2 Job Descriptions
A seminary classmate of mine, who was also a priest in West Virginia when I was there, was once riding an airplane from Los Angeles to Chicago. My friend, let's call him Joe, was wearing, as he seemingly always did, a clerical collar and a black shirt, black suit and black wing-tips. Joe is quite a large man so his priest outfit always made him look like a black-out curtain from the London Blitz. He spent the flight talking amiably with a salesman from the Mid-West. They developed one of those airplane friendships and exchanged business cards and the descent began toward O'Hare. Just as the 747 was taxiing up to the gate, Joe's new friend asked, “What do you do?”
Joe glanced down to make sure his uniform was in place—and hadn't they talked about the church somewhere over Idaho?
“I'm an Episcopal priest,” Joe replied, confused.
The salesman smiled. “Oh, I know what you are,” he said. “I was just wondering what you do.”
It is an interesting observation and question. What on earth does an Episcopal priest do? How can you describe a role that I believe is more ontological than functional? What's the job description? Doesn't every professional DO something?
Once, at a cocktail party in New Haven, surrounded by Yale 'people' (the population of New Haven is divided into 'Yale people' and the masses of the unwashed) I had a long conversation with a physicist from India with one of those delightful post-Raj English accents that sound like a bird's song. You hear that accent most every time you call customer services (aka “help!”) for your computer. All those folks seem to be in India. Since I didn't have on a clerical uniform—and never once flew on an airplane with a collar lest I be seated beside some psychologically disturbed stranger who wants to confess at 40,000 feet—I had told him when we greeted each other what I 'did'. And he told me what he 'did'. It's what people do.
(Here's a fascinating aside: back in the Appalachian Mountains where I grew up, when people meet for the first time the question comes trippingly off each of their tongues is “where are you from?” not “what do you do?” I haven't asked enough people who grew up in really rural places if that was true back home for them. So I don't know if it is purely and urban/rural distinction or has something to do with the culture and ethos of Appalachia. But I know and know fair well that back home you could tell a lot more about a stranger by knowing where they were from and 'who their people were' than you could by finding out how they earned their money. I still have the tendency to ask people where they spent their formative years, believing as I do that there is a wealth of instant knowledge and intimacy in discovering someone's roots. But in the place I live now and amidst the people I know now, the first question in invariably, “What do you do?”)
So I told this Indian physicist that I was and Episcopal priest and he asked me with the guilelessness of someone who was 'from' a place half-a-world away and who was Hindu, if he was anything religious at all, what my 'work' consisted of.
Even then, I had begun to believe that being a priest is an ontological rather than a functional thing, so I fished around in my brain for some way to describe succinctly what my 'being' in the midst of a parish looked like beyond the obvious worship and meetings.
“I'm a member of a community,” I told him, “and I function as the leader of that community in our ritual life. And I am very aware of what is going on in and around the community so that when I see God breaking into the day-to-day, I can say “Stop! Look! There's God...right there!”
He considered that in that lovely, calm and timeless way people from the Indian sub-continent seem to have naturally, took a sip of wine and then said, smiling knowingly, “You're a process observer.”
He, of course, had to explain to an English major that a 'process observer' was an indispensable role in the sciences. Much of what science is about is watching experiments and noting what happens. It is, he told me, rather tedious and painstaking work (not unlike the day-to-day 'duties' of a parish priest) but finally crucial to the march of scientists to the day when they have the String Theory down pat,
“A process observer,” I said to myself, giving the little voice in my head a line to speak of my composition instead of just listening to it chatter on of its own volition. I rather liked the term, yes I did.
The actuality is this: one of the things parish priests DO, it seems to me, is 'point to God in the process.' We do it in the Eucharist—all the sacraments—in a most obvious way. “You may think this is just fish food and bad port”, priests say in the Mass, “But I'm going to 'point out' to you that this is ALSO the very Body and very Blood of Christ. How about 'dem apples?” Or, like this: “You may imagine this is just a little baby and some water and some oil, but I'm going to reveal to you a different way of looking at all this...a way that brings to mind the Creation and the Exodus and John the Baptist and Jesus and the oil of anointing a royal child and the fact that this squirming little creature is actually the most loved Child of God.” Or this: “I know everyone here assumes you are simply a man and a woman anxious to get the reception over and shed these fancy clothes and do what men and women do in the dark, wine-soaked night. But I tell you a Mystery—you are beloved of God and God approves, blesses and watches over you. Go after each other with passion and zeal—it is as the Almighty has ordained.” Stuff like that is what priests “do”. Process observing—seeking to unconceal the oldest String Theory of them all: that God is in control in some way we seldom recognize and can only faintly understand.
