I used to think my job was hard, and then I got married. My wife is a physician, and I’ve been blessed to be her partner through MCATs, interviews, medical school, match day, and (most of) residency. United Methodist clergy go through a period of formation called “residency” before we are ordained, but trust me, it’s nothing like medical residency. I am constantly in awe of what my wife and her colleagues do: not just the technical mastery needed, not just the massive amounts of knowledge one is expected to hold or the crazy hours doctors work – but the fact lives are in their hands day in and day out, and at risk in decisions great and small.
The work of clergy is in some ways similar. If we believe that spiritual health matters at all, or that it somehow intersects with physical, mental, and emotional health, then the care of souls is critically important as well. In our democratized age of religion, many of us try to “go it alone.” But I’m here to tell you: the self-guided information about physical health available on the internet is of the same dismal quality that one finds in the spiritual realm. The care of those called to these ministries thus has some things in common, not least in the importance of formation for doctors and clergy, but also in the challenges they face. I resonate with Atul Gawande’s description of medicine in Better:
“But success in medicine has dimensions that cannot be found on a playing field. For one, lives or on the line. Our decisions and omissions are therefore moral in nature. We also face daunting expectations. In medicine, our task is to cope with illness…the steps are often uncertain. The knowledge to be mastered is both vast and incomplete. Yet we are expected to act with swiftness and consistency, even when the task requires marshaling hundreds of people…for the care of a single person. We are also expected to do our work humanely, with gentleness and concern. It’s not only the stakes but also the complexity of performance in medicine that makes it so interesting and at the same time, so unsettling.” (4)
I contend that one could replace “medicine” with “ministry” in the above, and the description would still ring true. As a friend of mine says, the work of a pastor or priest is full of both “blessings and bedevilments,” which is of course true for most, if not all, vocations.
My wife has given me newfound appreciation for medicine. Gawande has helped me see some fascinating connections between my wife’s calling and my own.
What other connections do you see? Have I overstated my case? I’d love to hear your thoughts below.
In, “Wow, he never ceases to amaze” news, Pope Francis just dropped a Petrine hammer on his own inner circle. The Vatican Curia – the upper echelon leaders of the vast Vatican administrative machine – got some coal in their mitres during what is usually a pretty benign Christmas address. The short version: he said the Curia was sick. Of the 15 ‘ailments’ he named that are harming the life of the Roman Catholic Church, I thought a few especially applied to my own communion, the United Methodist Church. The full list, and the original numbering, is found here from the AP, from which the following selections are quoted. The commentary attached is my own. See if you think the Holy Father’s words are fitting for today’s UMC:
1) Feeling immortal, immune or indispensable. “A Curia that doesn’t criticize itself, that doesn’t update itself, that doesn’t seek to improve itself is a sick body.”
Going on to perfection is kind of our thing, isn’t it? In 2012, the UMC showed a remarkable ability to avoid self-improvement. How can we become a healthy body instead of a sick body?
2) Working too hard. “Rest for those who have done their work is necessary, good and should be taken seriously.”
For too many Christians, lay and clergy alike, busyness has become a status symbol and an idol. Why don’t our clergy preach sabbath? Why don’t our churches expect it of their pastors?
5) Working without coordination, like an orchestra that produces noise. “When the foot tells the hand, ‘I don’t need you’ or the hand tells the head ‘I’m in charge.'”
It is easy to look upon other corners of the church as backwards, our out there, or fruitless, or whatever. But we are all in this together, folks. (By the by, Bishop Grant Hagiya recently had some great things to say about the Pacifict-Northwest, often dismissed by Methodists here in the Bible Belt, on episode #7 of the WesleyCast). Moreover, coordination – aligning our ministries, resources, and energies – is critical to accomplishing our ministry. See also #1.
6) Having ‘spiritual Alzheimer’s.’ “We see it in the people who have forgotten their encounter with the Lord … in those who depend completely on their here and now, on their passions, whims and manias, in those who build walls around themselves and becomes enslaved to the idols that they have built with their own hands.”
