Wednesday, March 11, 2009

My three rules of priesthood

One of the joys of my life as a priest has been to work with seminarians from Yale/Berkeley Divinity School over the years. I try, from time to time to make a list of them, but I always blank on a name or two--even if I remember the face--but I know that Fred and Kerith, the two seminarians working here with me now push me way past 25, probably to 30 in the number of seminarians I've supervised (though what I call 'supervision' is more like 'fishing for crabs'...something for another post.

We share a lot and I always learn more from them than they do from me, yet there are three rules of priesthood...I should type that as THREE RULES OF PRIESTHOOD...I seek to pass along in one way or another. They are the three rules I've come up with in 30+ years of doing this and I stand by them.

I. RULE ONE--There is nothing to 'fix'
A lot of people go into ministry because they want to 'fix' things. That's probably one of the reasons I became ordained though it is so long ago I have forgotten it or come to understand how vain and silly it is. THERE IS NOTHING TO FIX. The people I have found most difficulty in supervising are people who come to ministry out of either a social work or psychological background. Every fiber of their being tells them they must 'fix' this or that and that in 'fixing it' they will be justified in what they're doing. Let me say it again: THERE IS NOTHING TO FIX. Don't waste your time and God's trying to fix God's people or God's church. God's people are who they are and if they have a problem that requires 'fixing' there are professionals to do that. Mostly, they're doing just fine, thank you, and leave them alone. Don't invent problems for you to 'fix'. They don't want 'fixing' and the 'problems' will be your invention. Leave them alone. God is watching out for them--your job, as a priest, is to be their leader, their magic person, their friend, if you are priviledged enough to be invited that far into their lives.

Scarcely a day goes by when someone doesn't say to me something like: X is so mad about thus and hurt Y's feeling when you....Z needs some help. This is a sub-text of Rule One. It's not just priests who think 'something needs fixed'. Everyone lives out of a context that 'fixing' things is needed. So they will advise you about what needs fixed and who is involved. Don't ignor the message, ponder it in your heart, but whatever you do, don't 'act' on it. You will be a part of a massacre if you do! Let it be. Only deal with problems that are the problems of the person talking with you. Otherwise all you will do is act on second-hand information and be punished for it. Just try it a couple of times and see. X is upset about the sermon but when you ask them 'why are you upset about my sermon?' they'll say, "what, me...? I liked your sermon? Why would you think that?" Try to preach sermons so offensive that those who dislike them will come to you themselves. Don't ever, ever, not ever act on second hand information....

Don't preach third grade sermons--preach graduate level sermons and expect that you are still not being challenging enough. Lay folks have a great deal more sense than any clergy person imagines or can imagine. They are not sheep who need you to shepherd them--they are shining children of God who need you to treat them as if they were. Never imagine your education puts you 'ahead' of them in any way. These are people who not only come to church without being paid to (as clergy are!) they are people who pay for the priviledge of coming to hear your nonsense. They aren't children and you aren't grown up. Treat them as peers and you'll be surpised to discover that they are you peers--and ahead of you in lots of ways. I hate it when a clergy person refers to the congregation s/he serves as "my people". They aren't "your people", Bozo, they are God's people and you are their hired hand. Don't dare 'lord it over them' in any way. It is the 'self fulfilling prophecy' acted out in parish life. They will be (those people who 'aren't' yours) exactly who you expect them to be. Expect them to be smarter than you. Never mind that it is true...really will give you some work to do to keep up with them....

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some ponderings by an aging white man who is an Episcopal priest in Connecticut. Now retired but still working and still wondering what it all means...all of it.