Once, several years ago, the remarkable Organist/Choir Director of St. John's—the finest musician I've ever known who doesn't have a big, honking attitude—found a Spiritual he thought I might like, knowing I'm partial to Spirituals. It was called “I Believe This Is Jesus” and went like this--”I believe this is Jesus....Come and see....Come and see....” Bob's idea was that I would, after the fracture of the host, sing the “I believe this is Jesus” part and the choir would respond, “Come and see....Come and see...”, then sing the rest of the song while I administered communion to those serving at the altar. Great idea—real 'process observer' stuff....I'd break the bread and then hold the paten and chalice up and sing, “I believe this is Jesus.” Which I do believe, by the way.
So, without telling anyone but the choir, that's what we did. I broke the bread, took a deep breath since I'm rocky about my singing ability, and broke into song. When the choir responded with the 'Come and See' part, I made 'come here' gestures to the congregation, shifting from foot to foot, remembering why I love Spirituals—you can't stand still and sing them. I turned to give communion to the others at the altar—including the assistant Rector and the Parish Administrator—and they were all staring at me as if I were a crazy person just escaped from the looney bin with sharp weapons. After I force fed them the bread and wine—fattening up the Christmas goose—they dissolved into that kind of laughter that there is simply no way, no way in heaven or on earth, no act of will available to human beings to repress. The “I Believe this is Jesus” Mass passed immediately into St. John's lore. When I talk to people who were there, it still comes up occasionally—them laughing more than me since I am 'process observing—and I can still sing it. I'll sing it for you if you ask me nicely.
I had this ongoing conversation about ontology and function and what a priest 'does' with bishops, priests and lay people if it just doesn't seem to precious and tedious to them. I come down heavy on the 'being' side of the distinction. I actually think a priest's job description is to be in the midst of the community. The functional stuff is neither rocket science or brain surgery. In fact, most of the things a priest does—since we are the last of the 'generalists'--someone else could do much better. Say Mass, for example—I'd suggest training in theater would make for a more dramatic Eucharist than studying theology ever could. Visiting the sick, another example—couldn't a nurse or a social worker pull that off with great aplomb? Teaching Adult Classes—well, give me someone trained in education every day to someone who can recite the Nicene Creed by heart. Counseling the troubled? A seminary education makes you a counselor as much as a class in auto mechanics makes you a jet pilot. Parish priests, if they took my advice, would avoid 'counseling' like the plague and get a rolodex (oops, dated myself) a 'smart phone' full of professionals to refer people to. I can listen to someone's problems but seldom, if ever, do I know or suggest an answer.
(Aside to parish clergy: you know the old saw, “misery loves company”? My belief is that “misery loves misery” and if you start fooling with someone's misery and aren't fully trained to handle the consequences—oh, like they'll blame you if they have to face life without their misery and blame you if you leave them miserable—it's what we call, these days, a No Win/No Win situation. Besides, when people tell me their problems, instead of having the necessary psychological training to bring them to see that only they can solve their problems, I get 'hung up' in their problems, find them fascinating and probably wouldn't want them to go away because they interest me! Call a real professional, that's my advice to a parish priest. Run, don't walk, away from anyone who comes to you for 'counseling'. End of aside.)
So, here I am, trying to describe 'what I do' when the reality I deal with tells me that being a priest is much more about 'being' than 'doing'. I have this argument with people all the time and it goes on and on. Most clergy are so embarrassed that they don't have a 'real job' that they make themselves incredibly busy and overworked to somehow justify what I think is a fact: like Woody Allen said (and this goes squared for priests) “90% of life is just showing up.” Priesthood is about ontology, about 'being' much more than it is about 'doing' or the functions we necessarily fulfill in the Church of God. People, over the years, before I retired, often said to me, “I know you're busy,” as prelude to sharing some joy or sadness. And I would always say, “I'm not busy at all. I sit around waiting to hear from you.”
Perhaps my ontological view of priesthood is the result of my remarkably high view of the sacraments. I believe 'being a priest' is contained and fully lived out in the 'being' of 'being a priest'. The busyness we create is smoke and mirrors and vanity. I've done it too, but I think the most egregious example of putting 'function' over 'being' is exemplified by something that happened here in Connecticut a decade or more ago.
