'So what are you going to be doing, exactly?'
That's the most common question I am getting these days, since I announced that I have resigned my position as a Canon in the Episcopal Diocese of North Carolina and am becoming an official 'free range priest' starting January 1, 2016.
It's a great question! My first answer is, 'we'll see', which is followed by the kind of work I am planning on doing: clergy coaching and congregational consulting (cross-denominationally); online preaching tutorials; guiding groups and individuals (both secular and religious) in learning about peaceful relationships and conflict resolution; digital evangelism; meet-ups for praying and running; leading worship; teaching and writing.
But over all of this is the question, and the motivation, that leads me to this place: the church is changing, and how are we willing to change with it?
We know that fewer and fewer people are in church, and more and more mainstream churches are closing. We know that people still long for a connection with God, they are curious about the path of following Jesus, but they are reluctant to enter churches to find out more. And they are pessimistic that we who call ourselves Christian are willing to share the answers we have found - or else the answers some of us have found look nothing like the Jesus of love, peace, and forgiveness. Those of us who know this Jesus often struggle to find a way to explicitly share our faith outside the walls of our churches. Those who search for this Jesus increasingly feel, rightly or wrongly, that they won't find him inside our religious communities.
After years of working with congregations struggling with this disconnect, and urging us to get out and take risks in the service of God and for the sake of our faith, I have decided that I have to start with me. I have no idea if I will fail or succeed, or even what that would look like, but I know I have to live my life differently, live into my priestly vocation in a new way, in order to share the Gospel in the ways I think I am being called, and the church as a whole is being called. As a friend of mine recently put it, 'I believe that God may be calling me to humiliation for awhile.'
I am very fortunate that I have a husband and family who support me, in every way, as I push out into this new adventure. I fully realize that this is not true for every clergy person, and that many are in the opposite position: a whole family relies on them for support. I understand, very well, that fewer and fewer churches can financially support full-time clergy, and the tension that this brings into the life of clergy and congregations. I get how hard it can be to joyfully serve the Lord while also feeling this kind of fear in the background. This is a huge part of the free-range call for me.
Something has to give. Somehow, the church is being born anew, in the midst of all the ways things feel hard in mainstream congregations right now. I am certainly not saying that the church, or Christianity, or the Anglican expression of it, is going anywhere. I still feel the presence of God everywhere, and the hunger for the good news of the Gospel. But the same old ways that we do things as church are simply not working anymore, not for most people, most of the time.
And so I can longer resist this urge to see what it looks like and feels like to fully inhabit my priesthood while not being supported full-time by a single congregation or institution. Consider me the Uber driver of your religious journey, with all the joys and challenges that might entail!
'Free-range' may just be another word for 'unemployed'. Or it may be one way to be part of the changing church in the 21st century. Whatever it is, I know that I feel a sense of joy, peace, and excitement that I have not felt since I was first called to the priesthood. And I know that my obedience to the church, and to the Gospel, have remained unchanged. They are just starting to look different. I hope this is true, in its own way, for many other followers of Jesus. I can't wait to find out!