The Gig Priesthood

There has been a trend in mainline churches to hire part-time and/or bi-vocational priests and ministers to fill pulpits. The reason is simple: money.

Communities have concluded that they cannot afford a full-time priest, and are opting for permanent part-time priests or bi-vocational priests (priests who hold down a secular paying job and work as a priest for part-time pay, or even for free).

It reflects the secular world’s reliance on similar arrangements: “temp work”, or “contingent staffing”. The employee works at jobs for short periods of time or part-time instead of holding down a permanent, full-time position. It’s called by those who work this life a “gig economy”.

My question is whether a gig priesthood is something we can tolerate as a faith community.

The gig economy has a mindset that is anathema to a faith community, as it is based solely on profit and loss. As Gerald Friedman, professor of economics at the Un. Of Massachusetts wrote:

Some have praised the rise of the gig economy for freeing workers from the grip of employers’ “internal labor markets,” where career advancement is tied to a particular business instead of competitive bidding between employers. Rather than being driven by worker preferences, however, the rise of the gig economy comes from employers’ drive to lower costs, especially during business downturns. Gig workers experience greater insecurity than workers in traditional jobs and suffer from lack of access to established systems of social insurance. *

Increasingly, priests have been recruited to non-paying jobs with the opportunity to grow the congregation whereby it can support them fulltime, posing the idea of congregational development as one of growth in numbers, not growth in holiness. The priest’s career advancement is tied to growth and profit, not building a community based on the Gospel.

A gig priesthood creates greater insecurity for the priest’s life, as they suffer from lack of access not only established systems of social insurance, but also spiritual systems of embrace and support from the very community they are asked to pastor. We must ask ourselves what we are saying to our priests, and the very vocation of priesthood itself, when it takes second-place to buildings or programs in the budget?

We read in the New Testament: ‘For the Scripture says, “You must not muzzle an ox to keep it from eating as it treads out the grain.” And in another place, “Those who work deserve their pay!”’ – 1 Timothy 5: 18. Priests are not oxen, of course, but what does it mean when we treat our priests less than what oxen are treated in the New Testament? How vocation-killing is it? The model of employment we see in the New Testament is radically different than what we see in secular business today, and we should be modeling the New Testament, not the modern business world.

I think the idea of a gig priesthood is a dangerous one. If we are concerned about trends in the larger society effecting the direction and growth of the Jesus Movement, we must stop and consider how nefarious the quick-fix of a gig priesthood is to the Gospel and the future of our faith community.

*The Rise of the Gig Economy, Truth-Out.org, May, 2014

On the Birth of an Intentional Community

This week marks the birth of a new Christian community – the Community of St. Brigid.

The Community of St Brigid is a creation-based community of Jesus-followers who practice sustainability as a core Christian value.

Centered around community food gardening, the Community of St Brigid will embrace a Simple Church model of being an intentional community.

We will not own a sanctuary building; the garden is our sanctuary.

We will meet for worship around a picnic table, a barn, or someone’s home.

We will eat meals together once a week after worship.

Fellowship is our outreach: no “marketing”.

Sharing is our catechism: our faith is more caught than taught.

People are not pressed to join or decide anything – rather, after time, they will  “discover” they have become members.

We start with smaller circles of people and, as we grow, we will split to make two smaller circles. Then split again and again making certain the circles are always smaller and welcoming.

We don’t have a community Rule yet – we’ll see if that occurs and when. We hope it arises from the community, led by the Holy Spirit.

We hope to train up people who can start other circles and other garden-bases throughout the larger community, perhaps throughout the country.

All that is for later.

For now, we are focused on being an ancient expression of the Christian faith for the 21st century without the baggage of traditional Church life – the baggage that has turned off so many people in search of a faith community.

