Seven years on from ordination and I have been pondering assorted dead ends of the priestly vocation.
A dead end is a road you thought went somewhere, somewhere you really wanted to go. The vista was attractive. The mouth of the road revealed a wide avenue inviting your entrance. But it ended up leading…nowhere. You had to turn back, in fact.
Why do people offer for ordained Christian ministry? There are many reasons, and all of them are endlessly turned over in the mind of someone trying to discern between differing vocations.
But while there are certain phrases vocations advisors and Bishops’ advisors love to hear (my vocation is affirmed by the wider church; I desire to be obedient) there are always personal reasons for putting oneself forward in the first place, of course. Because we are all persons and God is always dealing with persons.
Three such personal reasons were important for me, but turned out to be more complex, more shadowy and less productive than I at first suspected. They eventually led to a re-assessment and in part a rejection, hence calling them dead ends. They were my slightly ajar doors into priesthood, perhaps, but they ended up leading nowhere.
- The desire to be ‘in the thick of things’.
When I was trying to discern what ministry I should be offering for, I talked to an experienced Christian who was also in the discernment process. He’d been asked if he might consider offering for priestly ministry but on sensing this would mean he would be in the midst of everyone pastorally, he knew it wasn’t really him. He eventually embraced being a Lay Reader.
That conversation led to the realisation for me, though, that being in the midst of everyone pastorally was exactly what I wanted, and I duly offered, and was accepted for, priestly ministry.
But here’s the thing. I gradually found that instead of being ‘in the thick’ of things, the priest is often on the edge. I was stunned at how much time I seemed to spend alone observing busy people doing everything except coming to church. Yes, there was lots of admin, for which I needed a quiet study and about 1-2 hours every day. Yes, there were visits, and assemblies and meetings etc. But still. Never in my life had I spent so much time home alone.
It was in shock. I spent at least two years kicking against it, moaning to whomever I could find (bar parishioners) that I was lonely. Thankfully, the consistently wise advice I received was this: make friends with solitude – you need it to really thrive as a priest and to have the distance from everyone else’s issues properly to reflect and pray. Which, after all, is the primary calling of a priest – one who holds the people before God, and God before the people.
2. The desire to sort things out.
This was a biggie. I had come from a family of people who sorted things out. We were always sorting things, joining things, organising things, being in control of our diaries and unconsciously offering different sorts of leadership to others. People who lead do tend to sort things out, preferably most things, or all things.
And as a new priest there seemed a lot of things to sort out. Apart from completing Curacy training, I was fortunate/unfortunate enough (depending on how you look at it) to be essentially functioning, practically if not legally, as a priest-in-charge. Everywhere I looked there were things that needed sorting out and I assumed it was my job to do it. Keys, lights, heating, parking, arguments: you name it – I felt I had to sort it out.
I had physical and mental lists of things to sort out and and every time I led worship my head was full to bursting with things to tell people over coffee, things to write down before I forgot them and other things that I was sure no one else had thought of, which were keeping me awake at night. Over time, multi-tasking began to seem like a very bad idea indeed.
What made it worse was the unconscious assumption, by everyone else, and by myself, that since I appeared so good at sorting things out, I should naturally continue, if at all possible.
At some point I realised this too was a dead end. Wise and more experienced priests pointed out it wasn’t ‘my church’, but the church of the people, and that ministry, if properly shared, is not all down to one person. I eventually moved away from a soteriological model of ministry (the priest as self sacrificing shepherd, like Jesus) towards a more ecclesial model of self understanding (I, one Christian, had some gifts, and was part of the body).
It was a change in mindset, and eventually I shed a load of tasks, shared some more and, more crucially, began to address the lack of trust in other people (and by extension, in God) that my frantic desire to sort everything out had revealed.
3. The desire to make people feel better.
Linked to the above was a desire to make everyone feel better. I love people, and wanting their lives to be better, happier, easier and more fulfilled was a strong driver for priesthood.
People come to a priest with all sorts of things, deep personal grievances and past or present suffering. It’s so tempting to endlessly listen, say how sorry you are, ask about their physical ailments, Dr’s appointments, living conditions, relationships, and become subsumed with empathy. All terribly important things, of course, but one can fail to perceive exactly how God is calling that person at this time
When it comes down to it, that is what Christ perceived. He saw everything in the light of answering the call of God. He looked for disciples. He said ‘make disciples’. He didn’t always have smoothing words; he challenged, he said things that made people walk away as soon as they realised the huge personal implications of following his call.
We in the church worry about numbers. We count worshippers like other people count sheep. But if the church were made up of even 12 disciples truly fired up by the Spirit of Pentecost for prayer and evangelism, following Jesus with everything they had, everything they were, communities would be transformed. It happened with the first disciples.
Wanting to be in the thick of everything; sorting things out and making people feel better. Three possible dead ends of the priestly vocation, or of any vocation to lead, for that matter.
There will be other dead ends, exactly tailored to your situation. But like all dead ends, they eventually lead to an about turn, a much needed spiritual redirection and the discovery of a healthier vocational way, which has the potential to set the minister, and all God’s people, free.