Saturday, May 13, 2006

New thoughts on old beginnings

There are a lot of people who propound philosophies of stance and behavior for new clergy as they begin in a new calling. Some folks say "don't change anything that first year." Others say "change it all." Thing is, after a year and a half of training/practice as an interim rector...And now a year in training/practice as a "settled" rector, I am beginning to realize that there is no right path. The major point of contact in any new pastoral relationship is simply being willing to enter into relationship. After that, just like any other relationship, we begin to find out more about each other. We learn, we grow together and we begin to change.

The hard part of being a priest to that experience is that I am also the rector. That means that while I am called into relationship; I am also called into authority. Not an easy lesson for any of us to learn. In the Episcopal Church, we carry certain assumptions into the role of rector, wardens, vestry and parish that perforce become unique to each parish. Compound that with history, both shared and inherited, and add on a dose of the reordering of the primary relationships that were taken for granted with any previous incumbent...And you have a recipe for instant conflict.

After a lot of years, and still with a lot of reminding, I know that conflict is two things: it is inherent and a part of being human, and; it is always experienced on numerous levels. Jesus Christ himself promised to be in the midst of us when two or three are gathered in His Name. That is a good thing, because whenever there are two or three gathered, you can count on there being at least four to five conflicting opinions in the midst...Jesus' Presence is needed!

So, these past couple of months/weeks have been spent delving into those conflicts. And we do have them. Some of them are over furniture-arranging issues. Some around communication. Some, particularly, are around relationships. All of them route back to the inherent reality of conflict in our lives. Most of them relate back to how effective I am in my work as leader to this place. Do I lead change or provoke it? Do I listen, or do I talk too much? Am I effective in communication vision, while at the same time provocative in getting others on board? Am I honest enough with myself and others to preserve authentic community?

Some days, yes. Some days, no. Most days, there is always going to be someone who laments what was. Most days, there will be a newcomer who wonders just how to get involved with such a tight group of people. Always, there is a need in people to feel like there is a direction for this parish that both conforms to their expectations of its raison d'etre and what they feel they need to be comfortable in their place.

It has to both look and feel familiar enough to be welcome, and to be welcoming; yet at the same time, I feel called to challenge what has been, and what is, if we are going to walk authentically before God and each other in this life of faith.

Not easy. Never easy. It means that we live continually and perpetually on our growing edges. Those places are not truly comfortable, not at all. Like an alcoholic in recovery, who can never take sobriety for granted and has to work on it every single second, minute, hour and day; we too have to be willing to face into the shadows of our fears, hangups and internal contradictions if Jesus is to be in the midst of us. Participation and willingness to be present are the keys to that posture. "I am here, with you, to find out what comes next." That is what makes us human beings fully alive. Amen, Amen.

I still struggle with that imperative. The rest of the life of the ordained is pretty comfortable but for that aspect of our call lived out. We say our prayers, read the scriptures, study, reflect, hope, plan and preach. We serve, care and make ourselves available in the wee hours and in public places by assuming the role of "clergy" and that is fine. It is when we get those moments in life where all we can do is be present to the pain, sadness, sorrow and concern of human existence without trying to fix it that we get into personal turmoil. Dangerous ground. People's souls, our souls, are at stake. And what is lost when we fail? Direction, momentum, joy. Perhaps even a soul or two. At least, that is what my inner demons tell me.

The reality is that the page still turns. The only damage done is the wounding we inflict on each other. And wounds heal, eventually and if we allow it. Otherwise, that pain just gets carried on to the next place, to the next person. We will continue to work at it until we work through it.

That is the new thought on old beginnings. In a couple of weeks, I will sit down with the vestry and we will each listen to each other. We will share our joys and sorrows from our common work. I will begin a new, and I hope successful, effort to begin to listen this parish into its next incarnation in its ministry to this community. Things are changing, of that there is no doubt. The question then always rises before us, though: "Once we say yes to this, then what? And will it be the old me, or the new, or something in between, that will be able to claim its place among all the rest?"

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