Wednesday, June 14, 2017

Some End-of-Sabbatical Reflections

While I still have two weeks left on Sabbatical (and am in no way wanting to wish that time away!) I am definitely aware that this three-month journey will soon be coming to a close. I end as I began: in prayer with the brothers of The Society of St. John the Evangelist. In April, I spent Holy Week at the monastery in Cambridge and on this spectacular late spring day in New England, I've arrived at Emery House in West Newbury to reflect for a few days on what I've learned, or perhaps more accurately remembered, about ministry during this time away.

Meister Eckhart once said that if the only prayer you ever say is “thank you,” it would be enough. As I enter the home stretch, my heart feels very grateful for this amazing gift of time. I am grateful to our diocese for this generous policy and grateful to my boss, Bishop Doug Fisher for his constant encouragement. I am also grateful for my canon colleagues, Pam and Steve, who picked up some of the work left in my absence and to the entire staff at “37 Chestnut,” especially Karen Warren, who serves in an administrative support role to Pam and me.

Emotional reactions to Sabbaticals vary significantly, I've found. Even when someone says, "I wish I got a Sabbatical" they can say that in a hundred different ways. Outside of academia (where there is an expectation to produce something in terms of research) they are rare. Earlier this week I was speaking with a medical doctor who said to me, "gosh I could sure use a Sabbatical!" He didn't say it in a way that begrudged me this time, but more in a tone of a kind of holy envy. I think many people would benefit from such time, but outside of the Church it's unfortunately not something we've cultivated. I do think Europeans have a healthier attitude about work and time for more holiday, which is not the same but helps. All work and no play really does make Jack and Jill dull boys and girls and Americans are expert at this. It always makes me sad when someone who gets just two weeks vacation a year says, "I don't have time to take it!" I want to say, quite literally, "for the love of God..."

According to The Book of Common Prayer, the ministers of the Church are lay persons, bishops, priests, and deacons. (Page 855) All of these ministers are called “to represent Christ and [Christ’s] Church.” But we live out our several callings differently. The ministry of a priest is to do this particularly “as pastor to the people; to share with the bishop in the overseeing of the Church; to proclaim the Gospel; to administer the sacraments; and to bless and declare pardon in the name of God.” (Page 856)

A visitor outside my hermitage as I write these notes
Four years ago, my ministry context shifted from parish ministry, where I had a pretty good idea of what this commitment looked like on a daily basis, to diocesan ministry. I have a number of friends who are bishops, including our very own, and it interests me to watch them when they shift from parochial ministry to that episcopal role. But it isn’t only their “job” that changes when they do that; their order of ministry also changes. They are still called (with all of God’s people) to represent Christ and Christ’s Church, but they do it differently. And there is some clarity in that. (And for those of us who are Myers-Briggs “TJs” as I am, we do like our clarity!)

But I’ve changed contexts while still remaining a priest. And I’m still figuring out what that means! That part about administering the sacraments and blessing and declaring pardon in the name of God – I knew what that looked like as the rector of a congregation where I had many weeks where I’d celebrate the Eucharist at least three times a week. I “hatched, matched, and dispatched” on a regular basis. Now, while I’ve committed to a pretty full preaching schedule as a canon, I may go a month without presiding at the Eucharist. This has been an adjustment. It's not bad; it just raises some existential (or at least vocational) questions.

The big theological question I took into this Sabbatical was this: how is my priestly ministry taking shape in this time and place as a member of Bishop Fisher’s executive team? This has been about more than the day-to-day work itself, which I thoroughly enjoy and find meaningful and for which I think I'm well suited. Some days I’ve wondered, though, how (or if) this work would be different if I were a layperson. And in fact I have colleagues in the wider Church (including Steve) who share this work as lay persons.  Although there are lots of “other duties as assigned by the Bishop,” the piece of the work that most feeds my soul is the part that deals with clergy transitions. It’s not just about running an ecclesiastical for a congregation looking for a priest. It’s an opportunity for a congregation to hit re-set in a way and to ask bigger missional questions. There are obstacles (namely fear and anxiety) to doing that hard work, but there is also great opportunity for transformation and trusting the Holy Spirit. There is an invitation to enter a time of mutual growth and learning and this is pretty rewarding and exciting work that, as I said, suits me well. But in what ways is this an exercise of my priestly ministry? How is serving as a canon a way of living out the vows I took as a priest?

I come back to that full BCP definition which is about more than the sacraments and I wonder if in fact all of life is meant to be lived as “sacramental.” It’s not just about what happens at the altar or the font with those outward and visible signs of an inward and spiritual grace. It's about living sacramentally, about becoming more and more of an outward and visible sign of that inward and spiritual grace. It's perhaps about how we approach the work God has given us to do. This has been a discovery (or at least a rediscovery) from this time away for me. 

Also, those other parts of being a priest, like pastoral ministry and sharing oversight with the bishop, have been greatly accentuated in my work as Canon to the Ordinary. Congregations going through transitions need a pastor, even when they have an interim in place. They need someone who can hold hope for them that God isn’t finished with them yet, even when they may be scared. And clergy need pastoral support too, precisely because the work is so challenging. As a parish priest I considered myself a team player, serving in various diocesan roles over fifteen years, including as a member of Diocesan Council, and as Chair of the Commission on Ministry. But now I wake up every day and get to do something to support the bishop’s ministry. I have a voice in his role in “overseeing the Church” and quite honestly I see the Church differently than I did as a parish priest.

How so? Parishes are by definition, “parochial.” They are focused, rightly, on a specific community and the challenges that particular community faces in a place and time. Being the rector of a suburban parish in the 1950s simply isn't the same as serving an urban parish in the twenty-first century. But in the midst of the many challenges of parish ministry, clergy can lose sight of the greater vision as they wrestle with all of those local challenges. Parish ministry can become quite isolating, especially if one is not careful and intentional.

As a priest, then, I’ve been stretched in so many new ways these past four years by seeing this larger context, even beyond our diocese. I recall even now something a retired bishop said to me when I accepted this position; essentially that seeing ministry from the perspective of the diocese radically shifted how he understood the work. It has been so for me, too.  And I am very grateful for that even as I am still learning to embrace it.

Being a member of the bishop’s team also gives me a place from which to “proclaim the gospel.” (Sometimes, even with words.) So while it’s true that I don’t stand behind the altar as much as I once did, I have come to realize (and claim with renewed purpose) that this doesn’t make me less of a priest. Just as being a priest is about more than putting on a collar, so it is also about more than presiding at the Eucharist. Other aspects of my priestly ministry are in fact now being accentuated and that has been an interesting discovery for me over these past three months. And all of it is offered to the glory of God.

So I am (almost) ready to return to work with a renewed sense of purpose, and feeling restored and recommitted to the work that God has given the  Episcopal Church in central and western Massachusetts at this time and place, and given me to share in. Always with God's help. 

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