Thursday, July 13, 2006

The toxic effects of being the holiest person in a congregation

In my role [as Episcopal priest], I could act out of my best nature for hours at a time. I could produce kindness when all I feel is fatigue. I could present patience when circumstances warrant irritation. I could shine like the sun until long after dark when I need to, but my soul did not operate on a solar calendar.

My soul operated on a lunar calendar, coming up at a different time every night and never looking the same two nights in a row. Where my role called for a steady circle of bright light, my soul waxed and waned. There were days when I was as full as a harvest moon and others when not so much as a sliver appeared in the sky. My soul’s health depended on the regular cycle of these phases. I needed the dark nights that gave the stars their full brilliance as much as I needed the nights when the moon shone so brightly that I could make shadow puppets with my hands. The problem with the collar was that it did not allow for such variations. It advertised the steady circle of light, not the cycles, so that it sometimes scorched my neck.

. . . I had set out to wear a collar in the first place because I thought it would mark me as someone committed to going all the way with God. Will you seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving your neighbor as yourself? My initial answer had been yes, I would. I would give myself completely to that ministry. I wore my collar the way I wore my wedding ring, as a symbol of my vows. But, as I suspected when I first opened the box from Wippell’s, what the collar symbolized to other people was not under my control. In the same way that a prisoner’s stripes identified someone with a criminal record, a collar identified someone with divine aspirations, which does not always bode well for the person who wore it.

While I knew plenty of clergy willing to complain about the high expectations and long hours, few of us spoke openly about the toxic effects of being identified as the holiest person in a congregation. Whether this honor was conferred by those who recognized our gifts for ministry or was simply extended by them as a professional courtesy, it was equally hard on the honorees. Those of us who believed our own press developed larger-than-life swaggers and embarrassing patterns of speech, while those who did not suffered lower back pain and frequent bouts of sleeplessness. Either way, we were deformed.

[Excerpted from Barbara Brown Taylor’s book, Leaving Church: A Memoir of Faith; I found it on her personal website (, under the link to her newsletter.]

I recommend reading this entire excerpt, and perhaps the book itself, which chronicles the author’s decision to leave parish ministry for a university career. For clergy, it’s good to hear a colleague’s point of view on all this, and for lay people, it’s good to get a glimpse behind the rector’s mask. Barbara Brown Taylor is reputedly a very fine preacher, but don’t expect an exposition of orthodox Christian theology – she’s down on orthodoxy, as a rule.

What struck me about this excerpt is the interplay between the human failings of clergy and the expectation laid on them for holiness of life. I don’t think anyone ought to be ordained who does not WANT holiness of life, or who would find the acquisition and maintenance thereof a burden. Perhaps our parishioners would find our example more inspiring if we actually found it so, if we found authentic holiness of life to be an exhilaration, the only time when we felt truly alive. We should resist any idea that human failing = true humanity; the point of the incarnation is that human perfection = true humanity.

Now, I’m not accusing Barbara Brown Taylor of this error per se. What she calls the ‘solar’ and ‘lunar’ cycles are the public, holy mask clergy are expected to wear and the private, inconstant, sometimes messy inner self. She’s right to point out that a vocation to the pastoral project seems to demand hypocrisy, seems to require us to wear the holy mask even when our souls wane, and that it becomes detrimental possibly to our flocks and surely to our careers to show too much of the dark, ‘lunar’ ups and downs. In my seminary counseling classes they called this unnecessary or harmful self-disclosure. People don’t come to see us, they come to present themselves before God, and we have to appear holy, often holiEST, to facilitate that.

I’d like to suggest, though, that it doesn’t do any good to call the holiness ‘false’ and the human failings ‘true’. In my short tenure as a clergyman, I’ve found that I tend most toward the early symptoms of burn-out when I am least holy, personally; when my disciplines have slipped and I’ve lost touch with the vital God whose minister I try to be. That’s when I feel like a hypocrite. The ‘problem with the collar’ that does not allow us to be human is rather its virtue, its lure toward ‘just a closer walk with Thee’ – not that it will somehow make us holy when we aren’t, but rather that bearing its burden and swearing its oaths bind us to the inspiring vision of a more single-minded search. If anything, the collar should identify priests as searchers after holiness, who perhaps have been on the road a time and have developed a certain amount of maturity and success, and humility about that success, along the way.


DDX said...

How 'bout a little DDX sermon on that? ...(clearing throat sound)...There is a huge difference between BEING holy and ACTING holy.

Through faith in Christ we believe that he has made us to BE holy because He is holy. We are repentent of self-will and trusting Him for everything. He says we are thereby in Him and He is in us. Also, we are His personal possession, sanctified for His exclusive use. That IS holiness.

Though our actions are not always compatable, holiness is simply something we ARE--regardless of how we FEEL, ACT or DRESS.

Hypocrisy is not acting differently than we FEEL or DRESS it is acting differently than we ARE.