Connecticut always has, for nearly 30 years, three bishops. Count 'em, three bishops for the Episcopal Church in Connecticut. Amazing. I am reminded of Will Rodgers' observation about Methodist ministers. What he said was: “Methodist ministers are like manure. Spread out, they tend to do a lot of good. All in one place they begin to smell.” Well, well, three bishops for Connecticut. (Sniff, sniff....)
But anyway, fifteen years or so ago, someone had the bright idea to have Connecticut's three bishops do a time study of what they 'did' as bishops. This, in its inception was a miscarriage of an idea. First of all, who cares? Secondly, why on earth would they agree to do it? These are Bishops for goodness sake! In our polity they are the cream of the crop, the tops, the Eiffel Towers, the Pacific Oceans of the world of the Episcopal Church. Why would they spend time writing down how they spent their time? And record how much time they spent writing down how they spent their time? Astonishing that someone convinced three more than reasonably intelligent “princes of the Church” to go along with such a hair-brained idea. Time studies for Bishops qualifies as an abomination in my book.
Anyway, they did it. And what is even more outrageous than their agreeing to do it, they allowed it to be published. I remember it vividly. Changing the names to protect the guilty, it went like this: the Diocesan Bishop, Bishop Wall, could claim to spend 80+ hours a week trying to bring in the Kingdom of God. Bishop Cool, one of the two (count them) Suffragan bishops, clocked in at 79 hours a week toiling in the vineyard of the Lord. But the second Suffragan, Bishop Rowdy, tallied up his hours and only worked, on average, 50 hours a week.
I was astonished and horrified by the spectacle of three Bishops lowering themselves to record how long they were on the phone to some troublesome person in St. Something or Other with a ridiculous and totally fabricated complaint about incense or the lack of incense in their parish. Embarrassing is what it was. But I was so proud of Bishop Rowdy. Bishops, like priests and deacons, take a vow at ordination to be a 'godly example'. Since a bishop has been ordained three times, they have agreed to be a 'godly example' thrice. I called Bishop Rowdy and said, “you are the only 'godly example' I have as a bishop. I don't much like you and don't agree with your theology or politics, but by the breath of the Baby Jesus, you are MY BISHOP from here on out. Only you give me the example of not being busy by design and letting your ministry consist of 'being' for me and the whole diocese. Thank you. Bless you. I love you.”
Actually I didn't say it all that way, this is poetic license at work. But that is what I meant.
There was a long, awkward silence on the phone line.
“Bishop?” I said.
He sighed. I heard him sigh. “Jim,” he said, slowly, deliberately, I pray regretfully, “after I saw the other two bishops' time sheets I went back and found 25 hours I neglected to record.”
Holy God, how can a bishop (or anybody) misplace 25 hours a week? And how can priests seek to 'BE' when their bishops are competing to see how functional and 'busy' they can be? How vain and weirdly arrogant for those of us in ministry to imagine our 'doing' is what will bring in or impede the coming Kingdom. Why would we spend so much time worrying and fretting about 'doing' enough rather than seek to explore the nature and purpose of the 'beingness' of being ordained.
My friend John told me this joke once. “An email arrives that says, 'Start worrying, letter to follow'.”
It seems to me that we priests are always worrying about whether we are doing enough to justify our existence. The busyness we create out of nothing is designed so that people will think we are busy about the Lord's work. Being comfortable about 'being' would be more clearly a 'godly example' to the people than running ourselves ragged with make-work.
Back in 2000 I visited 37 of my seminary classmates as a project for a sabbatical. (By the way, in this Diocese, three month sabbaticals are required for each five years of active ministry. I know people who never took one in three decades. They either felt they were indispensable to the parish, which is simply wrong, or they were too nervous about their 'authority' that they couldn't see a value in being away for three months! And, also by the way, the bishop wants to ascertain that priests in this diocese have something they plan to 'do' while on sabbatical. Heaven forbid someone would simply take the time off for themselves and for well-being!) One of my classmates—a guy who was only with us for the last year of seminary and who had been a Roman Catholic priest before he married a woman with five children—told me how gratifying it was to have left VTS
“I've been here long enough,” he told me, “that the people accept the fact that being a priest is the only job in the world that is focused on 'being' rather than doing.” What a thought—a whole career of ministry in one community focused on 'being'! What a pity we don't trust parishioners enough to share that example for life with them. What a pity that we need to make people think we are so terribly busy that we shouldn't be bothered by their petty concerns and wonderings and questions and longings. That, in fact, is precisely what being a priest entails—to be free and available and ready to 'be' with people whenever they need that presence.