Ask about rescinding the Guaranteed Appointment and watch our clergy suddenly develop ‘spiritual Alzheimer’s.’
7) Being rivals or boastful. “When one’s appearance, the color of one’s vestments or honorific titles become the primary objective of life.”
We are too damned competitive with each other. The megachurch pastors all want the number one spot. The mid-size church in town competes with the large downtown church. On a charge, the smaller church or churches feel inferior to the larger. Clergy boast about “God’s work” in their church, sharing posts on social media about all the amazing things going on but really we just want our colleagues and superiors to think better of us. In internet parlance, this is called a “humblebrag.” All of this is poison. Pure poison.
9) Committing the ‘terrorism of gossip.’ “It’s the sickness of cowardly people who, not having the courage to speak directly, talk behind people’s backs.”
Christians should not be gossips, and we in the UMC are as guilty as anyone. We talk behind the backs of our pastors, our lay leadership, our bishops, etc.. We of all people know the power of words to make and unmake lives, galaxies, families, and churches. Clergy should take the lead in condemning gossip in all its forms. Dave Ramsey’s (I know, I know) take is helpful. If you think Ramsey is too strong on this, remember – the Pope just called this terrorism.
12) Having a ‘funeral face.’ “In reality, theatrical severity and sterile pessimism are often symptoms of fear and insecurity. The apostle must be polite, serene, enthusiastic and happy and transmit joy wherever he goes.”
The subtext for too many of our denominational gatherings – international, national, and local – is death. We Methodists wear the funeral face well. We shouldn’t. As another Bishop of Rome, John Paul II, said, “We are Easter people and hallelujah is our song.”
14) Forming ‘closed circles’ that seek to be stronger than the whole. “This sickness always starts with good intentions but as time goes by, it enslaves its members by becoming a cancer that threatens the harmony of the body and causes so much bad — scandals — especially to our younger brothers.”
If all or most of your friends are on the same side as you, in the church or in the world – you need to rid yourself of this sickness. Caucuses (such as the IRD, RMN, Good News, and Love Prevails) have done the UMC precisely what some of the Founders – quite correctly – warned that parties would do the the US. If you want to affiliate with some sub-group of the UMC, fine; but we are contributing to the dissolution of the church and our own spiritual myopia if we only associate with like-minded folk.
There’s my annotated, partial list of Pope Francis’ recommendations for United Methodists. What do you think? What should be added? Might the UMC benefit from a similar speech from one of our Bishops?
Churches are generally not great for single people. Even churches with vibrant singles ministries only construe them as a place to meet other singles with the hopes of making them no longer single. Protestant churches in particular do not know what to do with single Christians. We have no vocation of singleness to look at, no imagination for what the Christian life looks like as an unmarried person.
My last semester of seminary, I noticed a mad dash to the altar. NOBODY wants to be a single pastor, and with good reason. All of the social events involving my denomination’s structure are geared towards “pastors and their spouses.” I went to my first such meeting this week, and found that I was not only the youngest person there, I was, as far as I could tell, the only one who was likely single and had never been previously married.
What does holiness look like for the single person? How the hell does a single pastor date? My fundamentalist past tell me, “no sex before marriage,” but this is not a positive vision for the single life.
The best I’ve read on the subject is Lauren Winner’s Real Sex. She re-convinced me that the church’s traditional stance on marriage was correct, by being honest and giving sound theological reasons for believing them. I have read nothing better on the subject and encourage all committed Christians, single or not, to check it out.
Again, as a Protestant, I don’t have a tradition of saints to look at, or nuns, monks, and priests who model the single life. What are we to do? “It is better to marry than to burn with desire,” I suppose. But how does a pastor date? Who wants to marry a pastor? (Probably no one, if they knew what they were getting into!) And yet our churches expect married clergy. Truth be told, they expect the spouse to be a bit of an unpaid co-pastor.
We Protestants desperately need to find ways to affirm singleness. Not everyone is called to be married, and if indeed it is OK to, as Paul says, “remain as you were,” they deserve better from us.