My ordination as an Episcopal priest took place sixteen years ago this week, on what was then the coldest day on record in New York City. It took place at the Church of the Holy Trinity in Manhattan, where I had been a seminary intern and was serving my curacy. The late, wonderful, saintly Bp. Bob Johnson came up from North Carolina to ordain me from that Diocese, a kindness I will never forget. Many people from my home parish, St. Philip's in Durham, came to support me. It was overwhelming and amazing and thrilling and life-changing, and I was ready to serve the church my whole life. I imagined myself going from church to church until I was the rector of my own parish and never even considered a day when I would not be serving in the kind of congregational realm that is the norm - Bible studies and hospital visits and vestry meetings and Sundays with two services and coffee hour and adult education and serving in the soup kitchen on Saturday. It is the only thing I wanted and the only thing I knew through my time at Holy Trinity, then back to St. Philip's, then to getting to be a rector, at St. John's in Wichita, KS. I loved it all and learned so much.
And now here I am. Sixteen years is lots of time and no time. As I have moved and grown and served and lived being a priest, and especially for the last 5 years as I have been on a Diocesan staff and gotten to see even more of the life of the church, things have changed for me.
This is partially because I have seen the kind of changes that we all know are true in general but are hard to face in the particular: church attendance is declining, and so is giving; congregations are aging and not replacing people in the pews with younger ones; fewer and fewer congregations can afford full-time priestly ministry, and priests cannot afford to work part-time and still pay their bills. Despite all of our faithfulness, things are not the same as they once were in the church, and they will probably never be that way again. And what we will be remains unseen.
When people ask me why I have decided to go 'free-range' (and I am grateful that lots of people do!), I always go back to this:
I am a priest. I am still called to serve the church, to bear the tradition and the sacraments of the Episcopal way of being Christian, and I feel like I just have to move outside certain boundaries and ways of looking at things in order to experiment with what is coming next for the church.
The boundaries I am talking about are not theological - I would still call myself very orthodox in my beliefs. And they are not hierarchical - I am still a priest in good standing in the Diocese of North Carolina, obedient to my bishop and partaking in the councils of the church. I would say that they are organizational and administrative.
By which I mean this: I am trying to figure out how to be a full-on, full-time priest, while not being a salaried employee of a congregation (or other institution). Will people pay me directly for priestly ministry? How and when and why? These questions are so important to me because of two things
1. So many people are outside the church and not looking to come in, and yet I believe they still need Jesus, and we have to find a way to reach them with the Gospel.
2. So many congregations can't afford their clergy anymore, and so many clergy need to work, and want to work as priests. There has to be a way to work this out so that congregations can still receive priestly ministry and priests can still care for themselves and their families.
Congregational ministry is not going away, but I believe the number of congregations will continue to decline, and the ministry of priests will (hopefully) continue to expand. I feel called to be on the margins of that, to see if I can find one way, among (hopefully) many, of moving forward in mission and ministry.
I truly never could have believed this when all those hands were laid upon my head on January 22, 2000 and I was made a priest. I feel just as called to serve the church today as I did then - maybe more so - and I am amazed by both how things have changed, and how they haven't. The sacraments are the same, and the creeds, and Scripture and the songs. And yet the horizon seems wide open.
From St. Patrick's Breastplate, the über ordination song (sung at mine, of course, all 7 verses!):
'Christ beneath me, Christ above me, Christ in quiet, Christ in danger, Christ in hearts of all that love me, Christ in mouth of friend and stranger.'