The Brigid Option

Much is being discussed about the book “The Benedict Option”. It’s author, Rod Dreher, poses that our current culture is so corrupt that we Christian people need to withdraw from it to some form of monastery – a community fortress or societal bunker to separate ourselves from the corrupting influences of this world and its evils. It’s Dreher’s assertion  that radical separation was the essence of Benedict’s “option” and it should be ours.

It is interesting to consider that St. Brigid, a contemporary of Benedict some 1600 miles away in Kildare, Ireland, did precisely the opposite and was extremely successful, perhaps even more so than St. Benedict.

Benedict based his idea of community on the Egyptian monastic model of radical separation from the local community and the world in general. The Egyptian monastery was all about personal cultivation and the savings of one’s own soul.

Brigid’s monasteries were different. They were places of sanctuary yet open to all, intensely involved in the lives of the larger community. She practice radical hospitality, not radical separation, welcoming everyone, and the focus of her monestary was replicating the life to be lived in the Kingdom of God.

A Brigid monastery was unique. Not only were they more like villages than fortresses, but all manner of activities and people could be found there: prayer, farming, craft, worship, herding, music, reading, weaving, men, women, children, seminarians, nuns, entire families. It was less like a monestary and more like a “monastic settlement”. Truly, Brigid was trying to create a corner of the kingdom of God in Kildare.

She established a number of them across Ireland, a warrior culture as violent and corrupt as Benedict’s Rome. Yet she persisted, as we like to say today, and she, along with other missioners like Patrick and Columba, converted the entire wild Celtic people of Ireland without the tools of Empire so often employed later on in Western Society. Brigid used friendly persuasion instead.

The 21st century is ripe  for another Brigid option, not Benedict’s, for Brigid engaged in the world like Jesus did.

Jesus’ entire ministry was carried out in the streets, fields, temples, and parlors of first-century Palestine, not at a bunker or a fortress. Brigid took her cues from Jesus how to conduct her option and it proved very successful. We can and must do the same.

How to Make a Deacon in 30 Months

Allow me a brief rant: it takes way too long to make a deacon. Usually five years. Five years for a vocation that pays nothing to the deacon but the grace and joy of service to others. The current program in TEC is over-planned, over-stuffed, and onerous both financially and domestically (i.o.w., it’s hard on the family members).

Here’s what I mean: a person who wants to be a deacon usually spends a year in discernment, which includes interviews with the Bishop, a discernment committee that meets 7 times with the applicant, a couple of interviews with the Commission on Ministry, application docs, spiritual bio, personal bio, criminal background check, financial background check, psychological exam, physical exam, and a few other things I can hardly remember. This take about a year.

Then, if you get the green light, the applicant spends 3 years in education, usually one intensive weekend a month for 36 months straight, with lots of reading and writing to be done along the way. Often, the training is centrally located in the state and some out-state members have to stay overnight.

Then, if you get the next green light, you spend a year at a parish not your own where you do your Field Work and your Project (think transitional O.J.T. and a special major project instead of G.O.E.s). Also during this time, the applicant/postulant must do Unit One of CPE somewhere, which means you may have to quite your job or work at a part-time job somewhere if you are accepted to a CPE program.

If it all goes well without a hiccup, you get ordained at the end of Year Five. For me it was close to six, it cost me about $14,000, and it put a burden on my spouse as well as me. And remember, this is not a career, it’s a non-stipendiary vocation.

I’ve now been a deacon for about two and a half years, and I think the reason why we only have a little over a dozen active deacons in the diocese is because the education/formation program is too long and daunting. That, and few people are being asked if they’ve ever considered being a deacon. I have some suggestions to remedy the situation.

The Powers That Be, in their honest efforts to make deacons prepared for their vocations, have way over-planned the program, and modeled it after the education/formation of a priest. We aren’t priests. We have a different vocation that demands a different formation program. The demand for deacons in most dioceses is extreme. Extreme times demand extreme measures, so here is my Streamlined Process for the Creation of Deacons. We can make deacons in 30 months, not five years. Here’s how.