I'm not suggesting that 'being with people' will “save them” or “heal them” or do anything more than simply being present with them in their joy or confusion or pain or loss or wonderment. There is a wonderful psychological term: the non-anxious presence. Therapists seek to provide that for their clients—just to be with them, whatever is going on, without anxiety. A calming presence is what most of us need when stuff is happening in our lives. Just that—a shadow in the background that is simply 'there' without attaching themselves to the emotions and feelings of the moment—that is what most of us need, most of the time. And that, it seems to me, is how a priest can 'be' in the midst of the community he/she serves.
I have done what used to be called “EST Training”. Most religious folks I knew at the time thought EST was mind-control and a monstrous intrusion into the lives of those who submitted themselves to it. I am still involved, 20+ years later, with the Mastery Foundation, that uses the 'technology' of EST combined with the practice of centering prayer. I took the Making A Difference workshop when I was considering renouncing my vows as a priest and what I came out of the three days with was my priesthood all shiny and new. The workshop is 'ontological'--it is about 'being' not 'doing'.
Back over a quarter of a century ago, when I was at an EST workshop, I called to tell them I couldn't come to the second weekend because a beloved parishioner of St. Paul's (the parish I was serving at the time) was dying and I had to be with him. The EST Training leaders gave me much grief about my 'commitment' to the training and what if I'd been hit by a truck, who would be with Aaron, who would be his priest then? It seemed a far go to compare missing two days of the training to being a victim of a hit and run, but I listened. I finally rejected all the b.s. arguments they threw at me—some of it reasnable b.s. but b.s. all the same—and went to visit Aaron when I should have been in my chair at the EST training.
Aaron was in a coma and I couldn't 'do' much of anything. I couldn't give him communion or talk with him or reassure him as he was slipping into that good night. So, after 15 minutes I left his room, having anointed him and given him final unction—I could “do” that, after all. I rode the elevator to the lobby and was unlocking my car when I remembered the first weekend of EST and the emphasis on 'being' I had learned there. So I went back up the elevator to the 5th floor and went back to Aaron's room. I sat by his bed for over two hours. From time to time I would read a psalm from my Prayer Book aloud, but mostly for me since he wasn't in my time/space continuum. After two hours I kissed his 88 year old face and headed for the door.
At that very moment, he awoke momentarily from the coma of his last sleep and said, with the basso voice I'd know from him before his illness: “Jim, thanks for being with me....”
It never occurred to me in that moment to 'do' anything. I didn't rush to him bedside and give him communion. I didn't open my BCP and say a prayer. I only answered, “you're welcome Aaron,” and left. Three days later I was the celebrant and preacher at his funeral. I had done my job. I had BE-ed with him. That was what he needed and I was given the privilege of sitting in his presence for a while.
Actually, I do have a definition of the job description of a priest. I've used in in a couple of ordination sermons that did not get me in trouble with a bishop. I think the form of it is—if not RIGHT—at least in the country where RIGHT lives. Here's how it goes: the 'job' of a priest is simply this, to tend the fire, tell the story and pass the wine.
A parish priest has an enormous amount of discretionary time. Don't believe anyone who tells you otherwise. And that time should be spent being the Shaman of the Tribe. I really believe the metaphor of the Shaman is one we priests should embrace. We should walk backwards and sideways. We should speak words our mouths are unfit for. We should do the holy acts and dwell in the 'being' of our being in the midst of the Tribe. We wait with the expectant father. We sit by the sick bed. We pour water on the babies. We whisper nonsense syllables over bread and wine. We light the candles. We tell and re-tell the story of our Tribe in old ways and ways made new. We anoint the sick and dying. We rejoice with the joyous. We are there when one of the Tribe moves to that Good Night. We pour dirt on the casket. We unite the lovers. We sit and wait and are not anxious whatever is happening. Shamans are the role we play in the Tribe who loves us and we love to death.
So, we tend the fire.
Everyone else is too busy in the tides and times of living to pay proper attention. The priest must add the green branch to the dying fire and blow on it until it takes and burns. The priest must know the history of the Tribe and breathe it into the fire as the flame turns to embers. We are the fire-tenders, the wood gatherers, the ones who choose between the green wood and the seasons as is appropriate. That is who we 'are' and how we 'be' in the midst of the Tribe.
