My dear fellow clergy, please take a deep breath. (And know I love you.)
There’s a whole lot of angst and worry out there right now and I get it. Everything you knew has ended overnight. You walked out of the church one Sunday, locked the doors, set the alarm, and then everything changed. And change is scary.
But some of us have been doing things this way for years now, and I have to tell you, if you can let go of the grief over the death of old ways there are wonderful things to discover in this new world.
And isn’t it ironic, that a religion that began in houses is having such a hard time practicing in them now?
First we need to acknowledge that some of our grief is misplaced. (And that it is going to take a while to see that, and unravel it.) As my liturgy professor used to say, we’re all fundamentalists, you just have to find our line. I say: we’ve all got unhealthy attachments to things, you just have to find your line.
Some of our grief is real and good. We grieve that we cannot physically be with people we love, for example. But some of our griefs reveal the idols that have become our unwitting stumbling blocks. From our obsession with our buildings, to choirs, fancy music, vestments, or even (yes really) the Eucharist.
The Gift In Isolation
I have been doing online work with Nones/Dones (those with no religious affiliation and those who have left a religious tradition with no interest in returning) for many years now at Crazy Whole Life. And those curious, faithful, hungry people have helped heal me of many of the idols I brought to that work. (We’re never free of all of them.)
They healed me of the idol of buildings, and the idea that any certain place is necessary for a connection with God. They healed me of the idol of dogma and creeds, of thinking we can box God in or pin God down with our words (or that wounding one another over such things is ever, ever worth it). They showed me the incredible variety of ways that God feeds her children, tends the gardens of their souls, and encounters them in all the parts of their lives. (All without any clergy anywhere in sight, shocking, I know.)
And the church, while she is mourning all the parts of her that are dying is also being offered the gift of those same lessons from the very people who she has either criticized or desperately wanted to attract for so long. We are being given the gift of having everything stripped away, what remains is what matters.
Setting Down The Burden of Clericalism
A few years ago I took a call that might have looked odd to anyone who didn’t know me well. I took a call as vicar of a tiny (under 20) mission of mostly older adults, very part time. So part time that all I really have time to do each week is write a sermon, lead worship, and prep the occasional class.
A few months into my new call I took my first vacation as a solo clergy person. A couple members signed up to preach, a couple others would lead Morning Prayer in my absence and our (volunteer) admin must have seen the worries flitting through my mind because she put her hand on my arm and said: “Jo, go. We love you, but we don’t need you.”
Of course they don’t. Everyone of them is a baptized minister. Every one of them a member of the body of Christ, just as I am. Every one of them commissioned for some work in this world by the Divine.
And let’s be honest fellow clergy, clericalism, at best only feeds our least healthy needs for love and power. It has no real upsides. As many clergy are discovering now, a church immersed in clericalism is not an agile or resilient church. And her clergy will be burned our wrecks in short order.
Just As You Are
One of the things that moving into this new sort of ministry will do (if you let it) is strip away all the masks, and costumes we use to protect ourselves and leave… just you.
After that first livestream with your folks from your living room, or trying to preach from your dining room for the first time, you might find yourself wanting to run back to your building, throw on your robes, and prop your computer up in front of the altar. Resist. Seriously.
Early in my ministry I looked the priestly part. I wore the all black, the collar, the serious suits. Secretly, I hated it. Oh it meant I was treated with deference and respect most places. People called me Reverend a lot, I got coffee free now and then. And I was told the clothing gave me “authority” as a young women.
But I hated it, it wasn’t me. And I lamented that to a mentor (the wise Rhoda Montgomery, who I still miss). She gave me her look and drawled (as only she could) “honey, if God had wanted another old white man in a suit she’d have called one.” It was like a thunderbolt.
