Fundamental and Sacramental Priesthood

If you are UMC, you know what time of year it is….it’s appointment time. Moving boxes are stacking up and waiting for the Move Day.  Many pastors and their families will make yet another of the many moves inherent in ordained ministry for Elders and others in our Church.  My heart aches for some whose moves will have been assisted by congregations that want someone else, someone different, someone new.  Pastors’ children and spouses will start anew in building friendships and establishing community. As a child I moved four times between 4 and 12, though not part of a clergy family.  It was disruptive and painful and I have felt that it contributed to a longstanding feeling of never being quite “at home” in the world. Whether that was actually true or not, I don’t know.  I pray for our UMC families who will make sacrifices in obedience to the call to preach the Gospel. I especially pray for those pastors who may be tempted to feel rejected or unconsidered in the move they will have to make. I pray they will find hospitable and supportive laity to join in ministry with them and that they will know God’s favor in their new places of ministry.      

As part of the last year’s assignment from a wise and experienced spiritual director, I have been chewing on the book, “Living on the Border of the Holy: Renewing the Priesthood of All” by William Countryman. Somewhere along the line, it seems, we as the church “professionalized” our clergy (and church staffs) and distanced ourselves from our own responsibility to being the “priesthood of all believers.”  Countryman notes that the definition of laity and clergy will always be interrelated; they interpenetrate and support one another.  “The alternative to the opposition between laity and clergy is not abolition of one group or the other or radical subordination of the one to the other, but a redefinition of both that acknowledges their interconnectedness.  We need to move away from seeing the sacramental priesthood as standing “over against the laity” and understand it as existing “in and for the fundamental priesthood” (of all believers)……”Christian communities, laity and clergy together, have to make a decision about how to articulate their social reality.”

Countryman goes on to note that “concealment” of wrongs by clergy has been particularly troubling to the general public, because they are a violation of two of our most strongly held, if often unconscious, presuppositions about clergy:  first, that they are morally superior to other people or even belong to a different moral level altogether (what we might call “clerical angelism”); second, that they are professionals who betray their very reason for existence if they cross the boundary of personal detachment between themselves and their clients….Where, in the past, the church community often chose to preserve the illusion of clerical angelism by concealing the faults of individual clerics, the professional image of the clergy has now added the necessary impetus to prompt exposure and a more open treatment of the issues.  This, in turn, exposes the sometimes conflicting interests that our varying definitions of the ordained impose on us.” 

“Far from being the detached professional, whose primary identification is with the professional corps to which she belongs, the “local priest” has been chosen precisely because she is immersed in the community which she will now serve as ordained person.  Her level of specialized knowledge may not be much different from before……Are the clergy a corps of detached professionals, like psychotherapists and doctors and attorneys?  Or are they defined entirely by their relation to a community?  The difficulty in resolving such questions suggests the need for new and more satisfactory images of priesthood, both fundamental and sacramental…..We need to acknowledge that the priesthood of all is prior to and contains the priesthood of the ordained, while the ministry of the ordained provides sacramental focus in the context of the ministry of all.  Without some recognition of our interdependence, laity and clergy will continue to find one another mutually threatening.” 

Perhaps this is why licensed local pastors and certified lay speakers are more and more filling the need for leadership in local churches and communities and why professionalized ordained ministry finds itself challenged by retirements, fewer young people choosing the lengthy, expensive, and stringent demands of ordained ministry, burnouts, dropouts, and blowouts.  My heart is and has been for support of those who have chosen the road of full time ministry in service to the church and communities where they are so desperately needed.  Don’t wait until Pastor Appreciation Month in October to tell your pastor you appreciate the sacramental priesthood that he/she has chosen and the sacrifices their families make in the name of Christ and hand and hand with all believers, the fundamental priesthood. 

When I met with this spiritual director last year and began to share with her my ambivalence about the various demands and obstacles I’d encountered late in my journey of pursuit of ordained ministry as a deacon, the first words out of her mouth were, “You’re making ordination more than it is.” After I picked my jaw up off the floor, I listened as she said, “Read this book.” It’s been transformative in helping me get and hold a vision of ministry that is as servant-focused as my life has been for years…even before I felt the call to vocational ministry. What I’ve discovered is that God takes who we are as members of the :”fundamental priesthood” of all believers, and calls and assigns some to the “sacramental priesthood” to serve the rest of the priests. What a privilege to be the servant-priest to priests! When one sees others as priests, too, whom we are to serve in Christ’s name, there is little room for lofty posturing as one of a professionalized clergy class who “lords” status over others…something Christ most definitely would not do or condone. I inadvertently discovered the perception that some people have of “clergy” when I began using the rightfully assigned title of “Reverend” after I was commissioned as a deacon. Few people saw me in the role of “Reverend”…because of THEIR lofty view of clergy, not mine. They questioned our senior pastoral staff about how I could “get away” with calling myself “Reverend”. I was and am “just Cathy”….who loves the church (and especially her own church family) and community and seeks ways to reveal the presence of Christ among us, helping others to see the Divine everywhere, everyday, in the daily gifts and graces.