Friday, March 06, 2009
First Friday #2: A question of Priorities
Those of you who are regular readers of this blog may remember that last month, I initiated a monthly column I'm calling "First Friday". It's an opportunity for any one of you to write in your particular situation or problem and get what I consider expert advice from some of the best of the lay and ordained leaders in the Diocese of Newark.
You can read more about who they are and what they do here. I am deeply grateful for the obvious time each one spent in considering, praying and responding to this month's question.
Last month's debut edition was "A question of discernment" which you can read here.
This month's "First Friday" question comes from Phillip, who writes:
Dear Reverend Elizabeth,
I'm a curate at a beautiful Anglo-Catholic church which I love. It's my dream job. I've been ordained a year and I think my rector is going to fire me.
I was presiding at the 7:30 AM Sunday Mass - just starting the Eucharistic prayers - when one of the women in the congregation - a 70-something who is a bit of a hypochondriac - collapsed in the pew. I didn't know what to do, but since the other people were tending to her, I continued saying the Mass.
Someone called 911 and suddenly, the sanctuary was filled with emergency people. They were doing what they know how to do. I continued to say the Mass. I thought I was doing my job and I left the professionals to do their job.
Turns out, she had a stroke and is in serious condition at the local hospital. My rector is furious with me. He thinks I should have stopped what I was doing and help.
Not only that, he thinks I should apologize. No one who was there has complained or said anything to me, so I'm not sure to whom I should apologize. Isn't that the most important thing?
This is being blown way out of proportion. My rector is turning everyone against me. Some people have stopped talking to me. I see the judgment in their eyes. What did I do that was so wrong?
To tell you the truth, I've been thinking for some time now that my rector may be just a little bit envious of my energy and my age and my ability to see things clearly for what they really are. I'm a much better preacher and liturgist than he is. Everyone tells me that. I think he's trying to turn me into a 'little him.'
I'm afraid I'm going to lose (sic) my job. What should I do?
The "First Responders" this month include Louie Crew, Marge Christie, Fran Trott, Denise Haines, Diana Clark, Abby Hamilton and Maggie Gat. You can read more about who they are here.
Their responses are as varied and intelligent, passionate and compassionate as they are. There is so much to learn from each of these responses.
Please feel free to add your own response to Phillip or to any of the responses.
The first one is from Louie Crew:
I'm as old as John McCain. Recently my left leg went to sleep, in a deep sleep. I was standing up and holding a plate of finger food. I shifted more weight to the left leg, gently I thought, to try to awaken it.
Instead, the left leg "disappeared." As I tumbled, I stretched out my arms so that I would hit the floor not using them -- a lesson I learned from two earlier falls that left permanent damage to the arms, which I had used to try to block falls.
My large belly cushioned me, as did the thick carpet. All I got out of the fall was a minor nose bleed, but since I am on blood-thinners, it looked like a major gusher.
I looked up to see a man in a priest's collar. "I am also an MD," he said. Fortunately I had not landed on the nearby food table or on another guest.
In record time, someone had me in a wheel chair.
The best part of the bad experience was that most people were too busy to notice, and those who attended me so well, made every effort not to draw attention. Feeling returned to my leg, and I stood on it easily as I got into my host's car. I was quite dehydrated, and the doctor felt that my dehydration likely prompted the leg to go to sleep even while I was standing on it.
All this occurred at the consecration of a bishop coadjutor in a diocese where my progressive views are quite unpopular. The last thing I wanted was to call attention to myself.
I am very grateful that those who attended to me did so well and in a way that did not make more of a blip in the festivities honoring the new bishop.
I see your narrative in the context of my own. Since the helpers needed were on the scene and performing well, I think you were right to continue the liturgy.
Since some in the congregation may not have recognized that professionals were helping, you might have paused to say, "God is among us actively supporting the professionals who are attending to XXX, and let's take a moment to pray for XXX and those who attend her."
After the prayer, you might have said, "Let us continue to pray for XXX and those who attend us as part of of our continuing worship."
Of course, it is easier to see possibilities after the fact than it is during the stressful moment.
Now to damage control as Christian service:
Do not return gossip for the rector's gossip. And don't trash him to anyone else. It is understandable that you see the possibility of jealousy, but only God knows his heart. Don't report to anyone else your suspicions, lest you add a new poison to the waters already polluted.
Assume that the rector's motives are good, that he wanted to honor XXX and that he wants the congregation to know that people come first in God's protocol. You may differ on HOW XXX might have come first, but not on THAT she comes first.
Speak to your rector face to face and graciously. Acknowledge that the liturgy is not like other theater: if the show must go on, it must go on as a way to honor all present, not just to honor God. We honor God in honoring one another.
