Diary of a Free Range Priest: What priests do


'What does a priest do?' This is a question that has become very real to me since I have gone 'free-range'. And it's harder to answer than you might think.

At first, it is easy enough. Priests are sacramentalists, and so most of what we do, and what we are uniquely qualified to do in the church, is to consecrate the Eucharist, offer God's blessing and forgiveness, baptize, marry, and anoint the sick. A lot of this is associated with Sunday morning worship, although much of it happens at other times and places. And frankly, unless our congregations are immense, these things, while crucially important to our faith, do not take up most of our time.

And so beyond this, what does a priest, or other ordained minister, do? In a congregation, the answer is often, 'everything'! Although this is becoming increasingly problematic, for a variety of reasons: priests are burned out from being 'professional Christians', lay people are increasingly, and importantly, claiming much more of their own discipleship, and therefore leadership, within and beyond Christian community. And, I think, we are not completely clear what it means, on a daily basis, to be ministers in the world, whether lay or ordained.

This is where it gets really interesting being a free-range priest. Without a congregational or institutional call, which would define my role pretty clearly (or would it?), it's up to me to decide what work is 'priestly' out here in the world. Am I a counselor? A coach? A retreat leader? An itinerant preacher? A spiritual writer? Maybe a little of each of these things? And what does it matter that I am ordained - couldn't lay people do most of what I do?

This exploration is ongoing, and yet I do start from somewhere. For one, I believe that by virtue of my ordination, in which the people of the church and the Holy Spirit imbued me with certain power and responsibility, it is fundamentally my job to bear the tradition and the sacraments of the church into the world, every moment of every day, and with everything that I am. This does set me apart - not that I am better, more holy, more faithful or anything like that, but that I am a 'point person' for the faith. In the same way, I believe, that a doctor is uniquely qualified to be point person for health care, even though it is everyone's job to see to their own bodily care, and often that of others, and that there are a multitude of other kinds of healthcare professionals, all important.

And for what that means on a daily basis I am indebted to Dwight Zscheile and Scott Cormode who speak of 'theological interpretation' as a primary task of Christian leaders, making spiritual sense of the world. Especially in an age when fewer and fewer people go to church, or know the Christian story, I do think that what I do is bring that perspective to everyday life. What does it mean to be a Christian at work, at home, when making political decisions, etc.? What I do, I think, is hold up these questions, make space to answer these questions, help others feel fully equipped to ask and explore these questions. What that actually looks like is things like writing, coaching, counseling, preaching, teaching, leading retreats and having lots and lots of cups of coffee with people.

Priests do a lot of things. I know plenty of priests who are primarily educators, administrators, chaplains, musicians, community organizers, even politicians. But beyond those things, we are primarily theological interpreters. Sometimes within organizations, sometimes outside of them. We are bound together by our vows to uphold the doctrine, discipline and worship of the church, and our love of Jesus Christ. And like all of our brothers and sisters, we are working out what that means, every day.