Why I’m Not Becoming a Priest

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Chapel on the Green: an amazing lay-led ministry in New Haven, CT (source)

I’m lucky enough to be going to divinity school this Fall. When I’ve told people this, however, almost every response has involved some variant of the following: ‘so you’re becoming a priest?’

Now, this is not an unfair assumption. I’ve spent the last four years living and working in the Episcopal Church. This last year at Saint John’s Cathedral, Denver, has in particular been centred around more or less ‘ministerial’ work, and when we think of ministerial professions, we tend to think of the priesthood or the diaconate.

All the same, this is not an uncommon situation: I’ve spoken to quite a few other young Anglicans, especially Episcopalians, who have (almost automatically) been asked the same question in the same way. And this is troubling. The assumption that young people seeking a professional ministerial vocation within the Church will most likely want to become priests might be a fair one—but it entrenches some of the more destructive tendencies of our ecclesial life.

I believe that there are many who are called to professional ministerial vocations who are not called to be priests. At present, I believe myself to be one of them. And I’d like to write a little bit about the what and the how of this type of call, a call which isn’t typically held up as the result of a positive process of discernment. I hope that it might at least validate another person’s feelings that they are called to lay ministry—that this is not just a poor substitute for an ordained vocation, but something equally essential for the Church’s flourishing.

Call and Response

The first thing to say here is that the pursuit of a vocation is not purely (or even mainly) a matter of personal decision. The fact I’m not becoming a priest, for example, is not because I’ve made a decision not to. Only a combination of a parish discernment committee, a Bishop, and a few others can decide whether or not a given individual will become a postulant—and it’s only after this that my decision would become a truly decisive factor.

My discerning a lay vocation, then, has nothing to with some sort of high-minded decision. Nor is it because I could have become a priest if I wanted to, but thought it better to do something different (indeed, at various times in my life I have explored the possibility of putting together a discernment committee). I am discerning a lay vocation because, insofar as I am called to a life in the Church, I believe that I am called to live and work in the Church as a member of the laity. And I am not seeking ordaination because I do not believe that I am currently called to ordained ministry.

The what of a call, however, cannot be entirely clear until some account is given of how it might have been discerned. Calls rarely (if ever) emerge out of the blue in a blast of divinely-inspired clarity. Nor is their discernment merely a matter of still contemplation. A call is instead most likely to be discerned in the active directing of one’s attention to the patterns which emerge in the hurly-burly of one’s life, however messy and oblique those patterns might be. We must of course make room for stillness and contemplation in our lives, in order to give what we might have heard room to speak, as well as giving ourselves room to listen. Nonetheless, the body of discernment lies in the practise of an active and actively questioning life.

Describing the how of discernment, then, entails describing something of the patterns which emerge out of life. It means considering their implications for the future, considering the manifold (it is always manifold) ways in which they seem to suggest the Holy Spirit is at work. The pattern mustn’t be imposed, nor must the discernment be forced. And we should not expect or demand simple results—if things seem messy, then they shouldn’t be artificially tidied; if they are opaque, then perhaps opacity is the right kind of clarity for that time. We must listen to what others think as well, and we must pray.

In my case, the pattern of the last few years has been a consistent (if usually accidental) exploration of the possibilities of professional lay ministry. Throughout my second and third years at Saint Hilda’s House in New Haven, CT, I began to serve on the staff of Christ Church, New Haven. I was prompted to explore how lay ministry can be directed towards pastoral, formational, and preaching concerns in order to support the life of the Church as a whole. I benefitted greatly from the guidance and advice of the priests and the Saint Hilda’s House director. I was blessed to see my fellow Hildans explore different forms of lay-ministry—ministries which were not stepping stones to something else, but complete in themselves even as they developed.

At Saint John’s, meanwhile, I was able to appreciate the benefits of working as a lay-minister. To give one example, I found that in a few strange ways it was easier to lead a certain kind of formation. Precisely because I was a lay-person, I was not expected to be the authoritative voice in the room, in the way a clergy person so often is, even if unconsciously. People did not look to me for either answers or guidance—just dialogue. It was, as such, apparent right from the beginning that we were all speaking from the same level. I believe that this made it easier for those I worked with to share their own voices, without looking for a right answer or a correct account of their lives, and so to hear in each other how the concepts of Christian faith can serve to shape and guide ourselves and our practises. In other words, I believe the lack of implicit hierarchy made it easier to empower, over and above simply educating.

I also found that I had time, unlike so many priests. The life of a priest is exceedingly busy—even on a large staff, most of the week is taken up with pastoral calls of some kind or another, then talking to concerned congregants about various issues, then planning and performing the liturgies of the week (including sermons), then attending meetings both within and outside of the Church, all the while trying to maintain a healthy work/life balance. None of this is easy work, and much of it is emotionally draining. The idea that someone already tasked with all this should have the responsibility of organising and forming a church’s mission work on top of their existing workload ignores basic realities about the finitude of time and human capacity.

