I once attended an ordination where the preacher, a very smart seminary professor, but an unordained man himself, made an audacious claim. Despite all their fancy get-up, he said, clergy were like homemakers, keeping the home fires burning and putting food on the table for when the working people came home.
I flinched on behalf of the ordinands, to have their lofty vocation seemingly deflated like that on the day of their glorification, and before all their beaming guests. But I had to smile at the preacher's moxie. He wasn't wrong. The image took root with me as I considered my own vocation.
There have been times in my ministry as a parish priest when I have had to assume the role of a shepherd, leading the sheep. I've had to confront church members who were acting like wolves, bullying parishioners and making the community feel unsafe. I've had to say difficult things about being followers of Jesus, for instance, that our personal faith has social consequences and that it's not detached from the public policies made on our behalf by our governments.
But even on those occasions, when I looked like the leader, in my mind I was still the servant. My job as a priest was to enable my people to do their jobs--as Christians. The only difference was that my job was carried out within the church; theirs was in the world. Whatever resources I brought to my ministry--my education, my personal gifts, the "authority" of my office--it was all to empower the people I served to live out their own ministries.
I saw this especially in our weekly worship. My job was to create the preconditions for an encounter with God. It was not to deliver God to the people, or the people to God. I wasn't an intermediary in that way. I simply created, by thoughtful planning and careful execution, an environment where they could meet one another on their own terms. Then, I got out of the way.
Similarly, it was my job to make sure the community was safe, so that the parish could be a place of healing, rather than of hiding. I did this by modelling, as best I could, honesty and transparency. I felt that was what a good shepherd did: lead the sheep beside still waters where they could safely graze.
When we clergy allow ourselves to think we're more than servants--like, the upholders of correct doctrine, the arbiters of proper conduct, the interpreters of God's will--our pride disengages us from serving. In the end, we don't know more than our people. But we do know how to welcome them home.
Next week: Clergy as Caregivers