Later today (7th October 2013) I am meeting with the DDO for the second time. At my previous meeting she asked me to read John Pritchard’s book ‘The Life and Work of a Priest’. It is a classic from the ordination exploration reading list by the Bishop of Oxford and is a throughly interesting end enjoyable read. The secondary task was to write a piece to start a discussion on the helpful and challenging images that came to mind as I read it.
I hope that my reflections on the challenges and thrills, and the burdens and privileges of being a priest may prove interesting. I even dare hope and pray that it may even provoke you to think of the life and responsibilities of leaders in the Christian faith, and maybe even your own.
Please do let me know what thoughts you have, you have much to teach me!
It was incredibly comforting to be reminded that vicars are just normal human beings with the normal challenges of being true to Christ. They don’t need to have everything sorted, to be perfect. Mysteries, such as the eucharist, are okay to remain as mysteries, but they need to remain in sense of wonder and seeking to go deeper, to understand more.
The priest may only be human but he or she is under the steely gaze not just of the congregation he or she leads but also of the community at large. How they act as an individual and as a member of a family is important. How they act has to be genuine, things done for show rarely last or do not get found out as being shallow or false. People need to see that, as Pritchard said, the priest takes his call to live as an individual human being first; his or her call as a husband/wife/father/mother/son/daughter second; and then his call as a priest and leader of a church. They set the standard, which puts them under immense pressure: if he or she can’t take care of themselves and their family it won’t be expected that they can take care of their flock.
The infectious Gospel
The thrill that a priest gets from God, and that desire to infect others with it, is exciting. It’s like being like I am now but with the release valve of being in a position more able to express it. Sharing the Christian faith explicitly whilst in secular employment is becoming increasingly difficult and, to some extent, is limited to showing seeds of evangelism by simply being as Christ would be in the workplace.
The comfort of being in a recognised outlet for explicitly sharing the faith comes with the challenge and responsibility to use that position to do just that, to engage in the issues of public life with integrity and courage. As Pritchard pointed out it isn’t something that should be limited to the pulpit.
The role of a priest gives a person the opportunity to be able to speak publicly for God, to engage across the public sphere with communities of believers and unbelievers alike. This is both a comfort and a challenge: a comfort because those in secular employment are being increasingly targeted and prevented from speaking about matters of faith and morality; a challenge because a vicar has to make use of his or her unique role to actually do that. It is something for which preparation is key!
Not that he or she should carry the responsibility of engaging with the world alone. My greatest comfort from The Life and Work of a Priest came when John Pritchard talked about evangelism. When I heard that word in the past I would think of the amazing J. John and how I could never be like him, or of street and television evangelists who did more to turn me away from God than any other type of person. The priest as a leader is there to help people stop attending church and start being church. Building a community that reflects God’s love for the world is evangelism without even the need for words; it turns evangelism into a natural and unforced thing. After all, “what really matters is the 167 hours of the week that Christians are not in church”.
Following the leader
One of the biggest challenges, to me at least, that came across in the book is one that I have observed. It is the challenge of doing what God wants and bringing along a congregation who may not want that; if they aren’t following the priest isn’t leading! Church therefore needs to be relevant to their lives.
The priest as leader needs to make being part of a church family a place of comfort from where they can hear God speak. But if we’re not careful comfort can turn into boredom; our faith can become stagnant and wither away to ineffectual, or worse, if we are not regularly engaging with a living faith with the living Christ. The challenge is to ensure that people are able to freshly engage with even in the foundational aspects such as the creed which can become routine.
I found a prayer that John Pritchard says before he preaches incredibly helpful.
“Father, may these spoken words be faithful to the written word and lead us to the living Word, Jesus Christ our Lord”
The prayer places the focus firmly on God and helps to take it away from the sermon becoming a soapbox. The prayer helps the person preaching, and the congregation listening, to invite God into the conversation, to dynamically connect the service to God. It communicates to everyone that everyone, including the preacher, is there to hear God speak.
Spiritual life of a leader
Perhaps the biggest challenge is ensuring that as the priest keeps their spiritual life healthy. Reading the book it is clear that being responsible for leading other people on their walk can be perilous for the vicar’s own relationship with God. As Pritchard said, it requires discipline to make sure that his or her own spiritual walk is not neglected but is kept fresh and moving forwards.
From my observations of parish life, and from reading the book, it is easy to see how a vicar can become too task focused and overlook his or her own spiritual health. It doesn’t help that much of the priest’s time spent in prayer, study and reflection is done away from the gaze of parishioners and is viewed by some as not really working, and thus not valued as it should be.
If the priest doesn’t spend time listening to God it is almost impossible for them to be able to guide the flock he or she has been given to lead as God intends – indeed the stipend is there, as I understand, to enable this. To take Pritchard’s analogy, if the priest runs out of spiritual fuel the church will go off course and probably crash. Continually connecting to God is essential so that He can keep the church on course to achieve His plans and purposes.
Stuart Mousir-Harrison, a Chaplain, Tweeter and Blogger (see ‘related articles’ below), said to me that he found it difficult not having a group of good, deep friends in church circles and being somewhat detached. A former vicar of mine had an inner circle which gave the impression of a clique or exclusive club, yet I can also see the need to have something akin to this. My impression in the past shows how people can be affected by an impression given, positively or negatively. A priest seems to be treading a tightrope in all that he or she does!
We are family
As Pritchard said, Christ calls us on a journey not into a waiting room. We may find ourselves in a waiting room, and church may serve that purpose, but it is only a temporary dwelling place where God ministers to us and prepares for the next part of our journey.
Whilst we all, including the priest, have our individual journeys to travel we also need to travel together. Or to put it another way, although the church is made up of individuals, each individual is part of a family and of the body of Christ. And like a body, for the church to be truly effective at ministering to each other and the wider community it needs to work together, and work well. Key to this is good administration.
It was no surprise to me that I found the part of the book that dealt with administration and running a church comforting. It may not be most exciting of gifts that Paul spoke about, and is often overlooked, but administration is essential. It is a cornerstone of a well run church, and can oil the wheels that let the other ministries work as God intended.
And, returning to the traveling analogy, whilst the priest is called to be the tour guide, the fellow travelers will want to get off the tour bus if it becomes a vehicle for the priest’s personal agenda or hobbyhorse. The agenda has to be God’s and the church family has to be helped to make the connections to see that.
After all, this isn’t about us, it’s about God’s love for everyone.
- Stuart Mousir-Harrison’s Blog: Life, Faith and Role-Playing Games the meanderings of Dr Moose. Follow him on Twitter via @drmoose.