Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Ordinary Time

This coming Sunday the Church will celebrate the Reign of Christ, or Christ the King Sunday. If we continued to count it as we have been counting "ordinary time" then it would be the twenty-seventh Sunday after Pentecost. Six months. Half a year.

It was on Pentecost Sunday that I said goodbye to the people of St. Francis, Holden after fifteen years as their rector. This past six months (and in truth the six months leading up to it) has been a season of change and transition. Most of the changes (new house, new office, new commute, new role) have happened, but this time of transition continues to unfold. Even so, it feels like something approaching a new normal is on the horizon. Transition involves both loss and gain, which means both grief and celebration.

People keep asking me how I like the new job. I try to gauge when I am asked this question whether they are just being polite, like when someone says "how are you doing?" and you know that they don't really have a half hour to listen to how you are doing. So I usually say "fine" and that's true: I do like the new job. But like all transitions, it's complicated.

What I really do like is the adventure of it all. I like learning new things. I am the kind of kid who liked going back to school because I have always liked learning new things, and this new job is inviting me to not only add a whole bunch of new skills to my "bag of tricks" and of course navigate the challenge of meeting a lot of new people week after week in congregations, but more than that it is an invitation to see the world (or at least the church in the world) through a different pair of eyes. It's an invitation to stretch. I have always been a part of a team in ministry but for the past fifteen years I'd been the "captain" of the team as rector. (Or at least they let me believe that.) Now I'm part of the supporting cast, and that's a change but it's one I've welcomed.

In fact, if I can stick with a sports metaphor a bit longer, it feels a bit like moving from being a player to being a coach and more accurately part of the coaching staff. If I was "calling the plays" before as a quarterback/rector, then now the bishop is something like the head coach and I'm the canon managing the offense or the defense or maybe the special teams, depending on the day of the week. That move from being on the field to coaching is a tricky one to navigate, and not every great player makes a great coach; and some mediocre players end up finding their vocation there. I guess one could use the same kind of metaphor from the education world and say that it's a bit like (I imagine) the move from classroom teaching to administration would be.So that is what it feels like and that transition, while exciting to me, doesn't happen over night. Six months is just a beginning...

I like being in a different congregation each week and seeing the rich diversity of the diocese I serve. I like seeing how people face the common and unique challenges that are shaped by contextual issues of a particular time and place. Surprisingly, I like the travel, at least so far. I may not feel that way when January and February roll around but for now it is a kind of reflective time between work and home that I never had when I lived 100 yards or so from work.

I keep telling people that the rhythms are different from parish ministry. Advent coming up around the corner is hardly on my radar, at least in terms of needing to do any planning for it. I look forward to the first Christmas Eve ever (and I mean that literally) where the four of us in my family can go to church together and sit in the pews. (I've had duties on Christmas Eve since I was a second-year seminarian, which is it's been twenty-six years since Hathy and I went to St. John the Divine in New York City together, and that was before either of our kids were born.

And I loved every minute of that, truly, which is why that reality provides a nice segue - although I must say I don't miss the anxiety of planning for a live nativity pageant that includes donkeys and sheep in church on Christmas Eve! While I'm excited about a different kind of Christmas Eve I know that at some point during the liturgy I'll be writing my own Christmas Eve sermon from the pews; hopefully not being overly critical of the one being preached from the pulpit.

The preaching is in fact one of the things I miss as well, even though I've been in pulpits virtually every week of this "ordinary time." But I've been there as a guest, not as someone in an ongoing relationship and conversation with a congregation. I got to a point in Holden where I could "think out loud" - where I was working out my own salvation at some level (with fear and trembling) through the work of preaching. I am not yet sure even that every congregation I visit knows when I am joking. In Holden they almost always laughed at my jokes.

I miss celebrating too, that is presiding at the Eucharist since mostly I am coming into congregations where a rector is in place as preacher, not doing "supply work." I miss the birth-to-life part of parish ministry and those weekends when one literally might have a baptism, wedding, and funeral all in the same weekend. Not every weekend was like that but enough months were and some weekends literally were as to remind me that a parish priest is privileged to walk with people from cradle to grave.

The losses are real and whenever I share these thoughts with my wife she says, "do you wish you were still in the parish?" And the answer is truly, no. Even as I list these things I miss, I do not feel particularly sad. Only that these things are definitely in the loss column and I know that when I was doing them, I rarely missed an opportunity to be thankful for them. If anything, what I feel is deeply appreciative of the wisdom of good old Qoheleth, the Preacher/Teacher who gave us the book of Ecclesiastes. For everything there is a season...

I believe that twenty years in parish ministry and four in campus ministry is good preparation for the work I am now called to do. Unlike people who end up in diocesan ministry after a couple of years in a parish, I know what it's like in all of its complex glory and so I know at a deeper level the challenges that parish clergy face and that congregations as a whole face. I think that makes me better able to do the work I am now doing because it is not "theoretical" for me. So far, while I have no easy answers, I've not faced one challenge with a single congregation that I haven't been through myself: discerning a future missional direction, financial challenges, conflict over leadership style...etc. I understand what stewardship season is like and the anxiety it often produces, even though it is no longer a concern of mine (at least in the vocational sense) I appreciate what it means to be facing personal/family/health challenges and still trying to be authentic and yet not an emotional mess as the leader of a congregation.

In fact perhaps the part I am enjoying the most is the role of being pastor to pastors. Co-mentoring a "Fresh Start" group for new clergy and clergy in new positions reminds me of what I've learned and also of what I never learned so well. I'm thinking a lot about conflict these days and that it is unavoidable wherever two or three gather together, but that when we gather together in the name of Christ it is possible to embrace healthy conflict that leads toward reconciliation and healing, rather than the old tactics of shaming and blaming. Quite frankly it is easier to see how change always meets with some resistance that leads to some level of conflict from the sidelines, where you can see the whole field and are generally a bit less likely to be the one being hit, or doing the hitting. (Sorry, again with the football metaphor and I never even played anything but touch!)

And so it goes. I don't usually say all of that when asked how it's going. But that is, in part at least, how it goes. Life is good, and every day I am grateful not to be bored: to be challenged by work that I think matters, to be learning and growing in my faith, to have extraordinary colleagues, and to be seeking and serving Christ, with God's help.


  1. They're lucky to have you. Continued blessings for all the non-ordinary times as Canon...

  2. Thank you, Rich, for this blog entry. I am writing this from Florida, the place to which my brother retired. (my sister-in-law has two laptops set up and I indulge daily). Since I took on a part-time job after retiring, this is the first time I have really had the time to say yes to his invitation to visit. I am grateful to you for letting us know how you are doing. Otherwise, we might project onto your life what we imagine you are going through. It is so much better to have the truth of your experience. And, as your sermons always did, you have helped us reflect on our own experience and transitions. Keep us aware of you, it helps us be more sensitive to others and more aware of our own journeys. Fortunately for all of us, you are still among us here in this part of God's creation and the Church's life. Janice Schuyler