As a lay person on staff, however, for whom all of these things above were well above my pay-grade, I had the time to support parishioners in their missional work. I could go with them into places where they might have before felt uncomfortable, and I could guarantee that I would be there every-week. I could walk with my them without needing to rush off elsewhere, and so also become a part of the wider community. I could dedicate the kind of time it takes to build a substantial relationship, and so be transformed as well. This alone certainly doesn’t fill up a week—but it’s impossible to do if your weeks are almost completely full already.

I believe that these patterns point towards a vocation as a practical theologian. A practical theologian would be a lay person working within the Church with a threefold responsibility: a) to help deepen the connections between a church congregation and the wider community within which it is placed (especially oppressed communities), b) to facilitate formation and community within the congregation which is geared towards empowering members of the laity in their discernment of their call, and c) to engage in the active study of theological and philosophical writings so as to bring some systematic coherence to the whole, whilst also serving as a theological resource for others. This role would be in support of the clergy, whose work is, as ever, to preach the Word of God, to administer the sacraments, and to pronounce the absolution of sins/our reconciliation with God in Jesus Christ (each of which also entails a substantial pastoral responsibility). Within this, priests work to create the space for us to encounter God—the sacramental space which the Church needs in the same way that all human beings need oxygen. But the laity have equal responsibility for the response to this encounter. And it is the laity who must take responsibility for the mission which emerges as a response to, as well as eventually becoming another form of, this worship.

Lay and Ordained Ministries

This much is the personal narrative. But it does seem to be part of a wider picture—each of these factors, each of these patterns, suggests to me that a culture of professional lay ministry is essential for the future of the Episcopal Church. We are going to need lay people working in a professional capacity who are taking an active role in shaping, directing, and supporting both formation and mission within our churches. We are going to need to expand the possibilities of lay employment in the Episcopal Church beyond youth ministers, choir directors, and parish administrators, to include lay curates and lay missioners (though these former roles are most certainly vocations as well!). We are going to need to stop expecting our priests to be primarily responsible for the Church’s mission and ministry in our cities and communities—an expectation which can so, so easily lead to burn-out and bitterness across a church. And we need to stop thinking of lay-ministry as primarily a potential stepping stone to the priesthood, as opposed to a fully fleshed out vocation in its own right.

There are several reasons for this, but here is one of the most important: in simultaneously expanding the role of the priest to cover ultimate leadership over most aspects of church life and generally diminishing the role of the laity to worship attendance on Sunday, churches have begun to bill themselves as attractions (knowingly or not), where an audience attends to watch and a priest works to inspire. A generalisation certainly, and I imagine that there are exceptions to the rule everywhere; but I have heard repeatedly, from both sides, the pattern of priests working to try and develop mission whilst congregants wonder why the church isn’t doing more, with everyone all the while trying to figure out how to boost numbers through liturgical innovation.

If this is indeed a reality, then I believe that it is partly rooted in the fact that the distinctions between the role of the priest and the role of the laity have become blurred, such that both have lost definition. If we wish to have a church which is sustainable, or indeed a church which thrives, we must discern those definitions again—not as a matter of rigid exclusivity, but so that we can see the laity and the clergy on an equal footing. Broadly speaking, it is the role of the priest to facilitate the sacramental space within which we can encounter God and to pastor to the congregation. And it is the role of the congregation, as a community, to carry out the work of Christian mission within their wider community.

When we talk about lay empowerment, however, we can easily lapse into talking about a certain kind of volunteerism: lay ministry is what is done by members of the congregation when they aren’t working. In order to truly empower the laity, we must start thinking of lay ministry as what a lay-person can do in the Church as their work. The priesthood is essential to the life of the Church—but it is not sufficient. And those who wish to dedicate both their professional and their personal lives to the life of the Church are currently only faced with one realistic option: ordination. The options must be expanded, so that when someone says that they’re going to seminary they are no longer primarily asked ‘are you going to become a priest then?’ but ‘are you discerning a lay or an ordained vocation?’ There are of course daunting obstacles here, not least in terms of finances. But these are obstacles which will have to be overcome, whether through the sharing of resources between churches or the pooling of greater personal resources within them (ideally both). At the end of the day, the principle remains the same: the health of our churches rests in the hands of the laity, just the same as, if not more than, the clergy.

So, this is something of why I personally am not becoming a priest: I do not believe that I am called to the priesthood, but I do believe that a call to professional lay ministry can be discerned in the pattern of the last four years. And though this is not a decision of principle, I do believe that these patterns are related to a broader question within the Church—that of how we can make sense of lay vocations without casting them as a poor substitute for ordained vocations. As we continue to explore what it means to be a credal, community based faith in the 21st century, we must also tackle the question of how to further empower those who are not called to the priesthood, but still wish to devote their personal and their professional lives to Christ’s Church.

If you feel so moved, you can subscribe to this blog on the sidebar above. Thanks for reading.

 

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