In March, I concluded the shadowing portion of the Episcopal Church’s priesthood discernment process. The months-long experience is intended as a way for the hopefully-ordained to see up close how it is to be a priest in a context other than their own parish–to watch, listen, and ask questions from someone “in the game.”
As I felt I had a strong grasp on ministry in various contexts, this part of the process met with plenty of skepticism.
After all, I thought, I’ve been an intern and interim worship pastor in both large and small churches, I’ve been a campus pastor in two very different ministries as both an associate and director, and been a member at three very different Episcopal parishes, aside from visiting others. I’ve befriended pastors, priests, missionaries, and ministers, lay and ordained–what did I really stand to learn from this burdensome requirement?
Now, while I was right to find some aspects onerous, such as fighting I-69’s interminable construction once or twice a week, visiting an unfamiliar church alone, and carving out time for weekly video conversations, I ended up allowing myself to learn something by the end.
I say “allowed” because it was, in the end, up to me whether I found something worthwhile in the experiences of the priest I shadowed. The questions I confronted nearly every time we spoke was, “Will I learn, or keep trying to teach?” “Will I listen and be critiqued, or will I speak and defend?”
Though I often failed to listen, learn, and be critiqued, I at least started off well: specifically requesting this priest because I hoped she would, perhaps more than most, have the ability to cut through my exterior of forced-competence to the hidden fears and agendas, the implicit biases and unknown bigotries, with which I am afflicted and which could be used to afflict others. An educated, married, gay woman serving in a large, rich congregation, we were near polar opposites. So often I found her thoughts wholly alien, as though nothing that had been said or discussed could have possibly led to her conclusions. So often I wanted to push back, either against her own felt-experiences or her perspectives on me. And, I am ashamed to admit, I often did.
The desire to “prove myself,” to try and show exactly how worthy, smart, learned, witty, and capable I am, is ever-present. I’m sure the feeling is well-known to most of us–the felt-need to prove our worth is built deeply into these monkey brains of ours, urging us to demonstrate our utility to the tribe before they leave us stranded, alone and exposed . . . vulnerable.
Yet to be a priest (or perhaps more accurately, to be one who walks the Christ-path) is by definition to be vulnerable. To be exposed, open to the wounds of a world that too often misdirects its fear upon the nearest target; to stretch out our arms in a cruciform shape, offering our exposed chests for the world to do what it must: sending both its spears of fearful hate and resting its weary, tearful head–this is the Jesus way. As the the doubting pastor in Ian Morgan Cron’s novel Chasing Francis begins to understand,
Churches should be places where people come to hear the story of God and to tell their own. That’s how we find out how the two relate. Tell your story with all of its shadows and fog, so people can understand their own. They want a leader who’s authentic, someone trying to figure out how to follow the Lord Jesus in the joy and wreckage of life. . . . “The radically unprotected life”, a life that’s cruciform in shape . . . it’s to live dangerously open, revealing all that we genuinely are, and receiving all the pain and sorrow the world will give us back in return . . . it’s to be real because we know the Real. Maybe living the unprotected life is what it means to be a Christian?1
Though all to often I did fail in attending to my shadowing priest’s words, there were a few moments when I was fully present I was able to make the correct choice: I remained quiet. I didn’t interrupt. I asked questions and I listened deeply.
This isn’t in any way self-congratulatory: just because I managed to shut my trap for a few minutes doesn’t mean I still didn’t say many ignorant things or betray unconscious bias and privilege at every turn, but I nonetheless made it a goal to learn from someone whose felt-experience was world’s apart from my own and to that end, I was able to succeed to some degree.
But the reason I’m sharing this story under this series is this: what I was falteringly trying to do during this shadowing experience is one of the primary reasons I continue to be involved in spiritual community–to be reminded. The Church, when it is being the Church, is the great reminder of reality: a place that reminds us of our need to weep over the immensities of life and long for those liminal experiences; to offer ourselves up in service of something larger and learn to both extend and receive forgiveness.
Similarly, I need a place designed to consistently remind me that my perspective is not all there is to see; a place that critiques my worldview and all that I unconsciously accept as “normal.” I need there to be a weekly touchstone that tells a story about strength in weakness, victory through death, and the power of the powerless. A place that reminds me it is the those on the margins–the poor and forgotten–who can upend invincible empires and change the trajectory of history.
I need a place that critiques me. That causes me to face the fact that though being white, male, and straight may be a free pass to power in this reality, there is another just under the surface which will outlast even our most abiding institutions.2 And, though I can receive many of the benefits of worldview critique through study, I have found that if I’m not physically faced with these conflicts (e.g. sitting under leaders of differing races, genders, sexual orientations, etc.), the internal guards to my monkey brain will neuter or simply ignore any thought that might endanger my position.
And so I go to church. I go to be reminded that I must listen, that I must attend to the faces and voices of those who do not look like me, whose stories sound different, and therefore whose views of scripture, the world, and even of myself might conflict with my own.
I go to be critiqued.
Perhaps you don’t need church for that purpose; perhaps you’ve found church be a place that reinforces the present power structures, that silences the voices of women, people of color, and sexual-gender minorities. I understand. And I am deeply sorry for the times when I have–consciously and unconsciously–reinforced these views. Maybe what you need is to leave the/your church in order to find a place that will open its arms in a Jesus-like posture of acceptance. That’s okay–the cruciform life of Christ cannot be contained to the houses of worship. May you find a place of rest and acceptance.
If you’re like me and you look the part of power, maybe what you need is to leave the/your church to even begin the process of having your worldview critiqued. Maybe you’re in a place that accepts and furthers the old way of viewing reality and what you need most is to find a new community–spiritual or otherwise–that forces you to be with, listen to and even follow “the Other.” Go. For we all need to be reminded to listen.
. . . or stay, and become the voice that magnifies the whispers of weakness. Become the platform upon which the children who are rushing headlong into the Kingdom ahead of you might stand and be seen. Become the one who creates space for the kind of community that causes people like me to stop and listen.
1. Cron, Ian Morgan. Chasing Francis: A Pilgrim’s Tale. Zondervan, 2013.↩