But that didn’t make taking off the costume any easier. The first time I walked up to a parishioner’s door with my communion kit, in my hippy Momma skirt and my colorful tunic blouse I felt totally naked. I spend the whole visit second guessing my decision and feeling inadequate. As I packed up to leave though the woman I’d been visiting stopped me and told me she had never had a priest before she could see herself in, that she could see her daughter in, her mother, her girlfriends. She told me she’d told me things she’d never been able to confess to the men in their serious black suits and their collars, because she felt like with them she had to be perfect, to keep up appearances. She hugged me and thanked me. And I have heard some variation of those words ever after from women, and men.
I had stopped being a symbol, I had let them see me.
When I took my work online that experience was heightened even more. The people who found their way to my website didn’t care about collars, or vestments. None of those things gave me authority or the right to tell them what to believe, or do. If anything, they were a warning sign that I wasn’t safe.
But as they spent time reading my work, commenting, sharing their stories they got to know me, and to trust me as a real human being who wasn’t interested in telling them what to believe, or what to do, but in walking with them as a fellow seeker after the Divine.
It is (at first) frightening to be just yourself with others. But when the terror wears off you discover the gift of your call all over again, after all, God called you.
Embracing Our Imperfection
Right now a whole lot of us who are used to being the polished experts are bumbling around messing everything up and feeling totally overwhelmed and I give thanks to God for that.
On my site Crazy Whole Life I have an email list people can sign up for. One of the first emails they get (a sort of “newcomer’s class”) asks them to tell me about their greatest struggle in their spiritual life. People email me daily saying “Jo, let me tell you I struggle constantly with…”, the things they struggle with are as varied as you can imagine and I find myself replying to their email with an enthusiastic “me too!” because I do.
That ability to not come across as a polished expert, as someone with her spiritual ducks in a rows took some learning. But no matter what the church talks about with power differences, the truth is clergy are just as human as our parishioners. We aren’t magic. You don’t have to be magic.
And as those myths of clergy perfection fell away in my online work something really magic happened: trust. The people I work with have no reason to trust the church, or clergy. They have often been deeply harmed by the church, but when I took off all the layers and sat down next to them as a fellow student and seeker trust began to form again.
And I realized that no matter what our culture might teach the single greatest contributor to clergy dis-health and biggest enabler of abuse by clergy is the myth that we are somehow different, set apart, more perfect, or better at this God thing than others. (I suspect it is also a major contributor to the decline we see, but that’s another topic.) We aren’t better at this stuff, we’re just professional bumblers.
I once had a delightful conversation with a Roman Catholic Benedictine brother. I complimented his robust prayer life, lamenting that mine felt hodgepodge in comparison. He laughed, looked me straight in the eye and said: “God chased me into a monastery where prayer is required because otherwise, I would never pray.”
And I in turn laughed and said “actually, you’re right, God made me a priest because otherwise I’d rarely get to church.” My parishioners are leagues ahead of me, that’s OK, because God invites us into the places that will help us to grow. God does not expect us to be done.
Rediscovering What Matters
My physical world congregation is tiny by church standards. At around 14 on most Sundays there are probably a lot of people who have dismissed us as irrelevant. While we’re gamely hollering “I’m not dead yet!” the traditional church has been trying to toss us on the Monty Python plague wagon for years “you’ll be stone dead in a moment” is something my folks have heard more than once.
We’re not polished, almost entirely volunteer, and we don’t take ourselves terribly seriously.
But it turns out we are exactly the kind of church that is resilient and flexible. My congregants are used to doing things themselves. They lead morning prayer when I’m not around (and even when I am), they preach. They handle all the practical aspects of being a church (from pastoral care to bulletins to scrubbing toilets). Really, they keep me around to answer the weird geeky questions the people doing the real work of being church don’t have time for (that’s them.)
When we stopped gathering in the physical world they moved seamlessly into online morning prayer. They call to check on one another. They share what they have. They take it as normal that they’ll be learning something new all the time.
It turns out (they already knew this) the building doesn’t matter. At all. (They’ve been renting space in an office park after all.)
It turns out the vestments don’t matter, at all.