1. Design discernment process to be 6 months long.
A. Committee addresses single question: is this person deacon material?
B. Three meetings with discernment committee.
C. Background/Psychological remains the same.

2. ESM-type education two years long.
A. Courses are 6-8 weeks long, meets weekly, Saturday only. 3-4 weeks off after every course. Quarterly, a 3-day weekend retreat. ESM courses held at various parish locations in diocese to make it available to all.
B. After YR 1, license to preach & made postulant.
C. YR 2, much the same as YR 1. Upon graduation, ordained.

…AFTER ORDINATION…

3. 12-month mentorship program, post ordination.
A. Works at a parish with a senior deacon.
B. Completes deacon-designed CPE course, not a regular CPE unit.
C. Deacon is assigned diocesan ministry and creates portfolio-of-plans for said ministry: purpose, mission statement, steps with deadlines, resources required, etc.

4. Deacon assigned to new parish/ministry at end of 12 months.

This program will maintain the programs and education that I have found important to my formation as a deacon and streamline the others that were either superfluous or over-wrought. This way, a person who is considering becoming a deacon will look at a program that will select and train them well, but not take half a decade to complete.

Once they make it through the discernment process, they have two year to ordination, not another four. Once they are ordained, they will have a mentorship program to further train them with real, on-the-job advice. That additional year of training is retained from the former program, but in the vocational setting appropriate to the vocation of a deacon.

Is this perfect? No, it’s not. But, from my perspective, it’s better than the process we have now. I treasure my time in formation as a deacon, but it could have been better, and if it looked a lot like the program I sketched above, I might not have waited until I was near retirement to become a deacon. I might have started back in my 30’s instead of my 50’s. What would a diocese look like with a bunch of 30-something deacons? Personally, I think it would be life-changing for the church.

 

 

 

 

 

On Mother’s Day, Medicine, and Wood Chippers

Many years ago, my son had a bad asthma attack. It was so bad we took him to the ER of Children’s Hospital about 1:00 in the morning.

We had never been to Children’s ER before.  We went through the double doors which led straight into the huge waiting room where we were greeted by a surprising crush of humanity. 

It was 1:00 o’clock on a Wednesday morning in July and there must have been over 100 people crammed into the waiting room.

They were sweaty, loud, smelly, children crying, arguing….all I could think of when I saw the room was that this must be the first circle of hell.

We made our way to the front desk, explained to the Unit Manager why we were there, and she asked us, “Any insurance?”

My wife “C” handed her our insurance card, she took one look at it, and said, “Could you follow me, please?”, motioning us to a door on her left.

The Unit Manager took us down a lone hallway and into another waiting room that was an exact replica of the one we just left except this room was completely empty. 

She brought us to a private exam room where an ER nurse gave my son oxygen and an IV in less than a minute.  In 5 minutes he was breathing normally and asleep.

I could tell something was bothering C by her puzzled look, and she finally asked, “May I ask where we are?  Is this a special ward for asthmatics?”

The nurse smiled and said, “No, ma’am, this is our ward for people with insurance.”

Despite our gratitude for the care our son received, the “mother” in C was bothered for days by what she experienced.  It’s been over 20 years now and it still bothers her. 

Just down the hall was an entire mob of mother who were just as concerned about their children’s health as she was, but because we were fortunate to have a little insurance card, our son was getting 1st World healthcare, while those mothers could only get their children 3rd World medical care.

Imagine the pain of a mother who knows that, try as she may, the best she can get for her son or daughter is 3rd world medical care.  In the richest nation in history, it’s not right. Not at all.

We celebrate Mother’s Day today because of the heart mothers have for their children.  Those hearts have nurtured children and save lives for millennia.  We see their love for their children by the way they live their lives and sacrifice so much for them.  We don’t need any more proof of their love for their children than how they their lives.

