Monday, February 23, 2009

Do We Need Priests?

The following is a summary of the project on which my thesis is based for the degree of Doctor of Ministry. I made the report to the parish of St. Stephen and the Incarnation, Washington, DC, on December 18, 2008. The thesis has been completed. I will be happy to answer further inquiries.

Continuing the Dialogue

Reflections on the Parish-wide Conversation,
“Priests: Do We Need Them?”
Fall, 2008

I could not be happier with the way the folks of St. Stephen’s participated in the survey and parish-wide conversation, “Priests: Do We Need Them?” In so doing, you supported me personally in my quest to be a Doctor of Ministry. More importantly, you engaged in a dialogue that is critical to the way we organize for and do ministry in St. Stephen and the Incarnation.

Ninety-three people took the survey online, and an additional six asked to take it manually. At least 70 people completed most of it. Approximately 70 persons participated in the meeting on Sunday, October 12 to view the presentation, hear the results of the survey, and to discuss the place of priesthood in our shared ministry. Forty-three persons turned in written responses to the discussion questions I posed. Those are remarkable figures. I am deeply grateful for your help and participation.

Parishioners regularly register a high degree of satisfaction with our parish life. Of those responding to the reflection questions on October 12, almost everyone had positive things to say about how they felt they were practicing priestly ministry in their lives. Most were quite positive about the way they feel supported in their ministries by the clergy. One may fairly ask if there is any value to pursuing this issue of whether we need priests, or what value ordained leadership has, or whether there is any point in articulating a coherent theology of priesthood when it seems to most people that ministry is working fairly well in St. Stephen’s. To those questions I respond by placing this discussion in several different contexts.

The Discussion in Context

Of immediate importance is the unique context of our “shared leadership model.” When St. Stephen’s went through an arduous and thorough process of thinking through its leadership needs beginning ten years ago, no one could have known the practical issues that would have to be dealt with as various senior wardens came and went and as senior priests accommodated themselves to a system quite different from the standard arrangement in the Church. We have learned some things in the last four and a half years, and we continue to learn. It is clear now, for example, that the senior priest, while in theory having no direct responsibility for parish finances, must in fact be a part of the oversight of fundraising, budgeting, and financial management. This can significantly impact the time commitments of the senior priest. Likewise, in a system that is used to carrying on liturgically and pastorally without direct involvement and supervision of ordained clergy, it can be problematic for clergy sometimes to know who is taking responsibility for what. And when decisions have to be made, it is not always clear who has the authority or the responsibility for making a decision, or how it is to be made. Almost all parish systems operate on some model of “shared leadership.” Rarely is there a single person who has all the authority and all the responsibility for making every decision and for setting the course of the entire ministry. Our particular form of shared ministry, however, necessitates constant communication, flexibility, a high tolerance for ambiguity, willingness to negotiate boundaries and roles, and sometimes a staggering degree of volunteer time, especially on the part of the senior warden, whose responsibilities can be daunting.

One of the reasons for doing this project, then, has to do with the reality that St. Stephen’s, in practicing a ministry that takes lay persons’ gifts seriously, has chosen to create a system that demands deep lay commitment. There is no default position that the clergy, especially the senior priest, is ultimately responsible for the wellbeing of the church. While such an idea of “shared ministry” is attractive and laudable, it depends directly on the willingness of lay persons continually to make major time commitments and very real sacrifices. Furthermore, a priest in such a system, having been trained to exercise leadership in a generally hierarchical structure, finds herself or himself constantly challenged to use a variety of skills—not all of them mature—in exploring and testing what sorts of leadership will effectively move the parish towards its goals. Indeed it is not clear who has the responsibility for guiding the parish towards it goals, or how those goals originate, or who is accountable for monitoring the progress towards meeting them. This is not to say that the “shared leadership model” is basically flawed. But it is to say that it rests on a number of assumptions that have not always been thoroughly understood. And it is not completely rhetorical to ask ,“Do we need priests?” when it is far from certain exactly what priests do that any lay persons cannot do as well or better. If shared ministry is to work, somewhere along the way—better sooner than later—folks involved in it need to know what it is they are doing, how they are doing it, and who is responsible for what.

Not as a part of this project per se, but arising out of this same cluster of questions, the senior and junior wardens, Jane Bishop and Cam Crockett, have joined with Brian Best and me this fall in a set of conversations reviewing the shared ministry model and how it is working. The details of those conversations are not germane to this report, but one of the outcomes of this project has been that we do have a base for seeing more clearly now both what the parish understands priesthood to be about (as practiced both by the ordained and more generally by the entire Christian community). Several things have driven this evaluation. The main one is that we need to make sure that we have a doable and sustainable job for the senior warden. Otherwise the system cannot function.

Another context in which this project needs to be seen is the trajectory of growth of the parish. While that growth is not linear and uninterrupted, it has in fact occurred over the last several years, especially as the neighborhood has changed, the congregation’s demographic is shifting (lots of new babies, for example!), and economic stresses make themselves felt. We have had major decisions to make. Every indicator suggests that we will continue to have more to make. One example is the revisions to our building necessitated by the moving out of the Washington Free Clinic requiring renovating the third floor of the parish house to make marketable office space. Another is the refurbishment of our church school space this year in response to a growing population of youngsters. Another decision, or set of decisions, has had to do with our burgeoning Latino ministry and the need to stabilize financially the clergy leadership of it. Decisions like these are all related to the parish’s possible and actual growth. They are inherently related to the core mission of St. Stephen’s and the way it understands its ministry. My point is that decisions like these will continue to confront the parish and will demand that there be a clear way of addressing concerns and coming to conclusions that is clear, direct, and effective. A complicated, unclear, or unrealistic method of decision-making will impede the parish’s growth and hamper its ability to accomplish its mission.