It turns out polished worship is over rated, and it’s kind of nice to have a church cat show up on Sunday mornings (Our cat Emma has featured in a number of our broadcasts.)
What matters is seeing one another’s faces on the computer screen each week. Hearing one another’s voices on the phone as folks call around to check on each other. What matters is sharing prayer, and sacred story, with people we love. What matters is a sneaky chain of whispers that it is someone’s 90th birthday coming up and how can we surprise her with cards and phone calls.
And all of that is a thousand times easier and more manageable because we are small. It turns out relationship is what always mattered anyway and that’s hard to build in a church of hundreds. Maybe my dears we get the chance, in all of this, to redefine success and failure. To let go of the strangle hold we (clergy) often have on success that looks suspiciously like a corporate bottom line, or rising sales charts.
And maybe, just maybe that shift will change how we look at the trends in church attendance and spiritual practice…
The Gift of Emptiness
One of the things this current crisis has done is derail the cult of busyness in which we were all members.
Some churches have been scrambling, adding multiple daily streaming services, trying to replace all their programs with online version. And when this is over the temptation will be to reboot the calendar as full as it was before.
I invite you to instead consider the gift of emptiness, not not rush to fill your time, your capacity, with more services, more programs, more, more more. As this excellent article points out, we are going to be under a relentless assault to do just that and we must resist.
We have been given the gift of emptiness of space and time not filled with the relentless drive of human beings on the move. And in that space the skies have cleared, the fish are coming back, the birds are singing again.
It isn’t just true in our physical visible world. The expansiveness of time opens possibilities in our souls as well. But the temptation to numb our hurt with busyness is real. The longing is to fill the silence, to always keep moving; because when we get still, and quiet, we inevitably meet ourselves and that can be a shock.
So dear ones, call your therapist, your spiritual director, your friend who gives it to you straight. Meditate, join a breath work class, pray as if your life depended on it. Bawl your eyes out, scream, rage, crawl shakily into God’s lap and huddle there. It is all OK. But leave the space the horror of disease and death has created. Leave that holy space.
And don’t be so hasty to fill it, don’t be so quick to go back to “normal.” Listen to your heart, listen and trust the people you minister with. It is not activity that people want (in my experience) but space to breathe.
Busyness is addictive, because it covers our insecurities and our fear. It drowns out our uncertainties (for a time). But it can’t save us, and we have been given the gift of being forced to stop it all. An no matter what we are told: we also have the choice of what to pick up again.
Do less. Trust me on this one.
Nothing But Hope
I have nothing but hope for the church. Not for our institution but that’s OK, God’s been chipping away my attachment to institution for decades.
My hope is that more of my sibling priests will realize that a world where they are loved, but not needed is a good future. Where lay people own, live, and embody the church in their own homes. Where we (clergy) are around to answer the geeky questions because we are geeky but really we’re just resources for people who are rocking this being the body of Christ thing in their daily lives. My hope is that we’ll get small, that we’ll fall back in love with one another and out of love with fancy liturgies and weighty expensive buildings. (This will be terrifying, but love and vulnerability are worth the discomfort.)
My hope is that we’ll rediscover meaning, truth, and connection to God comes from the deepest depths of our own souls, not stained glass, or linens, or (dare I say it) creeds. And that the food and drink God provides is available anywhere to anyone.
I am filled with hope that a whole generation of laity in the church won’t let us go back to business as usual. That they will have reclaimed the priesthood of all believers and all the clericalism in the world won’t be able to pry that out of their fingers.
I am buoyed by hope that the Nones and the Dones who have been rediscovering how to connect to God outside our institutions will share their treasure with a church that feels unmoored and lost at sea (and that the church will be still and listen.)
And my hope for my fellow clergy is that we will emerge from this, blinking, into the welcome relief of not being essential. That we will be able to peel off centuries of expectations and assumptions and be the selves God called in the first place, as raw and vulnerable as that will be. Because it is what will save us my dears, it has already saved me.