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Tuesday, May 13, 2008

A few good priests

Over at HOB/D, I’ve been listening carefully to the discussion about EFM and seminary education and what makes a good priest. There has been much rich food for thought.

In the past week, I have lost three parishioners to cancer. There are three more who have a diagnosis of cancer who will probably take leave of their life on this earth within the next three to six months.

It’s a curious thing: in our Mutual Ministry Reviews, the one consistent place of high marks has been in pastoral care and leadership. Ironically, it’s the one place I often feel most inadequate.

Oh, not because of the quality of pastoral care I provide. That’s not it. It’s the balance of the pastoral care to the person and their families that must be balanced with all the administrative stuff that goes along with it, combined with the balance of the needs of my own heart and soul.

It’s a critically important balancing act which throws me off balance every time. I’ve gotten better over the past 22 years. I have developed check lists for myself and, more and more, I’m discovering that there are dedicated members of the laity who are eager to be trained to take on certain aspects of tending to pastoral, liturgical and administrative detail. It has helped enormously with my balancing act.

Still, there are things in life – the enterprise of being human, matters of the heart – which cannot be anticipated.

Allow me to give you a "slice of life" of a day in this particular priest's life.

Not long ago, I presided over the funeral of an 83 year old woman, a widow, who left six adult children to grieve her loss. It was an absolute nightmare. This family could win the award for “The Most Dysfunctional Family in the Universe.”

Two of the adult children are active alcoholics and came to the church reeking of vodka. The eldest sibling is from a previous marriage and the class differences alone were striking. Suddenly, there was a squabble among the siblings over the flowers. It was about 20 minutes before the start of the service.

I could see exactly where this was going, so I presented myself in the midst of them in the church foyer (before the entrance to the Narthex) and announced that I needed to see the family in the library. Now. Yes, 'now', now. This now. Right now. Yes, all the siblings. Yes, all of you. Now. Follow me, please.

We got into the library and for 5-7 minutes I gave them the “house rules,” firmly laying down expectations for behavior. I confronted the two who were drunk and sent them into the kitchen for some hot, strong coffee, after which they were to wash their face and hands, brush their teeth, comb their hair and proceed directly to the church where they were to quietly wait for the service to begin. I gave specific assignments to the four others and them ordered them into the church in 10 minutes.

They, to a person, stared at their shoes, mumbling or nodding their agreement. We said a prayer together and then they left the room.

We got through the rest of the service without incident, and it was a glorious celebration of their mother’s life, but that’s not exactly how I was taught to prepare myself spiritually for the careful attention to liturgical detail required of leadership. By the end of the reception, I was absolutely exhausted.

Still, there were administrative details to tend to, checking in with my staff, another pastoral call, supervision with my parochial supervisor (once a month, whether I think I need it or not), and, at 5:30, an appearance at a gala reception for the kick off to a community awareness campaign for Ovarian Cancer which will begin in September.

One of the founders of this movement is a member of my congregation who has been battling Ovarian Cancer for, as she will tell you, 10 years and 6 months. She was just told two weeks ago that “this is it.” The doctors have no more drugs in their arsenal. No experimental clinical drug trials she can be on. She has beat Ovarian Cancer, but the spread of other tumors to her lungs is too aggressive for them to stop.

Still, she’s fighting. When she made her entrance into the reception, she looked positively regal. The wig on her head may well have been her crown. The large, clumsy pressure boots she wore on both legs and feet might have been silver slippers. The two men on either arm might have been princes. The person wheeling the oxygen tank behind her might have been a lady in waiting, carrying the train of her cape.

She smiled at the rather large crowd, but when she saw me, she glowed. “There’s my priest,” I saw her lips move as she spoke to the two men at her arms, and began walking past her physicians and the director of research and toward me. I burst into tears – not exactly the image I have for the behavior a spiritual leader in that situation.

I could feel myself flush with embarrassment, but I couldn’t help myself. As she entered the room, the whole room simultaneously burst into applause and tears. She whispered in my ear, “It’s going to be okay. Our tears will make us strong.” Imagine!

No one prepared me for the emotional cost. No one teaches you about how you fall in love with your congregation, and how much it hurts when they die or are in pain or difficulty. I don’t know if any seminary can.

