Saturday, January 5, 2019

A Vow to Stability

I am not so much into New Year's Resolutions. Last year I resolved to go see more films on my day off, because I like films and because I think matinees are great. I got to one Friday film (Vice) on December 21. This is usually how my "resolutions" go...

But what I do a lot of when the calendar turns - even knowing this way of marking time is somewhat artificial - is to reflect on my life: on what has been, on what is, on what I hope will be. I do a lot of ruminating in the time when a year ends and a new one begins and this year has been no exception. 

My work these days puts me into congregations in transition, usually quite specifically clergy transitions. A priest retires or takes another call and my work is to walk with the congregation through the process of calling a new priest. Some are straightforward, especially for full-time positions (which are fewer and further apart than they used to be.) The congregation finds an interim priest who specializes in this work and begins a process of identifying who they are and what they need a priest to help them to do, with God's help, in the next chapter of their life together. Other searches are more complicated, and can take longer - especially when the parish cannot afford to pay a full-time salary. 

I love this work and I truly believe that transitions - not only in congregations but in communities and in our own lives, are rich times for learning and growth even when sometimes scary. The transition from being single to being married, or of becoming a parent, or of sending your child off to the first day of elementary school or college, or of accepting a new job, or becoming a grandparent, or retiring; these are thin, holy places worth paying attention to in our lives. In every end is a beginning and I believe this and I preach this and I try to live this. Some of us embrace change; others of us resist it with every fiber of our being. But the only constant in life is change. This is true.

Yet there is another paradoxical truth that needs to be held in tension with this reality: a commitment to place and people. This commitment should not be confused with being resistant to all change, or of trying to hold onto the past, but as a positive factor in making life meaningful. It is definitely, however, counter-cultural in our time. In the Benedictine monastic tradition, in addition to vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience there is a fourth vow: a vow to stability. If you aren't familiar with this notion, there are some excellent posts I found that I commend to you, here and here.

In short, the vow to stability 
...refers to the importance of community and commitment in life. For a monk or nun it refers directly to a commitment to the monastery where they will live for the rest of their life.  While we all may not be a member of a monastic order, we can make our vow of stability to our families, to our faith communities, to our local and global communities, and to our fellow pilgrims along the journey of faith. The vow of stability also speaks to our current environmental crisis—for when we remain committed to the earth we learn how to be good stewards of that which God has given us. (See here.)
The Church is complicit with our dominant culture in working against this commitment. Clergy hear that the average tenure for a rector is seven years and they get "itchy" at around year six for the next great parish. (Often the reason that the average tenure is seven years is the same as in marriages where we speak of a seven-year itch; boredom.) But I often counsel clergy if they are not caught up in deep conflict to "stay the course" - because I honestly believe real transformative ministry doesn't begin until about ten years in. In a similar way, lay people are sometimes chasing after the perfect parish. They disappear when a rector retires because they confuse following Jesus and the star-power of a glamorous priest. Or more often still, they leave because they are mad about something and surely the next parish will be "perfect."

In my own life (and as recently as yesterday) I am encouraged to think about putting my name into a bishop search. I feel absolutely no call to do that. I have tried to listen. But what I hear in my own soul, and from what I believe is God at work in my life, is that I am where I am meant to be right now. Being in a diocese for twenty years and having an opportunity to understand the culture and influence that culture for good - and working for a bishop I love and respect - is my calling. I spent fifteen years as a rector, but it was really the second half of that ministry that bore the most fruit. I anticipate the same as a canon and figure I'm just starting to get warmed up in the work God has given me to do in this time and place.

That's my vocational life. I am not a monk and I have not taken a vow to stability. But I bear witness to my readers to the good that comes from staying at things. The idea of packing up and starting over in a new place seems to violate what it is I know. Am I resisting God's call, because God is always doing new things? Perhaps. But I don't think so. I feel that, in the same way that my "first" marriage is now going strong after almost 33 years, and that we've lived in just two homes (six miles apart) over the past twenty years is a good thing. I see it when my kids come "home" and see friends they went to elementary school with. And even though my roots are in Pennsylvania and not Massachusetts, I will be seeing high school friends in a week and college friends in two weeks because new friends are silver, but old ones are gold. These deep, deep roots represent something important to me about who I am. I also have to admit that I'm married to a person who has known all of this intuitively for much longer than I have.

All of us need discernment (and I'm blessed to have had the same spiritual director for fifteen years now) to figure out when transitions should be embraced and when we recommit to stability. There is no formula for any of this. But the main point of this post is that stability and transition can be held in a creative tension and we do a disservice to discerning the will of God when we minimize the importance of stability. 

In my office there is a little print that was given to me by the director of the preschool at Christ and Holy Trinity Church in Westport, Connecticut, where my oldest son, Graham, was attending at the time. (Twenty-five years later, we still get Christmas letters each year from that former director, Carol Goetz.) It says this: "there are two things you can give to your children: roots and wings." I have taken this metaphor as a rule of life for my ministries beyond parenthood as well: congregations need to be rooted if they are to fly. And we, ourselves, need to be rooted if we mean to fly as well.

A commitment to stability CAN get us stuck, of course. But it is hardly the temptation that most people in our world today face. THIS post is about what it means to see the good in committing to stability because otherwise we are always just skimming along the surface, and taking our old bag of tricks to new places where we may be bored in five or six or seven years again. For me, a commitment to stability is a daily invitation to go deeper, to keep growing, like the tall oak trees that surround my home. Changes will come; that's inevitable and when they do I think we need to learn to "go with the flow." But commitment to place and to people over time keeps us rooted, and in a world where the winds of change blow strong, that's worth remembering in a new year of grace.


After clicking "publish" on this post, I heard a little voice in my head reminding me that "stability" requires no small amount of social privilege. And I have lots of that. People move for lots of reasons besides "itching for the next thing," and I hope my readers know that I know this. Migrants are but one example ripped from the headlines (and Holy Scripture) of people who are in search of better, safer and dare I say more stable lives. Closer to home, people move because they have to; I get that. But I also remember a physics teacher I had in high school named Ed Parsons who was brilliant, and apparently was recruited to teach in more prestigious places than where he was. He told us that "when he could catch a fish on Broad Street (in Philadelphia) that maybe he'd consider it. The point of this post is not to shame people who are "always on the move" - or who love new things. It is to claim, for myself, as a person who has indeed been very privileged and blessed in my life, that stability can be a virtue.