Saturday, August 5, 2017

The Soft Animal of My Priesthood: Yet another thing that being out of a parish is teaching me about parish ministry

So, friends, now it’s going on five months out of parish ministry after having left my congregation of 11 1/2 years. Yes, there are possibilities, yes, ecclesiastical wheels turn, yes, there are churches that will need a priest and I'm a priest who needs a church. Having had this extra time, though, I’m continuing to interrogate what that means: how not “having a church” helps me understand what it is to have one, what it means to be ordained in the first place.

When I was in college, as part of my gender studies degree I read feminist psychology about the gendered nature of self-perception. Rather than as isolated individuals, women (I’m just leaving right on the floor here the fact that “woman” is a complicated category and acknowledging the work I’m remembering relies on some conventional stereotypes and antiquated assumptions) often perceive their identity and place in the world relationally.  Not as self-over-and-against the world, but as self understood through relationships with other people. This is presumed to be a good thing: the rugged individual who prioritizes (um) *him*self does not always tend to place care for others at the center of their lives.  But it also cuts the other way: it’s great to be connected to others.  If, though, someone is defined only through others to whom they are connected, the strength and self-differentiation of that individual perhaps does not make them the fiercest bear in the room.

As a priest, I experienced this relational understanding a lot—not so much in terms of how I understood myself as an individual, but how I understood myself as a priest. Being a priest was relational: identified with that particular parish.  This is not how the Episcopal/Anglican tradition views ordination: it’s seen as an “ontological change,” a change in who you are, period.  You can be home with your kids or working as a pastry chef or at a homeless shelter, but you’re still a priest. It’s not a role grounded in a permanent identity, not a temporary task. But what does it mean without a church? 

The church still has invested in me the power to, as the ordination rite says, “to preach, to declare God's forgiveness to penitent sinners, to pronounce God's blessing, [and] to share in the administration of Holy Baptism and in the celebration of the mysteries of Christ's Body and Blood.”  “I’m not a parish priest right now, with baptisms and communion to celebrate—that’s the only kind of priest I’d ever been. 

I was most powerfully struck by this recently at Wild Goose Festival, which my family has attended for the last five summers.   The festival is themed on music, art, spirituality, and justice, with speakers and readings and performances on assorted related themes. It attracts a variety of religious impulses but is generally progressive and Christian.    There’s a lot of mud (you camp) and feral children roam in packs demanding money for lemonade and ice cream. It's heavenly. 

Beer and Hymns, Wild Goose (just beer, and hymns. that's it.)
Every other time I’ve gone to Wild Goose I’ve done so on my church’s dime as “continuing education.” The parish funded the trip both in terms of time off from my usual work and money for gas and the ticket to get in.  As a result, my experience there was filtered through the lens of my perception of responsibility to my parish: looking for shiny things to bring home. Continuing education time is part of the standard clergy contract—you couldn’t use it to go shopping in Jamaica, but there are no set expectations for how robust a “payoff” it is to the congregation. Still, there’s some sense that you ought to carry away something useful, like ideas for children’s education or profound spiritual experience or social justice insight. 

Being at Wild Goose without a parish behind me, I realized I wasn’t constantly packaging my experience for the consumption of others.  I was just…there. And I was aware of how pleasant—holy, even!— it was just to be there. Ironically, I wrote a blog post about the holiness of thereness three years ago (here) and continue to learn my own lesson. This year at Wild Goose, I didn’t go looking for the next genius thing. I went to workshops led by my friends.  Hours spent on the state of public education or protest poetry could have been relevant enough to parish ministry, but not to have to ask the question in the first place made me realize how heavy a burden it had become to be manufacturing those tiny parcels of insight in the back of my mind.

Newsflash: I didn’t have to. I didn’t have to prove how clever or worthy I was. I didn’t have to spin straw into gold. My job as a priest was also in the other part in the ordination rite: “to love and serve the people among whom you work, caring alike for young and old, strong and weak, rich and poor.”  Just love. To point to where we and God are connected. To be connected myself.   My understanding of priesthood evidently needed less relationality between me and the people and more relationality between all of us and God.  Being a priest isn’t about standing in front and saying smart things. When it feels like it is, it’s time to try being a priest in a different way.  This time away is inviting me into that other space.

My experience of being a priest at Wild Goose Festival without a congregation helped me to have a sense for how I was still a priest even without a congregation. This view of having been a priest having “my” people—I even did it in the last paragraph there without thinking—it too easily slips into carrying a ridiculous burden that deadens the clergy and infantilizes the congregation.  It’s like church architecture that puts the altar at the front of the church and the priest behind it; everyone’s looking at you.  You’re there, and you might as well pray from there so everyone can see. The older practice of having everyone face forward and the congregation see the back of the priest isn’t better, necessarily, but it’s crucial to remember that being in front isn’t the point. 

Crucially, too, I also realize how much I relied on that identity and that congregation to tell me who I was.  My priesthood is more than that particular context, and my personhood is more than as a working parish priest.  Having been more creaturely these last months (a la Mary Oliver’s Wild Geese poem,below,  allowing the soft animal of my body to love what it loves) I’m also aware that I’m more than the kid sleepovers and setting up house and landing in a new community and (having moved to a Trump state) political protests I’ve been part of.  More than the suburban lawn I have to go mow now, too. 

(And, because it is impossible to read it too many times, here’s Oliver's whole poem)

You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
For a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.
Tell me about your despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
are moving across the landscapes,
over the prairies and the deep trees,
the mountains and the rivers.
Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
are heading home again.
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting --
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.

--Mary Oliver, “Wild Geese” in Dream Work, 1986,

 [Gratuitous photograph of children running hand in hand toward Lake Erie, August 2017]


(The Rev.) Chris Wendell said...

So nice to read this on a summer vacation Sunday morning. Thanks for these thoughtful reflections!

sirwin said...

Thanks, chris! Happy vacation!

Jessie Babcock said...
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Jessie Babcock said...

Dear Sara, I don't know if you remember me, but I attended Christ Church several times when I was in grad school at Brandeis, in 2007. (You also took me out to coffee once, for which I was very grateful!) I wanted to let you know that I am back in Massachusetts after having lived in Kenya, Rwanda, Germany, and Washington over the past 8 years. (Sadly, I find you have left for PA!) Not only that, but I became an Episcopalian in 2012 and for several years have been discerning a vocation to vowed religious life in the Church. In fact, I hope to be received as a postulant this Friday (Dec 15) with the Sisters of Saint Margaret, based in Duxbury, MA. As I prepare for this step I am filled with gratitude for the many people who have guided me along the way -- and you are definitely one of them. Although I attended Christ Church only a few times, I was grateful for your thoughtful preaching and space for prayer that the church offered. You were also the first one to teach me the Jesus Prayer, which I use often. I was in a period of wandering in a spiritual desert when I came to Christ Church, although I didn't know it, searching for what I could not name. I thank you for offering a place to know Jesus better through the Gospels and to wrestle with myself and God in a loving place. I thank God for your vocation and trust that you will continue preaching the Word and living into God's call no matter where you are! Thank you for this blog and for your witness. With gratitude, Jessie Babcock PS I'm sorry to use the comments section but I don't have a Twitter account and had no way of contacting you!

sirwin said...

Hi, Jessie!
I do remember you, and all blessings on your postulancy! What a lovely surprise to hear from you.I am so glad Christ Church and I could be part of your journey. S+