We hear how complicated healthcare is here in the US, and we hear lots of debates about why some mother sit in Lobby #1 while others sit in Lobby #2.  Jesus had something to say about “complicated arguments” in today’s Gospel, John 14: 1-14.

The apostles had all kinds of questions and thoughts about a complicated God…who was God, what was God like…and they kept nagging Jesus about it in the Gospels:  “Just show us the Father,” they said in today’s passage.  “That’s all we ask.” 

Jesus replied, “Guys, guys, guys…stop it…you’re making this way too complicated.  Remember what you’ve seen with your own eyes over the last couple of years?  Haven’t you been with me all this time?  Remember the miracles?  You’re making this way too complicated…

“Look: God and I are one.  You see me, you see God.  You hear me, you hear God.  It’s so simple you’re missing it and it’s right in front of you.  Do you want to know God?  Get to know me!”

That’s the way of people, though…we make things complicated when things are simple.  We deny the reality of nature right in front of us.  We don’t believe our own eyes. 

Like a very wise woman told me once, “Things aren’t complicated; they’re simple.”

Want to know about healthcare in our country?  Take a walk through Lobby #1 and then through Lobby #2.  You will learn a lot.  Sit with a mother who can only access 3rd World medical care for her son or daughter and listen to her.  You will hear all you need to know to realize something is desperately wrong in our nation about healthcare. 

This day is not easy for many people today.  We are celebrating a day to honor mothers and some people don’t have pleasant emotions about today.  Some people are not mothers and don’t want to be…other people are not mothers but want to be, but aren’t or can’t…other people grieve deeply on this day for many, many reasons.  Your pain makes me sad and I am sorry for your pain on this day.

I also have high hopes for our society, and my hopes are high because of the mothers among us.  Moms are not real patient when it comes to the welfare of their children.  Think of Mothers Against Drunk Driving or the Anti-bullying initiatives.  You mess with their children and you are about to walk into a wood chipper.  I sincerely believe that mothers will save our healthcare just like women will be the ones who will save our churches.

After all, it was women who first realized Jesus had risen from the dead when they went to his grave to care for his remains.  The apostles were still back in the upper room wringing their hands and wondering what to do next.  The women knew what to do: take care of business that is right in front of you.  They took care of Jesus.  They see things for what they truly are by looking at them with their own eyes.

That’s why I believe women will save civilization.  We just need to get out of their way and help them WHEN asked and AS asked.

This is based on a sermon given by me at St. John’s-Tower Grove on Mother’s Day, 2017.

A Church Without Privilege

It is both a tragedy and a grace to be a Christian in the age of Trump.

A tragedy because 81% of people who identify as an evangelical voted for a man who is anathema to the teachings of Jesus Christ. It is a tragedy that so many souls have mistaken white supremacy and nationalism for the Good News of the Savior.

It is also a grace that the rest of us can finally discard, once and for all, the idea that the Way of Jesus has anything to do with modern evangelicalism as practiced in the USA.

We are now free. The nature of the Christian community can reveal its true, original self as a community of faith without privilege, status, or dominion. Privilege, status, and dominion are the stuff of empire, not Christ.

We are liberated from the need to support greed, hate, fear, violence, and bigotry. To cooperate with the ways of empire is to be guilty of same. We can now speak truth to power, full-throated, no longer afraid of upsetting someone. We can no longer afford to “be nice”; we should not “be nice” while the least among us, Jesus’ brothers and sisters, stand at the precipice of empire’s nihilism, ready for the final nudge.

It will not be an easy existance for us. This new Confessing Church, this Church Without Privilege, will lose members, lose positions, lose buildings, lose money, lose many things. Things we have come to expect and depend upon. Dietrich Bonhoeffer described it from his prison cell in Nazi Germany…

“It is inifintely easier to suffer in obedience to a human command than to accept suffering as free, responsible people. It is infinitely easier to suffer with one another than it is to suffer apart and in ignominy. . It is infinitely easier to suffer a public death than it is to endure spiritual suffering. Christ suffered as a free person alone, apart and in ignominy, in body and in spirit, and since that day many Christians have suffered with him.”