We also 'tell the story'. It is a story everyone in the Tribe knows, on some level, in some way. So the way we tell it must annoy and inspire and provoke. It is the story of our particular Tribe and of the larger Tribe we are a part of. It is the story of a God who created us in the very image of God's self and of a God who took on our flesh and a God who died, as we shall die, yet rose from death to prove to us that Life is the last word, the ultimate word, the only word that matters, really matters. So we tell this story with mouths full of pebbles and in halting, stuttering words and with an eloquence we neither deserve nor can rise to, except the Spirit leads us and gives up speech. We tell this story as the tribe sits by the fire we tend and we watch their eyes...heavy, full of sleep, confused and questioning, brimming with tears. It is always the eyes we must watch—those subtle pathways to the soul—as we tell t he story in old ways, ofter heard, and in new ways to surprise and delight and confound. We have tended the fire and told the story.
What is left is this—to pass the wine.
When I used to do baptismal classes , I'd bring out the symbols that are part of the service: bread, wine, water, holy oil, a candle and the scallop shell that's used to pour the water. If there were several candidates, I'd mix the parents and god parents so they would be with people they didn't know, and give each group one of the symbols to talk about. The distinction I'd make between symbol and sign is simple: a sign 'points to something' while a symbol not only 'points to something' but participates in the deeper reality of what it points to. Then, after conversation, the groups report back on their particular symbol.
I'm always interested in the report back about wine. We are still part of a remarkably Puritanical culture where wine is not openly praised. Of course I know church basements and parish halls are full each week with AA meetings—there is a downside to alcohol. But my thought has always been that the deep-down value of something can be measured most accurately by how much it has been misused and abused. Oh, take Christianity for example. We Christians have a lot to account for when it comes to oppressing and persecuting people with our faith. The Christian faith has been so misused and abused that it must be of great value—silver and gold and pearls.
Most of the time, the group reporting back on wine will make a joking reference to the intoxicating quality of wine. They are seldom comfortable to reflect on the joy and goodness of wine. The seldom mention that we refer to alcohol as 'spirits', a telling figure of speech. Most people don't feel confident in being counter-cultural enough to say wine is a good and gracious substance. Never has any group reported back by saying In Vino, Veritas, So I tell them how valued and important wine is to the tribe gathered by the fire, listening to the story. Invaluable, I say—that's what wine is to the life and metaphor and myth of the Tribe. There must be wine to make us mellow and congenial and to “inspire” us and bring the story to full bloom and to make the dying fire look like a wondrous and warming blaze to keep us safe from the Darkness all around us.
So, the priest passes the wine.
None of the functions or tasks or acts of my priestly job description actually 'require' ordination. Just about anyone could tend the fire and tell the story and pass the wine. But in our Tribe—the Episcopal Church—we have long ago determined to set someone 'apart' for those acts, those liturgies, those rituals. So we ordain priests and entrust them with the work of “being” in our midst to “do” these small but oh, so significant tasks. The Shamans of the Tribe walk backwards, speak in nonsense syllables and touch the Holy Things.
A dear friend, the wife of a seminary classmate, told my wife that when her husband was ordained, “his hands changed”.
My wife, God bless her, said she hadn't noticed any change in mine.
Here is the conundrum about being a priest: nothing changes really. It isn't the ordination that matters so much as the willingness to “be” when all the world around is so obsessed with “doing”. That is the difference, the set apartness, the uniqueness of the calling. His/her hands don't change—not a chance, that's just an illusion. What happens, so far as I can tell, is simply this: some sap agrees to 'be' rather than 'do'. (A one time assistant of mine told me, “Jim, you can do nothing better than anyone I've ever met....” As I remember she was frustrated by my inactivity when she thought I should be doing something or another. But I took it as a confirmation and a compliment.)
The Truth is, it's a great job—process observing, tending the fire, telling the story over and over again, passing the wine. The down side is if we take ourselves too serious or confuse yourself with Jesus or decide you can save the world or anyone in it. That is the road to ruin. Keep the job description simple—observe the process, keep the fire buring, tell and retell the story, take a good sip of wine before passing it on, have the courage to not feel guilty about simply 'being', don't 'make up' stuff to do and keep you busy. And it's a great job, actually....