So...a redeemed person is only "hypocritical" if acting "un-holy". However much we may want EVERYONE to act holy (makes the world a better place?) the unrepentant, unredeemed is no hypocrite to act that way. He or she is faithfully acting as what they ARE when acting self-willed, self-serving, unbelieving, rebellious, etc.

Now that brings me to the present distresses of the ECUSA. Shall I just say that words and creeds, hats and robes, rings and titles make no one holy. Such things redeem no one. For all who are not repentent of self-will; not self-humbled and surrendered to Christ; they should be expected to act proudly, self-willed and rebelliously. To do otherwise would be hypocrisy because they ARE exactly that, though they may not FEEL they are. ("Everyone is right in his own eyes.")

The answer to the ECUSA dilemma is found in Jesus brilliant question about the Roman denarrius baring the image of Caesar.

No redeemed person should stress over holiness. If you're IN Christ you simply ARE holy. No one can make themselves holy or holier. Jesus alone has done it without our help and we can simply rest in that knowledge. No sweat! It's HIS holiness and not ours anyway!

texanglican said...

Excellent refelction, Father Thorpus. Thanks.

Johnny Awesomo said...

I can still remember a time in seminary when we were being taught about "self care." We were told that sermon writing can become a drag after a while and it's good to delegate responsibilities, take vacation, and etc.
I asked Fr. Christopher about this and his response was "I love preaching! You will have to fight me to get me out of the pulpit if you want to preach here."

In other words, I agree with your opinion entirely. The more deliberate we are about our own relationship with God, and the more we focus on Christ for whom we minister, the easier it is to pastor a church and not feel like a burned-out hypocrite.

DDX said...

Youuuuuuu said it Johnny Awesome! When Christ leaves the foreground of our focus we easily go astray and get caught up in all kinds of anything. This is THE deception that leads to everything destructive.

My son, like the prophet Samuel, was committed to the Lord's service from birth but with one proviso: that, unlike Samuel and his mentor Eli, his children would also be "taught of the Lord" and "keep the way of the Lord."
In leading and teaching others it is impossible, however, to prepare against all possible wrong thinking and error by way of knowledge of error.

Those trained to detect counterfeit currency are trained to discern the characteristics of real currency rather than every possible counterfeit. My son was taught to do likewise in spiritual matters. That is, if anything is questionable, take it to the cross. How does it compare to the sciptural version of Jesus' person and death on the cross. That always exposes the trace of poison that turns the otherwise nutritious cornmeal into lethal rat poison. It might have many wonderful and valid truth statements about life and living, morality and justice, etc. But as it approaches the person, words, death and resurrection of Jesus the error will be exposed.

Those who "really" know God are excited about Him! Talking about Him is no burden. Sharing His truth with others is exhilerating, charging our batteries rather than draining them. Hypocrisy would be NOT to do it when we are bursting inside but afraid of how we might appear to someone who might be "turned off" or disagree.

I also told my son not to be concerned about someone being "turned off" when they are not "on" to start with.

Selah, DDX

Continuing Home said...

OMG. I am a "PK" (Preacher's Kid). And one of the two impediments to my entry into the ministry is my observation of my father's experience.

father thorpus said...

Thanks, all.

DDX, nice sermon. I might pirate parts of that for this Sunday. :)

Continuing Home, perhaps you'd like to share some of the character of the impedimentia you mention. There are testimonials of pastoral experience both good and bad out there, but as often as I've heard priests complaining of the job, I've never heard a single one regret following the call of God. If anything, we tend to feel the mere job gets in the way of our vocation. A vocation is the kind of thing you just gotta try -- it's much better to follow it and fall flat on your face than never to follow it at all. I talk to people in the ordination process often, and many who are doing it as a second career feel like they have had this calling all their lives but for various reasons never had the courage to follow it. Every single one of these folks has regrets that they didn't do it sooner -- but I've never heard a priest regret following his vocation.

Anonymous said...

Another factor in this discussion is that the collar represents what the Church says about you. It's not just about my thought concerning myself: and my calling and my walk and my attainments in grace or the lack thereof. It's about the presence of the ordained ministry of Christ in the community. However well I'm doing personally or not (and my own verdict of that is always a problem) the office ordained by Christ is due its proper respect.
We should also be encouraged that the Church has seen enough grace in us to allow us the priviledge of that office.
When it comes to our inadequacies and sins, they have always been an element in everyone's calling. I often get distracted during the service with my own sin and feel like a hypocrite - but the Lord has reminded me that he has for quite a long time now known perfectly well how to handle the sins of his servants; my duty is to get on with what he's given me to do. In the words of Baxter: The Lord will have imperfect servants or he will have none.
Sure, I will continue to examine and seek repentance, etc. But our calling is of grace from beginning to end. The fact that sinners, such as we, are in the office we hold is itself a great testimony to that gospel.
Again, the clerical garb is about more than my own thoughts about myself or any one person.
Now, if we can get other people to understand some of this.
Sorry for the rambling.