Stress that's what you thought you were doing. Since some have not seen your point of view, offer to write a brief account in the parish newsletter, including ways that you now see you might have continued while registering more explicit awareness of and concern for what was going on regarding XXX. Don't be defensive. Don't grovel. Be loving.
Offer to grow from the experience.
We will all have chances to grow until we die, and maybe in the hereafter. Where possible, grow with the parish, not in antagonism to it. That requires humility. You would not be admitting you are wrong when you don't think you were wrong: you would be admitting that you can learn more effective ways to communicate.
If the situation has already gone too far and you are asked to leave, or elect to leave, be very careful not to learn the wrong lessons from the experience. It was an unfortunate miscommunication, nothing more. Don't make more of it. Learn how you might have communicated more clearly, and how you might communicate more clearly in the future.
God bless you, God bless your rector, God bless XXX and her attenders, and God bless your congregation.
Marge Christie, an undisputed leader in our diocese and the national church, had a different take on the matter.
I am an eighty year old lay woman, and my answer to you probably comes directly out of that time frame. I have seen many lay leaders, deacons, priests and bishops, and to my mind the good ones care about the people in their communities, their congregations, their dioceses.
So that leads me to say that I find it appalling that you would continue the liturgy while a member of your congregation was visibly in distress. I, too, think people matter more than things -- always; and my reading of Jesus' ministry is that he thought so too. I'm in a Bible study class currently that is reading Mark in veritable slow motion so that we can really come to understand the parables and the miracles, and they are laced with Jesus' concern for people.
I also have seen many still wet-behind-the-ears, newly minted priests, and your evaluation of your rector also strikes me as appalling. New priests have a lot to learn, that's what being a curate is all about, and it just might be that his preaching and liturgical skills are precisely right for the parish and the congregation. Certainly he knows that every member of the congregation matters more than proceeding on schedule with the "mass."
Another of the empowered baptized, Fran Trott, responds:
Time to stop dreaming. It is not enough to be young, energetic, handsome, charming and wonderfully good at reciting and delivering prepared speeches which have been pondered ahead of time.You were hired not as the rector, but the curate. Your rector and the members of the congregation are entitled to have you able to engage with them in real life in waking reality and to listen to and take them seriously.
When you were ordained you were told that "You are to love and serve the people among whom you work, caring alike for young and old, strong and weak, rich and poor" ..."and to perform the other ministrations entrusted to you." The second and third parts can be a whole lot tougher and more unexpected than the first. You are to be "pastor, priest and teacher." Pastors do more than preach and recite. Fortunately you can still ask your rector to instruct you on points he deems are not your strengths. He's probably already learned a lot about his own.
You may see what appears to you to clearly be the real thing but it is quite likely that your rector sees from a wider and longer perspective. He may miss his own youthful energy. This doesn't mean envy of yours. If your sermons are lovingly Christ-centered then he is most likely to be happy to have you along to spread the good news of the Gospel. You don't say he has complained about that aspect of your work.
If members of the congregation have not spoken to you about the incident in question it doesn't mean he is turning you against them. It may mean they have spoken to him about their concern for your continuing with the service instead of stopping and going to the scene of the woman's collapse. If you had done so you could have asked those people who were not directly involved in the rescue to stand back to give her air. After she was taken out you might have returned to the altar, said a prayer for her and her family and begun the service again. You did say you were just beginning the Mass.
Yes this would have thrown the schedule off. Those who had to leave early would have the ability to do so quietly and the rest could stay.
Should this have happened in the middle of the Consecration of the Elements, I do believe it would have been all right to stop, make the sign of the cross over them and go to the scene of the difficulty. When it was resolved you could have done as above, praying and then continuing with the Consecration. Your rector I am sure will be happy to discuss this possibility with you once you have reconciled with him and resolved to be more effective in your ministry.
You should apologize . Thank your rector for the chance to do so. It is all right to admit to him and to the congregation (during Church Announcemounts or in the Newsletter) that you were unsure of yourself when the woman's stroke occurred and to say you were grateful that the congregation was able to act quickly. It would also be a real plus if you could pay a visit to the woman, apologize to her and then listen for a while. You don't have to have all the answers. Just listen a little and pray with her.
How well did you know the woman you assumed to be a hypochrondiac? All stresses, aches, pains and discomforts are not upfront and visible and she obviously was not in the best of health. It may be that the judgement you see in congregants' eyes is mistrust of you because of a fear that should they have a pastoral emergency you would not be competent to minister to them,
It's the lenten season. You might as well get yourself forgiven by Easter by the rector, the congregants and yourself. (God has already forgiven all of us. We just have to do the hard work of living into it a day at a time.)
