Diary of a Free Range Priest: not a rector


I was a terrible rector. That is a true statement. I never really felt called to be the priest in charge of a parish, but as I progressed through my formation, from a young curate on a multiple clergy staff to an associate rector with a wide variety of responsibilities, it seemed like the thing that I was supposed to do, and be. It was obvious that leading my own congregation was not only the next logical step, it was the only logical step. I couldn't stay assisting clergy forever (could I?), I wasn't interested in being a chaplain, or a professor/priest, or serving on a Diocesan staff (yet). So off I went to find my own place. And the thing is, I loved my church, St. John's in Wichita, Kansas. I loved the people, I loved the city, I loved the historic presence and downtown location of the church. I loved the outreach ministry, the wonderful liturgy and music, I even loved the feral cat colony that brought us crowds of kittens every spring!

I just didn't love the work. I didn't love the committee meetings, I didn't love the building issues and the money management, I didn't love the deeply entrenched ways that things worked there that were foreign and impenetrable to me. And I didn't love the nature of the work enough to be present and patient with it.

I thought I knew things that the people in the congregation didn't, and if I just got them to see what I knew, things would change for the better. I was arrogant and defensive and frightened. Frightened because I was in over my head and could not figure out how to swim.

Frightened because even though I love being a priest with all my heart, I hated being a rector and I could not figure out how to admit that, because I could not understand how to be one without being the other.

I lasted for about four years (4 Christmases, 3 Easters) before I had to go. I am grateful I left before too much damage was done to the relationship between me and my congregation, and that there is still love left there, I hope on both sides. And I do think we did ministry together that bore some fruit, and has had some legacy. I will say that the things I have learned from that experience have helped me grow as a priest, and as a person, so much so that I am truly thankful for every day I spent there, even the hard ones.

I read an article the other day about how many doctors are not good managers of their own practices, because doctors are not primarily administrators, usually. The conclusion was to teach administration skills in medical school!

This brought back feelings of frustration for me, and reminds me of when people suggest we teach budgeting in seminary. Because it makes me wonder if that is really the solution. What if some priests (and some doctors) want to practice their vocations outside of the model of parochial ministry (or private practice?) What if this is a call to expand our vision?

I am in awe of those who thrive as rectors. My dear friend, Peter Faass, is walking his parish through an amazing process of physical and spiritual transformation in the neighborhood in and around Christ Church, Shaker Heights, Ohio. I know so many other wonderful priests who lead (and assist) in great congregations.

And yet, I do feel so strongly now that it is also a faithful path to seek to serve as a priest doing priestly things - celebrating the Eucharist, preaching the Gospel, teaching the Christian tradition, counseling in the context of the faith, interpreting the world theologically - outside of the context of one group of people worshiping in one building within one community.

This week I started a series of videos about the craft of preaching, and I am hoping to offer online classes/coaching soon to those who are learning to preach, new preachers, or those who want to find new life in their preaching.

This is part of the exploration of what free-ranging looks like as a priest. It's also not without its challenges, but these are challenges that exhilarate, rather than frustrate me. They are part of the path of how I am figuring out how to be a priest, but not a rector.

I hope I am not the only 'not a rector' priest, longing to find new directions. I suspect I am not. I am looking forward to meeting others.