But it is worth it all if we live truly for Christ and The Way, not live for empire. And we must live it openly, boldly, and without apology. The only privilege we enjoy must be the privilege of the salvation that comes from living and proclaiming the Gospel of Jesus Christ, truly and fully.

Slow Reading

I have a small bookshelf for a night stand. There I keep a handful of books that are my favorites and that I read over and over. I am very much a proponent of slow reading.

They are books that I read ever so slowly while lying in bed at night. Sometimes just a page or two before it falls out of my hand and bops me on the nose as I drift off to sleep. Then it gets put away until tomorrow night and the lamp is snapped off.

I liken this slow reading to sipping a cup of coffee on the deck, savoring the taste and the moment. Or letting a slice of Swiss chocolate melt on my tongue as I eat it. There is something special going on here and we should be in the moment, being present to it, being mindful.

Some people strive for quantity in their reading, wolfing down one to two books a week, like they are gulping their coffee on the run or chomping down their chocolate in two bites. It’s almost as if they see reading as competition, racing to the finish line.

I do understand that, for many people, reading is a form of pure entertainment, like television. C likes mysteries and is a voracious reader of murder stories. She calls them her “brain candy”. But I believe much can be said for taking it slowly and allowing the writer to speak to us as broadly and deeply as she can. I have often found myself getting emotional not only by what an author has said, but by the way she has said it. I don’t often catch those sorts of things if I am jogging past them, turning the pages and cruising along.

Also, re-reading brings great rewards as well. Hamlet was very sympathetic when I was 18, but he got on my nerves by the time I was 38; by age 50, I found him sympathetic again, but for different reasons than when I was 18.

When I read a book I’ve purchased, I initial the title page in the corner and include the month/year I read it so I can keep track of my chronology of reading that particular work. I think about the last time I read it, what I may have thought about it then and what new discoveries I find in my latest reading. I have some books that I have read some dozen times or more over the past 30 to 40 years. It is surprising that to me how mediocre some of my once favorite books are today, or how good other formerly so-so books have become.

I have found myself going over passages that are particularly moving or thought-provoking to me. I will linger on a page or ponder over a passage, wondering why it has affected me so or left me breathless with its brilliance. Only slow reading allows me to experience it.

Carlyle said that the best university is a collection of good books. (He did not say a lot of books, just good books.) Teddy Roosevelt said that Lincoln, one our greatest presidents, only knew one book truly well, but Lincoln had the good sense to make that one book the Bible. (I would add Shakespeare to Lincoln’s library of well-understood literature, though.) Carlyle and Lincoln could be called slow readers in my estimation, and they were the better for it.

Lately, I’ve been doing that which I once thought inconceivable – I am getting rid of many of my other books.

In downsizing our life here at Windy Hill, C and I are jettisoning many of our possessions. Of the many things that we have hoarded over the years, books are at the top of the list. Boxes of books are stacked in closets and in corners of the spare bedrooms. As we open these boxes and realize that we have not missed these books in some time, let alone read them, we have been asking ourselves, “Why do we keep these?” At one time, the answer was simple: because they are books! Books are held in high esteem in our household. and sit at the top of our possession hierarchy – the aristocracy of personal possessions.

But today? I literally hold much of the world’s literature in my pocket with my cell phone, accessible by the browser. I also have an e-reader which is capable of holding 1500 volumes. And that double volume of Shelly’s Complete Works I found at the bottom of a box? Can I finally admit that they have sat in the closet for ten years, that I can access Shelly for free any time I want to on my phone, and…well, I really don’t care much for Shelly anyway?

So, along with dozens and dozens of other books squirreled away in the house, they are off to Goodwill or the Book Fair. My little collection on my shelf nightstand is sacrosanct, though. They stay. They will continue to be read.  Slowly.