Denise Haines continues to be one of my role models of ordained leadership. She has this to say:
I will let others give you good advice on how to respond to a medical emergency in the pew in the midst of the Eucharist. I am more interested in your relationship with your rector and how that fits into the parish dynamics.
I agree that you will probably be losing your job if things continue as they are now. Not because of what happened on Sunday morning, but because “Everyone tells me (I am a better preacher and liturgist than the rector)” and you seem to believe it. Your inexperience, naïveté, and vulnerability to compliments, especially the ones that compare you favorably to the rector, have led you falsely to put yourself at the center of a parish drama. In reality, you are almost certainly a pawn being used by factions who are either for or against the rector. Trust me, your supporters are not “for” you, they are “against” the rector and using you in that struggle.
Many a curate has fallen victim to this kind of intrigue and they nearly always end up having to leave the church sooner or later even if the rector is forced out ahead of them. There ought to be a school for curates with a course called, “How to avoid the role of Hero when the rector is in trouble.”
This church may well be a dream setting for you but it most assuredly is not a dream job. Find a wise mentor or therapist, stay out of the gossip stream, and don’t believe your press. You’re not that good….yet.
The Rev. Canon Denise Haines
A seasoned rector, Diana Clark, had this to say:
This is a tough one, Phillip. You’re obviously in a lot of pain and perhaps you’ve worked things out by now. It’s Lent afterall.
There’s no way to prepare for everything that happens in worship, but whatever does seems magnified far more than if it happened ‘on the street.’ But it’s a good opportunity to discuss how similar situations might be handled in the future. What’s helpful in one instance, isn’t necessarily in another. Most of the time, it’s just like life: complicated and not perfect and in need of God’s grace and mercy.
It sounds like you are all stuck in the question: who is right and who is wrong? Perhaps there’s no right answer and questions to ask is might be: Do I want to be reconciled or do I want to be right? How can faith be applied? Where is God in all this?
Other things to think about: Would you have acted differently if the person who collapsed was not a 70-something hypochondriacal woman but a 5-year-old little boy with a heart problem? What if it had been the 11 a.m. service instead of the 7 a.m.? Would you think differently about discussing this with the rector if he was a fabulous preacher? What’s wrong with talking with him about how hard it was to be standing up behind the altar and not knowing what to do? Can he tell you who he thinks you need to apologize to?
I doubt that there is any dream job in the church, just as there are no dream marriages. Both are about transformation. The cross is involved. Jesus was led into the wilderness of temptation after he heard that he was God’s beloved Son to practice saying no to temptations to allow booths to be built around him or to build a booth around God’s proclamation to him. People were changed by their encounter with him—or not—and his experience with the Syrophoenician woman seems to say that he was changed, too.
God’s been working on me for a while now—I think I’m a bit closer to 70 than you probably are. Same’s probably true for your boss. There are a lot more difficult things that can happen in church than having someone collapse and the priest not begin sure what to do. Crying babies can send people off to the church in the next town or even down the road. Let’s not even talk about the music program. I once had two teenagers inserting foul language in the words of the Nicene Creed.
We’re called to enable God to create the beloved community and to let job make us priests in the process.
May all we do be in the name of love. With God’s help.
Abby Hamilton recently retired, but is hardly retiring. Here's what she had to say:
I came very close to taking a pass on your story/questions. Truth be told, I don’t know whether to laugh, rage, or weep. So I am expressing all of my reactions with this caveat: You asked, I answered.
To laugh (my initial reaction to your story): It’s a joke, right? It’s an outline of a screen-play for a really bad British comedy at the expense of the Anglo-Catholic tradition, right? I could add a few scenes: the EMTs genuflecting as they wheeled the gurney down the aisle, the woman in question having a fatal heart attack when she thought it was her casket being wheeled out, the congregation doing a tennis-match head dance as they went from the celebrant to the victim, the voice of the celebrant getting louder and louder to overcome the other voices. The clueless curate is a really weak ending, though. It’s a joke, right?
To rage (next reaction): Okay, maybe it’s not a joke. What should you have done? Stopped everything and gone to the “woman’s” side. Once the emergency calls had been made and EMTs arrived, the congregation should have been called into prayer. I have it on a life-time of experience that Jesus’ dinner doesn’t get cold and the Cook doesn’t take offense.
