Thursday, May 28, 2009

Independent Catholic Vocations: Worker Priests

Independent Catholic Christians share a common baptismal vocation with other Christians, and IC/OC clergy share a common diaconal or priestly vocation with other Christian clergy, particularly within the Anglican, Roman Catholic, and Orthodox traditions. However, within those common vocations, there are also vocational differences based on the unique characteristics of the Independent Sacramental Movement and of each jurisdiction within it.

One of the most obvious differences, which has a profound effect on how clergy live out their vocation, is the issue of bivocationalism. Most Roman Catholic and Orthodox clergy are paid full-time to be clergy, and although there are a number of non-stipendiary clergy in the Episcopal church, most parishes still operate on the model of being served by full-time paid clergy, and many dioceses which offer subsidies to parishes that cannot afford full-time clergy do so with the hope that the parish will grow financially to the point where it can support its own full-time clergyperson. Parishes that cannot afford a full-time priest are often downgraded to mission status, and are usually seen as “struggling” and, at the very least, not the norm.

In sharp contrast, the overwhelming majority of IC/OC communities are very small and have no realistic hope of ever being able to pay a full-time clergyperson (or own a building, but that is another discussion). Most people who are ordained in our movement will never be able to support themselves through ministry, and the overwhelming majority of the less than 1% who do will either do so through a chaplaincy job or through a wedding ministry and NOT through parish ministry. Most IC/OC priests (and bishops) will be “worker priests”. Almost all IC/OC parish communities will rely on the ministry of worker priests. (Yes, I know about Spiritus Sancti in Rochester, NY, and I’m sure there are a tiny handful of others for which this is not true, but it is true and always will be for the overwhelmingly vast number of IC/OC priests and communities – trust me on this!)

I point this out not to claim that either the “mainstream” (for lack of a better word) or the “indie” model is better or more right or anything of the sort – there are wonderful clergy and communities, average clergy and communities, and really dreadful ones in both models. Each model has advantages and disadvantages. The real point is to accept one’s lot and do the best one can to serve God given the particular circumstances in which one finds oneself.

But for those of us in the independent movement, it can be difficult to accept this lot. Almost all of us were raised in “mainstream” churches, and a large number of clergy have been in an ordination process, or a religious order, or a seminary in a “mainstream” church. (Of the 17 seminarians and clergy who have at one time or another been associated with the Mission Episcopate of St. Michael & St. Timothy, the “diocese” I head, 13 were at one time in the ordination process in the Roman Catholic, Episcopal, and/or ELCA denominations. Of the remaining 4, 3 were women raised in the Roman Catholic church who came to the IC/OC movement because the RC’s don’t ordain women, which leaves only one person who did not seriously consider ordination in a “mainstream” context first. John Plummer thinks these numbers are higher than the majority of jurisdictions, but regardless, most who seek ordination were originally members of mainstream churches of one kind or another.)

I raise this issue because most of us, having received our basic Christian formation and often, even our beginning formation as clergy from churches which assume full-time paid ministry as the norm, may find it difficult to let go of those expectations and instead focus on the expectations we should have. If we internalize, consciously or not, the idea that a “successful” priest has a large enough congregation to pay one’s salary and that a “real” church has a building of its own, we may be so overcome with shame that we are unable to minister to those God does send us. A large congregation with full-time staff and a building can engage in ministries we can’t – and we can offer an intense community life and can respond to individual needs much more readily than the large churches can. The important thing is for us to offer the sacraments and the liturgy to those who come to us, to the best of our ability, and to do the best we can to make disciples of Christ. In our community, we have a Sunday liturgy in a space rented from a Unitarian Universalist congregation, a Wednesday night service in the chapel I’ve made out of a spare bedroom (and a monthly Friday service in another chapel a parishioner has made out of a bedroom in his home), and a Tuesday night service that happens by phone conference.

What are the opportunities we as worker priests have? First, although the demands of our secular job and home life are such that we don’t have the time to focus on church that some have, we are therefore forced to focus on the essentials. I sometimes find that I accomplish more when I have a short time to do something than when I have a long time – and it is no different here. Second, this situation demands collaboration in a way that can be lacking in larger churches. I cannot imagine how an indie church could function fully without at least two priests, and small communities demand more of the laity as well, who can be much more intimately involved than they may have opportunities to be elsewhere. (Certainly, large congregations often have lay involvement, but it is often a small core – and there is less opportunity to hide in a small church. Just ask the couple who joined us in procession and would have processed out to the car – had they not left their purses inside – and who foolishly came back a second week to find themselves being the entire congregation. They are now both heavily involved in the life of the parish, the jurisdiction, and in one case, the AIHM order.) A third opportunity is to share more fully the life that those we serve lead – we can understand the challenges and burdens they face, because we share them.

But we can only fully embrace these opportunities if we embrace our position as worker priests, and see it as a vocation from God, rather than seeing it as an obstacle to overcome.


JohnP said...

Well said, Tim. Thanks!

Anonymous said...

Dear +Tim,
I've been in your "amen corner" for a long time - never more so than now. Thank you for this eloquent, thought-provoking post. It's time to work together as a wider movement, so we may give each other some much-needed mutual support and affirmation.

Blessings and well-wishes,


David said...


Jon Carl Lewis said...

