  It was real power, and it was totally unconscious.  She destroyed community, and it was only through the balancing presence of other more positive leaders in the church community that her effects were not more devastating to the long term health of the church.

She had power, but she was given authority by those who responded to her.  In the past, I and other leaders had given her additional authority by putting her into responsible positions, thinking that this would somehow cause her to be more self-reflective and responsible.  But her power was unconscious and her ability to therefore wield it responsibly was simply missing.  I loved her, but I began to cut her off intentionally and to build insulating walls around her with people who did not give her authority until over time sickness took her out of the community.  It was passive aggressive to be sure, but I followed up with direct confrontation one on one of specific behaviors when they arose.

One person with a great deal of power can truly stop a community’s development and growth in the Spirit cold, at least for a time.  She was powerful, and we made it worse by giving her authority.

In communities, it becomes important to think seriously about authority, especially as leaders.  A natural leader has real power whether acknowledged or not.  Everyone has the potential to be a leader, but some people are just born magnets.  It is important to be self-reflective and humble enough to be honest about your gifts.  If you are born magnetic, you then have a real responsibility to be careful in community in regards to the influence you have.

Authority though is something no one is born with.  Authority is given.  It is part of the social realm that is negotiated consciously or unconsciously.  We give authority either formally with titles or roles or informally by habits and deferences.

Formally authority is given by title or role.  Because I am a priest, I have certain authority within my church community.  It is given.  I also have some remnant of authority within my larger social community, though it is not as certain as it was in the rumors of the past.  I also have some powers because of my position within the hierarchy and institutional structures, but our focus today is authority.

It is my thesis that in healthy communities we give authority to each members as they take on responsibilities.  This begins from the time a member begins to take responsibility for regular attendance and participation in the story-making of the community.  Once you begin to ask questions and show up weekly, you have begun to accrue a certain store of authority among the members.

We are in an awkward place in the institutional church today because we have regular attenders who are helping to write our communal story but are not members.  This is dangerous because without the responsibility of formal recognition we are allowing people to determine our future with us.  Dangerous does not always mean wrong or even bad, but we have to be self-reflective and intentional about how much we allow those without a stake to play key roles in our communities.

In the Episcopal church, we have traditions that are supposed to mediate this danger by insisting that people be members, baptized and confirmed and in good standing, in order to hold key offices and even perform key tasks.  In these later days, many of our churches though, hurting for active members, have allowed active non-members to step in without asking for the formal declarations and rituals of belonging.  This is understandable, but in my recent work around the church and Benedictine ethos, I have begun to question the risks of these dangers.

First off, we are not talking about hospitality.  Everyone is welcome.  The doors are open.  Come on in.  We love you.  We have to love you if we are to be Christian, much more so if we are to be Benedictine.

Secondly, we are not talking about rights.  Certain things should be true about how we treat everyone without regard to their behavior or gender or class or other distinctions.  The church has fallen down on this to be sure, but let me give a couple of simple examples so we can move on.  Anyone who comes into church should be able to expect to be welcomed, loved, and given a seat.  They should be safe and free from ridicule much less violence or mockery or hate.  This is not based on them, but rather on the ethical code of followers of Jesus.

These things are true and should be reliable in church because of what Jesus told his disciples to do and be.  It is shameful that some populations of people feel hated by the church because of our words and actions of hate or ridicule.  It is natural that some people will disagree with us and even hate us for what we say and teach, that is not the same things as actively singling out people because of who they are or what they have done.

What we are talking about is authority.  As we begin to participate actively in a community we begin to accrue authority given by the members because we are taking an active role in writing the story of the group.  This is natural and reliable in healthy communities.  That deposit of authority grows when we add formal participation and belonging.  It grows as we develop and deepen relationships and responsibilities.

In the Rule, Benedict recognizes that God may speak and often does through the youngest members or in our vocabulary the newest members.  We should be listening for God’s voice then and setting up systems and habits as formal leaders to communicate with and listen to those voices.

The question that has haunted me on my travels and reflections on the architecture of Benedictine communities is, Are there people who should not be in our chapter rooms?  I believe there are.

I have never been into the chapter room at Saint Gregory’s in Three Rivers, Michigan, though I have been on retreat there.  I am a priest in good standing in the church they belong to.  I am love them.  They love me.  I think they do anyway.  I have eaten with the brothers.   I have prayed with them.  I have sat in long silences and read their books.  But I have not been in their chapter room.

The chapter room is interior space.  It isn’t for everyone.  It is not exclusive.  It is intimate.  It is a place for the community to do its business.  In the current state of the church, we have let people who don’t have formal belonging act and live as though they do because we have no boundaries.  And so we have mistaken access and authority for love.

I am loved by the brothers of Saint Gregory’s, but they don’t give me authority.  They don’t cut me off, they just don’t let me in.  It would be a mistake for them to do so.  It would be a violation of their community norms and would bring in dangers that are too great over time to excuse.

This all seems pedantic, I guess, except that it is very relevant to our situation in the Episcopal church today.  We have left the doors open to our chapter rooms, and we have let in those who though we may love them, may agree with them, we should not be letting them write our future.

That statement seems at odds with a Western world that demands openness to all comers, and at a time when government and institutions are taking active steps to force open all doors even in church groups.  Recently colleges have begun to deny access to campus to groups that insist on a dogmatic statement to lead.  The spirit of the age is inclusivity, but when have we gone too far?

It is vital to think and act carefully as stewards of God’s world and Christ’s community.  Here we must carefully discern whom we allow to hold authority.  Can we draw lines carefully? Or must all lines be erased?  More and more who the church is and what our future will be is being written by those who have not committed to Christ or the local community.  I am the first to say that as a pastor I have members who are central to our community who are not members.  But I am more and more deeply troubled, not because I need to control who becomes members, but rather that those who have not committed to the future are helping determine it.

In the larger Episcopal church we have let advocates and supporters write legislation and underwrite controversies with little reflection as to where the money comes from or who is holding the pen for our tomorrows.

If we are to live into a Benedictine vision of leadership we must lead by being willing to commit to people, to loving wildly, and to creating places to hear the voices of our communities, and communicating how to become members, giving authority liberally to those who commit, and to closing the doors that need to shelter those who are trying to hear the voice of God.