What should you do now? Get down on your knees and make a good confession. You said, “…I’m not sure to whom I should apologize…”. Here’s my list:
+ to Jesus for being such a serious incarnational misrepresentation of the Lord of the Sabbath (Mark 2:27; John 9:14)
+ to Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John for not having read, much less understood, anything recorded under their names
+ to your seminary Pastoral Theology instructors for having slept through their classes
+ to the Anglo-Catholic tradition for turning its liturgical glory into idolatry
+ to your Bishop and whatever constitutes a Commission on Ministry in your canonical diocese for giving them the impression that you had some serious psychological, emotional, and, most important, spiritual maturity
+ to your congregation, especially those at that 7:30 AM service, who were forced to make a choice between attending to proscribed ritual or to commanded compassion
+ to your Rector for the humiliation he carries – in case you didn’t get it, “the buck stops with him” – it is to him that people will voice their anger and confusion and, in addition, I would think he is not the slightest bit envious of your youth and energy (notice I didn’t mention your ability). Trust me, he’s not trying to turn you into a “little him”. He’s trying to help you grow into being a real priest.
+ to the EMTs whose life-saving work you inhibited by your continuing noise. I can’t imagine how they were able even to concentrate
+ to the un-named “woman” for your _______. I’ll leave it to you to fill in the blank
To weep: because I’m afraid it’s not a joke and because your heart will be broken when you understand that the last thing the “woman” might and may have heard was “in the night he was betrayed” and know that the “he” was her.
Last but certainly not least, Maggie Gat, who had a similar experience:
Reading your experience certainly brought back memories.
Once upon a time when I was newly ordained, an elderly member of my congregation died. It was one of the first funerals I had ever done. As usual the immediate family sat in the first pew. Behind them sat the extended family and other guests.
As I began to preach, a man in the third row suddenly doubled over in his pew. The man behind him reached over and talked quietly and then looked at me and signaled that it was okay, before getting up and walking out. A parishioner, who I knew to be a policeman followed him. Within minutes, while I was still preaching they came back with police, ambulance attendants (no sirens sounded) and a stretcher.
I kept right on preaching as the man was placed on the stretcher and wheeled out of the church. During that entire episode, the immediate family had their eyes glued on me, listening intently to every word. The response was so quiet and possibly my sermon so riveting that the chief mourners had no idea that the father-in-law of one of the daughters was on his way to the hospital and that her husband had gone with him. Everyone else in the church knew what had happened.
I ended the sermon with a prayer for the family and the in-laws, ---
And then I took a deep breath, left the pulpit and went down and spoke briefly with the family. I explained what had happened and suggested that we might have prayers and the commendation and then delay until the daughter had been able to go to the hospital. The family requested and ultimately the entire congregation agreed to complete the service, including the celebration of the Eucharist and the commendation.
The patient had a heart attack but he received care so rapidly that he was not in great danger. The doctor and the son-in-law of the deceased met us at the gravesite. The family expressed their gratitude that I had continued the sermon and allowed them to focus on their grief and mourning.
I was and continue to be fascinated that the doctor, the son, my ushers, the police, and EMT's and I communicated so effectively without saying a word. I have always thought another hand might have been at work that day. And I never knew what I actually preached. We each had a serious job to do that day and our team work was impeccable.
I am sorry that your experience was not so positive. I resonate with standing there as a relatively inexperienced priest and liturgist, not knowing what to do or not do. I do not think you owe anyone an apology. I do think you probably have a whole lot of pastoral care follow-up ahead of you, even if you are fired. I also think your rector owes you some pastoral care. I know you desperately need that!
While I understand that the pastoral care that you receive needs to affirm your very being, it also needs to challenge you. I have struggled with my temptation to "should on you." Because I suspect you have received a lot of that, some, perhaps, from other priests who have experienced something similar, I, in the end, decided not to do that. Instead I want to raise some questions. Their tone will probably suggest what I think but in the end you need to find your own answers -- and your own questions.
Here are some of my questions.
* Where is God in the midst of your experience?
* What did your liturgical training teach you about pastoral care?
* Has your experience as a curate expanded your understanding of any/all of your seminary education? How?
* What can you say to the stroke victim about God's presence in that moment and in her life?
* What can you say to the congregation about God's presence in the midst of all this?
* Do you work with a spiritual director?
* What responses, other than fear of being fired, can you offer that may strengthen your soul and your priesthood?
What are your questions and your responses?
Be at peace and then at work,
If you have a question about a situation you've been in - recently, or something unresolved from your past - please send it to me before the third Monday of the month. You may leave your questions in the comment section of this blog or email me at e m kaeton at aol dot com. I do try to send the questions to the First Responders by the last Thursday of the month and they return their responses by the first Thursday of the month. Thanks again to all the First Responders . See you next month!