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empty chocolate candy wrappers on a wooden surface

The Permeable Collar

empty chocolate candy wrappers on a wooden surface

“as I sat in her office eating chocolate and crying about the inevitable tragedies of life…”

I recently had a particularly rough pastoral day. One of those days that would leave even the most faithful priest questioning God’s divine providence. As I was driving home from the last encounter, I spontaneously turned toward one of the office buildings on the campus where I am chaplain. I was looking for one of my close friends to whom I might express my feelings of impotent sadness. I did not find her, but I did encounter another individual, someone who inhabits the spaces between friend, neighbor, campus colleague, and–yes–also parishioner.

As I sat in her office eating chocolate and crying about the inevitable tragedies of life, I could not help but think that there might be those who would find our interaction inappropriate. Was I breaking some priestly boundary by emotionally unloading on a member of my parish?

When I first set out to write for this column, the proposed topic was a reflection on how the clerical collar never really comes off, particularly in small-town rural ministry. But as I reflect more deeply, I wonder if it is more appropriate to say that the collar is permeable, not just ever present.

To say that I live and work in small town ministry is an understatement. I am chaplain at a small liberal arts college (with a student body well under 2,000) and the priest at what is essentially the village church. Our immediate community has fewer than 1,000 single-family residences. I live on the same street as both my junior and senior warden.

The reality of work in this job is simply the work of living in this community. My work is to be present at important campus events and to be a public witness for religious identity on a predominantly secular campus. My work is going to the grocery store, knowing the name of the barista who makes my Americano in the (one) coffee shop we have, singing in the campus community choir, and being engaged with important local issues.

When your work is quite simply the work of living your life in and among your community, how are you ever “off the clock?” Sometimes that means receiving the life burdens of the woman who works at the deli counter in the local market when I am quickly trying to grab a sandwich for lunch. Sometimes it means prayerfully guarding my language in matters of local conflicts—even while engaging as a “private citizen”—because people on both sides of the issue worship in my congregation. Sometimes it means refusing to leave my house on a day off because it is the only way I can truly be “off the clock.” Read more

people bending near the ground, working with soil and plants behind a fence on a clear day

Growing Good Soil in Ministry

Still other seed fell on good soil, where it produced a crop—a hundred, sixty or thirty times what was sown.”-Matthew 13:8 (NIV)

people bending near the ground, working with soil and plants behind a fence on a clear day

The “Farminary”at Princeton Theological Seminary

The farmers in front of me dreamed of having the richest soil in the entire state. Regrettably, history was working against them. They had acquired an old sod farm, and the poor practices of the previous generations had stripped away the nutrient-rich top soil. The soil had been full of life-giving organic matter and they sold it away year by year with each reaping. The farm thrived for a time. However, with the depletion of the soil, every year they worked harder and yielded fewer results. Finally, they were forced to close down the operation and pass the land to the next successors.

Slowly, these new farmers began to change the story with a more sustainable model. They brought in some new soil and enriched what remained with compost. They took in the discarded compost scraps and used that as the basis for what would surprisingly be the source of new life. There would be much good fruit that would be grown in abundance in this new soil.

I had heard this story of this particular farm before. However, when I heard it again during my search for my first ordained call, it stopped me in my tracks. Finally, I had a clear picture of the unsettling cloud that had seemed to hover over my search with a gloomy presence. I had encountered too many churches that seemed to want to continue in a metaphorical “soil-depleting mentality.”

If you’re in the white mainline American church tradition like me, you’re probably familiar with the longing for the church to return to its “golden-age” in the 1950s and 60s. My interviews involved questions about how I could start getting those higher yields back. There wasn’t much discussion of the state of the soil. I was saddened by the fact that churches couldn’t see past the old successes to imagine what new life could grow in their midst. I wondered at their ability to persist in working harder with fewer results rather than embrace a new vision. I longed for more imagination about the good fruit that could come of good soil and what a witness that could be for the good news of the gospel. Read more

Making a Life from a Living in a Rural Church

Parsonage flowers in May of 2017 next to Port Royal Baptist Church

They will invite you to

live with them, really

live with them. Do, if you can.

You will learn, in time,

a spirituality

with a little give to it.

How else can the people live

between variable sky

and forgiving earth,

and belong to both,

and to one another?

 

Your salary, which will be

considerably smaller

Than some of your urban

or suburban counterparts,

but measurably larger

than some who pay it,

must go to good.  It should

stay, as much as possible

in the community where you work,

Local doctors, local food

from farmers you love,

or will grow to love

as you learn from them

how to taste and see

that the Lord is good,

the place is good, the

hands reaching out to

you are good, and

they mean you well.

 

Your work, which will not be more,

if you are well-loved,

than what they ask of themselves,

will be seasonal.

And you must learn to trust

the gifts of each season,

and plan for spring, as

your people do. And trust, foremost,

that seasons do and must pass,

that weathering them will

strengthen all the best

in you.

 

Despair might set in if you let it.

Do not let it.

Determine in your own mind

to go out and find the good

in your people, in your place,

and in your life together.

Trust that it will be together

that you will see the Lord.

 

Your call, and your fellow workers, and

the culture around you will shock you.

Let it. And yet,

explore each inner scandal in

your heart with love.

Make no quick decisions.

Bless people as they come

and if they should go.

Those who return

and those who fall away

will surprise you.

 

It will take years, but not

as many as you suppose

before you can be the prophet

dancing, as you must,

along and across and back past

the line that marks outsider

from insider. [Stay years.]

And if you stay, you

will learn to speak the

dialect, and yet

you must introduce

new words, but,

with a little wisdom,

the right ones. Read more