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 (http://www.barbarabrowntaylor.com/index.htm), 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.