Yet I place this project in a still larger context. The Episcopal Church began looking afresh at the meaning of priesthood in the 1970’s when the question of ordaining women began to reshape people’s thinking. A number of writers began exploring the meaning of ordination, specifically priestly ordination, arguing that there was nothing about it that prima facie disqualified women. At the same time a number of people working on issues of ministry encouraged the Church to look seriously at the ministry of all the baptized as fundamental to its mission. Interestingly, St. Stephen’s was at the forefront of both these movements. The rise of emphasis on both ordination and total ministry lifted into prominence the question of how the priest is and what the priest does in community. The more the Church has sorted out questions surrounding ordination, the larger looms the question of whether we need priests in the first place. Clearly, the way the Church structures its liturgy and polity, it needs priests. It needs priests because, by delegating to them the regulation of its liturgical life, it has made them essential. It also needs them because to this day they are trained to be leaders of the Christian community. When liturgical life and community leadership cease to be the province of the priest, an identity crisis ensues in which priests begin to wonder whether they have any use or value. In turn, that can lead, as identity crises often do, to unproductive reaction in the form of withdrawal, over-functioning, excessive control, or burnout. Thus the question of what a priest is, what a priest does, and how the priest relates to the larger community of the baptized is not at all minor or incidental to the practice of ministry in the wider Church.

Some things I learned from the survey

The understanding of priesthood among the people of St. Stephen’s does not greatly different from that in the larger Church. Priests are seen as leaders; as ministers of the Church’s core possessions, Word and Sacrament; as guardians and interpreters of Tradition; and as spiritually aware persons who can listen, support, guide, forgive, bless, and heal. (Incidentally, priests in this community are not too frequently seen as healers, judging from the survey.) But priests are clearly not seen on the whole as superior, either essentially or morally, to other Christians, nor as enjoying greater importance than lay persons within the Body of Christ. On the edges, there is on the one hand noticeable clergy dependence, and on the other hand some anti-clericalism. But the great majority of people see priests as valuable and their various responsibilities as integral to the life of the Church. A strong majority see ordination as a necessary element in the life of the Church.

Things you said in the conversation

There were four questions at the end of the power point presentation on which participants were asked to reflect and to talk with each other. One was “if ‘the priesthood of all believers’ means that we all practice Christ’s ministry of reconciliation, how do you practice priestly ministry in your life here and now?” A number of people identified their daily life and work as the context for doing so. A few mentioned their roles in church and their attempts to bring people into the Christian assembly. One respondent wrote, “[I practice priestly ministry] by being a human vessel for the will of God and the interconnected web of existence.” A number of people mentioned that they practice their ministry in their work for justice. Clearly reaching out to housemates, co-workers, neighbors, and friends with sensitivity and compassion is key to Christian practice for a great many people. Others identify particular devotional practices, such as tithing, reading and studying the Bible, and prayer as ways in which they live their ministries.

A second question asked, “How have the clergy at St. Stephen’s supported you in your ministry?” Sermons, teaching, listening, caring, reflecting, were some of the things you mentioned. Offering the community’s rituals, inspiring liturgies, welcoming, and support in times of crisis were other things you noted.

To the third question, “Do we have an adequate understanding of priesthood in St. Stephen’s, you were rather evenly divided between those who said yes and those who said no. A fair number of people answered with qualifications, one way or the other.

About three-fourths of those responding to the questions offered suggestions of next steps that we might take “to deepen our understanding of how all of us, priests and lay people, fit together in the one ministry which is Christ’s.” Suggestions ranged from having more small groups, to occasional conversations like the one on October 12, to prayer groups, to sermons and adult forums. Many expressed a desire not to drop the topic but to continue discussing it. Some saw ministry in either more specific or more generic ways than a limited discussion of priesthood or shared ministry. One suggested that there be a “verdant earth” group looking at ways that we can live more ecologically responsibly.

Where do we go from here?

Almost certainly we shall be looking as a community at our shared leadership model in the near future. That look will no doubt be informed by much of what we have learned about our own thinking in relation to priesthood specifically and to ministry in general.

Those who have some energy around the formation of groups, whether for ecological sensitivity or for prayer or for some other purpose will need to take responsibility for announcing a date, time, and place for such a group to meet and organize. Let others gather around you. We can offer you support and resources in some cases, and the parish office can definitely offer you help in communicating.

Given the interest in the topic, either narrowly or broadly, it would seem to me that we need to look for opportunities to continue the dialogue. One possibility is to use our Fridays in Lent as opportunities to look at some dimension(s) of ministry. Another is to plan next year’s adult forums and other Christian formation opportunities with these issues in mind. A third is to use the resources we have, preaching for example, to address some of these concerns more directly. And a fourth is occasionally to revisit these matters with a special meeting, as some in fact suggested. I could see, for example, an annual “mini-conference” perhaps on a Friday night and Saturday morning, or on another Sunday after the 10:30 liturgy, dealing with some aspect of our ministry together. My concern is that we not have “just another program” that overloads already busy lives, but that we gather to reflect in a way that is directly and clearly tied to the central missional consciousness of St. Stephen’s.

Frank G. Dunn
18 December 2008

© Frank G. Dunn, 2009

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