Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Apprentice priests: abide in the essentials

I just arrived home this evening after attending a beautiful service at St. James Cathedral, Chicago to receive a Roman Catholic priest into the clergy of the Episcopal Church, what might in Roman parlance be called "incardination." As I approach my own ordination and first call as a priest, I think about how I have been prepared for the priesthood and the many gaps in my formation that will affect how well I practice my vocation.

Many may not know that I have spent the last four years as a member of our diocesan Congregational Development Commission, which has been an incredible formation experience, schooling me in a wide range of models for congregational growth and vitality. It has also brought me into contact with congregations and clergy that have struggled to survive under some very trying circumstances, many not of their own making. Although we in the Episcopal Church continually stress the ministry of all the baptized, I have witnessed congregations rise and fall on the strengths and weaknesses of the priests that lead them. That is a terribly unsettling thought: that a congregation's future depends so much on my abilities, my gifts, my pathologies. To have that kind of responsibility is unnerving, to say the least.

Lack of financial and administrative skills in a priest can bring a parish to the brink of disaster, but I have also met priests, who are excellent bureaucrats that lack pastoral sensitivity and spiritual depth. Unfortunately, seminaries don't teach us everything we need to know. They can teach us Greek and biblical exegesis, Church history and liturgy, and yet nearly every day I encounter some skill set or ability that I know would make me a better priest: Web development skills, training in accounting and marketing, community organizing, Jungian analysis, new spiritual disciplines and devotions, and the list goes on and on. The range is mind-boggling. So, how is a new priest to wrangle with this unending litany of demands?

In some ways, seminary education has missed the mark. "Why is it," I would often muse, "that seminary doesn't teach me what I want to know?" Recently I have been thinking that the old apprenticeship model of priestly formation has a lot to recommend it. As Seminarian-in-Residence at the Church of the Atonement in Chicago, I have been blessed to be surrounded by about a dozen priests, many of whom are retired, who have offered me insights on saying mass or transferring a feast or hearing confession or doing a funeral that I would never have learned in seminary even if I had thought to ask. And there was a time, moreover, when a priest's first curacy was designed to give him--at that time, it was always a him--indispensable on-the-job training to fill in the gaps left by the seminary. Comments from fellow seminarians have helped me to appreciate that few people nowadays receive this good old-fashioned apprenticeship. Last Sunday in the sacristy, a seasoned priest, Fr. Dunkerley, said to me with great passion that he was so glad that I would learn to celebrate the old Tridentine Mass in my first curacy, because it had shaped his entire spirituality and priesthood forever. Needless to say, I was surprised and awed by this statement.

And I was deeply grateful. How wonderful it is to sense one's own inadequacy for the challenges of the priesthood in this day and age and then be surrounded by mentoring priests who are willing to support the apprentice with their collective wisdom and experience. I realized that as much as the world calls us to develop new skills and stretch ourselves, we must be grounded in something solid. As usual, I had been making things too complicated, and my mentors guided me back to what was important: saying the Daily Office, going to Confession, attending early morning masses, proclaiming the Word of God, theological study, and listening empathetically to peoples' stories of joy and anguish. These are among the anchors of our faith.

One particularly powerful moment of my apprenticeship emerged on a cold January day at Seabury-Western Theological Seminary. After listening to one of my rather fervid rants about some theological fine point that was distressing me, my Anglican theology professor, Fr. McMichael, looked at me bemused and said simply, "Ethan, abide in the essentials." I was stunned by the pure simplicity of it, and yet it made sense and brought me so much comfort. I heaved a great sigh of relief. Stressing myself out by doing too much and never getting caught up with everything on my to-do list had caused me to lose sight of what was really important. Faithfulness, not perfection, as a priest. "Ethan, abide in the essentials," he said. Here endeth the Lesson.

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