Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Clay Pots

As often happens in life, and in ministry, I've had one of those "two sides of the coin" experiences this week that reminds me about the joys and limitations of pastoral ministry, and of the importance of boundaries even when that may be heart-wrenching.

First, a longtime former parishioner of mine died. She was a founding member of St. Francis Church and a member of the search committee that called me to serve as their fifth rector over fifteen years ago. It is the first death in the parish since I left and it saddens me not to be presiding at the funeral. (As it turns out, I"m on vacation so even if I was still the rector I would have found myself away and this probably would have been even more difficult. Even so...) 

Most lay people (and too many clergy) do not understand why this is so. I had a pastoral relationship here; why can't that continue? The answer is that if I kept being the pastor past the time of actually being the pastor, there would not be space for my my successor(s) to step into the breach. 

And here is the thing: the family is in perfectly good hands with my former Associate, who is a wonderful pastor. So this is a good reminder that it's not all about me! My absence makes the presence of another possible. This is not a justification, but a great mystery, I think. On the one hand our faith is deeply incarnational: it is about being present in-the-flesh by word and by action. On the other hand, it is not about us. We are servants, not messiahs. We carry this great treasure in earthen vessels - in clay pots. (see II Corinthians 4:7)

In my new job I am working with a nearby parish whose rector has just announced his departure. In the midst of that transition I was asked to officiate at a wedding this fall that has been scheduled before an interim arrives, but after the current rector has departed. I am happy to do this wedding and make some deeper connections to a family I already know, but whom I would otherwise not get to know in this way. In this case, the absence of another makes my presence possible. I'm now able to step into that breach created by another clergy transition. I am invited to be a servant. 

Ministry is not about us: it is not about fulfilling our ego needs or about our need to be needed. It is tempting for God's people (and especially, I think, the ordained) to think we are indispensable. We are not.

And yet ministry is all about us, because we can choose whether or not to say, "here I am, Lord." We carry a great treasure in clay pots...

In my new role, I am increasingly aware of our web of interdependence as God's people and in fact just as people: no man (or woman) is an island...  I knew this as a parish priest, but in a relatively "successful" parish it was possible to operate as if it were otherwise: to take care of our own. In diocesan ministry, it is increasingly clear to me that we must learn to be more collaborative and rely more on one another in partnerships and for the health of the system to share ministry. We are not cogs in a wheel; not "interchangeable parts." But neither does the work of the Kingdom rest on our shoulders alone as Father or Mother "Lone Rangers." 

We need each other. But more importantly we need to trust one another. This extends to serving as a bishop, as a priest, as a warden, or as the director of an altar guild. And there is a time and a season for everything under the sun. This does not make it any easier to let go; if anything it makes it harder because we care so deeply. But as we live more deeply into this mystery, we find even greater health within the Body. 

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