Indeed, my best ‘professors’ have been the people and families with whom I work who have taught me how to care for them. How to be fully present and transparent and emotionally honest with them so others can do that as well. How to tend to the enormous importance of self care (sometimes called ‘clergy wellness’ – a term which, for some reason unknown to me, is annoying).

I’m sure I don’t know how to be “a good parish priest”. Some days, I feel woefully inadequate to the task. I’m not certain there is one definition of “a good parish priest” – one ‘size fits all’ or even ‘most.’

I am deeply grateful for my seminary experience – 3 years residency in Cambridge (not the most expensive city in the world, but certainly not cheap) with six kids and a most beloved partner. I left those hallowed halls thousands of dollars in debt which took me over 10 years to pay off.

My first position paid so little I had to take a part time job in addition to it, just to make ends meet. My beloved also worked part time and managed the home front. Even so, we qualified for food stamps.

That, my friends, is not an unknown situation for many – especially women – today. That is, in my estimation, an obscenity for which the church should be deeply ashamed.

No one talks about how much families have to pay for seminary education. No one talks about the effect on the children. So, when COMs blithely say, "Oh, I think you need an additional year of Anglican Studies" with no companion offer to help them pay for it - OR, "You've had a lot of changes in the past 4 years. I think a year of therapy would be good for you" - without counting the additional cost of that therapy and, again, no way to help them pay for it, well, I go through the roof. It's institutional arrogance writ large.

Here’s what I know to be true:

The more I give away, the richer I become.

The more I empower and equip the laity for the ministry of the priesthood of all believers, the better priest I become.

That can’t be taught in seminary. Mentoring helps enormously – a huge flaw in our present system. Colleague groups and supervision have become essential.

But, without a vocation affirmed by the church and the grace of ordination accomplished by God’s will and the people’s consent, I simply could not get out of bed in the morning and face another day. I suspect I’d rather straighten jewelry at a department store or collect tolls on the NJ Turnpike.

Today is a new day – a day which the Lord has made. I awoke rejoicing and glad in it. And, I’ve put on my running shoes and pray with confidence that I will be able to keep up with everything God will put on my plate.

Is that an indication that I am a “good parish priest”? I’m sure I don’t know. And, while I can say that seminary AND EFM, AND mentoring, AND professional seminars and continuing education over the years AND my doctoral program have been an enormous asset to me and, I think, a benefit to the church, I only know that I am able to do what I do by grace alone.

11 comments:

Jeffri Harre said...

As always, Elizabeth, your willingness to open yourself to those around you, including those who read your blog, amazes and encourages me. Bless you and know that I keep you in my prayers.

Hugs,
Jeffri

Jake said...

Thanks for this post, Elizabeth. I must admit to getting a bit moist-eyed reading it. Perhaps it is the time of day, or perhaps it is from just knowing that someone else understands this strange vocation.

Next year I'll finally pay off my student loans from seminary, and I'll only be 54! Imagine that.

David said...

Elizabeth+
what a courageous
grace-filled
human witness you've blessed us with

but none of us can 'ever know'-
except that in the thick of those thousand and one realities Christ stands with us

thank-you, you Living Blessing

David@Montreal

Kathryn said...

Thank you. Inspiring (and aspirational) reading

Rachel Stampul said...

Thank you, Elizabeth. As always, since my first semester at seminary with you, your presence in my life, no matter the miles, is a blessing and a refreshing one at that.
God help the church. God help her people.
Love from a Jonah in the belly of an overpowering whale.
-Rachel

Rachel Stampul said...

PS. and to think: graduation is on saturday. See you there?

whiteycat4104 said...

Should be required reading for all those folks who think clergy only work a few hours on Sunday and just "cruise" the rest of the week!

Great to see someone tell it like it is.

johnieb said...

But, without a vocation affirmed by the church and the grace of ordination accomplished by God’s will and the people’s consent, I simply could not get out of bed in the morning and face another day.

Well put. Blessings for you and your ministries.

Eileen said...

Tears Elizabeth....What a blessing you are. Thank you for sharing this peek into what it's like to be a priest.


(((((((Elizabeth)))))))

Kirkepiscatoid said...

You are a champ! I'm also glad to know you all have "funeral drama" in your part of the country. I was beginning to think my relatives were the only ones!

FranIAm said...

Oh my- this is heart-stopping in its intensity.

Thank you so much for sharing yourself so generously.

God bless.