I certainly would like to get (back) to work as a worker priest... this is what i've been struggling with... the fact that i am called to be priest vis a vis the Call to be in the world, answering phones at my government job as a full part of my ministry... thank you for helping me understand in this posting a little bit more about what a sacramental life can be like!

Robbin said...

Dear +Tim,

Certainly appreciated your "to the point" article that +Lynn Walker forwarded to me. It inspires me to press on as St. Paul tells us to do. It is always helpful to know that as independents we are not alone and have no reason for "shame" because we have no building or financial resources. Perhaps the grace and glory is in the lack of such.

Robbin/+ OCCA

Alexis said...

I think that we have two important hurdles one of which you highlighted here firstly - the "shame" or "embarrassment" many clergy in our community experience/express over the lack of buildings, salaries etc. The second - and related - is that our communities too often ordain people who have this difficulty without first giving them the necessary time to settle into a comfortable OC/IC identity - i.e. cultivating confidence within our tradition, rather than looking over the shoulder to see what others, in another tradition (with the rectories, pretty buildings, and salaries) think of us.

Francesca made a VERY important point - one which I've been banging on about for some time now - the very real need for mutual support and cooperation among OC/IC communities, and clergy. For reasons which we are all, all too aware of, there is an "unnatural" level of mistrust, and suspicion among the sane OC/IC doers and thinkers (lay and ordained alike). We would do well to work together to dissolve this barrier.

I suspect it would result in an improved sense of confidence for all (thus reducing the "concerns" over those issues Tim has highlighted), as well as a degree of natural, organic, quality control of candidates for leadership and service roles within our respective communities. This works, by way of example, in the familiar scenario of synod hopping; that is to say putting an organic end to it through friendship and cooperation: if my friend bishop X wont ordain you - why should I!

David said...

One of my struggles in my own ministry is being the product of a non-OC/IC seminary that emphasized "church growth" as a norm. For many years I was truly frustrated when we never grew "big enough" to have our own building or even standing room only in someone else's building. I wish someone had been there to mentor me into our reality.

Now into my 20th year of ministry in the IC/OC/ISM, I have come to value the strengths of small church life, and try to pass that along to ministry candidiates.

I would also like to echo the need for mutual cooperation and fellowship ... In 2003 +Tim's ICCC and my own small diocese entered into a very respectful intercommunion where we promised that neither jurisdiction would try to swallow up the other. We are very different in our approach to church life, yet we have been able to develop a friendship between our memberships. I know that "my people" do not feel that we are doing things "alone" as we have "cousins" in Philadelphia ...
and we feel that those cousins have been there for us many times ... I would love to see more respectful relationships develop between the many IC/OC/ISM jurisdictions ...



Lyngine said...

To the list of opportunities that worker priests have, I'd like to add one more---the opportunity through example to encourage and inspire Christian discipleship and model the integration of secular and religious life to the people that come their way.

Our parish, like most OC/IC parishes is small and so the members share each other's lives and know each other well. When I first realized that OC/IC priests weren't paid to be priests (I'm unordained) and spent their days much like I did and yet serve, preach, counsel, pray, and administer sacraments on top of daily secular life and in the midst of job loss, illness, bad days, and personal struggle--that had a profound effect on how I thought about living Christian faith.

One of the challenges in any Christian community is how to inspire Sunday church-goers to Christian discipleship lived in the everyday. Most people don't know how paid clergy spend their day and the underlying assumption is that because they are paid to be clergy they have the time for a spiritual life and they are the ones who are called to daily spiritual living---and the rest of us who have secular jobs only have time for God on Sundays because we're busy making a living on other days.

Worker priests challenge this model for the people they serve and exemplify how living breathing daily Christian life happens in the midst of a secular work life. By the example of their lives, worker priests have a unique opportunity to inspire, challenge, and encourage discipleship in a way that paid clergy can not. It is a vocation to be proud of, to embrace, and to rejoice in.

Tim Cravens said...

Thank you, everyone, for your comments.

Francesca+, I'm in your "amen corner" as well. It was great to see you at +Lynn's long-overdue consecration (she reminded me that I told her several years ago that I wanted to help consecrate her a bishop when the time came, and that she had told me to bite my tongue -- but I'm glad the Holy Spirit and the church were able to convince her otherwise, and that I was able to be one of those to lay hands on her). I wish we had had more time to talk. I will have to come to New York and hang out with you and +Lynn at some point, when it's not an "occasion".

+David, Amen to what you wrote! I feel bad that you have visited us in Philly more than once, and am happy that several of us will be there this weekend for Carol's ordination. (Although we also need to hang out some time when it's not an "occasion".)

Lyngine, thank you for yet another wise observation in the form of a comment to a blogpost. We will have to pull them all together from the various blogs (and thanks, +Alexis, for triggering so many good discussions in which she has participated on your blog) and publish them!

Feel free, everyone, to continue to converse.

Tim Cravens said...

+David, I didn't finish my sentence -- I meant I feel bad that you have visited us more than once in Philly but we have not as of yet visited you and yours in Boston -- I'm happy that we will rectify that this weekend.

alexis said...

Ha ha ha I'll go in on a joint publishing venture with you & Lyngine any day Tim.

Yes - Lyngine's point is one which I think we OC/IC folk need to highlight and develop - because as she has shown being a worker-priest is in a very real sense an active form of outreach and "witness". The trick of course is ensuring that the clergy in question are faithful to our tradition; otherwise it becomes a cause for embarrassment, and farce.