By Joshua Rodriguez-Hobbs
This is the second in a series on Vocation in the Episcopal Church. The first is found here.
My discernment committee struggled to understand why I felt called to the priesthood but didn’t have what one member called “Eucharistic longings.” I felt, and still do, that my life would be complete if I never stood at the altar in a parish to celebrate the Eucharist. I didn’t understand this sacramental act as the core of my call from God. That puzzled the members of my discernment committee, who were all deeply faithful Christians whom I loved and who loved me. However, I didn’t fit into the guidelines provided by the diocesan commission on ministry. I did feel called to sacramental ministry, just not the sacrament of the Eucharist. Where I felt God calling me was to pronounce absolution in confession and to pray for healing in the anointing of the sick.
When I shared this story with my seminary classmates, most were similarly puzzled. The purpose of the priesthood, as most members of the Episcopal Church understand it, is to celebrate the Eucharist, after all. One classmate cynically told me, “You should have made up Eucharistic longings. That’s what I did. That’s what the church needs to hear to ordain you.”
Today, as a hospital chaplain, a priest without a parish, I remain deeply confusing to many of my colleagues. “When are you going to go back to real ministry?” they ask, as if real ministry only occurs at the altar. Of course it doesn’t, but the ministry formation my colleagues and I received might make you think that it does. My seminary education prepared me to lead Sunday services using the Book of Common Prayer. The coursework, directly or indirectly, prepared me to plan worship, to preach, and to understand the theological and technical basis of presiding at the altar. My Master of Divinity required exactly zero courses devoted to pastoral care.
Part of that is my own fault, certainly. I chose not to take any of the pastoral care classes my seminary offered. However, that was in large part because I saw how little the seminary valued pastoral care. None of the pastoral care professors were tenured, and there were recurring jokes among my classmates about how unhelpful the classes were in preparing them to actually provide pastoral care. Besides, I’d completed a Clinical Pastoral Education residency before matriculating, so I felt I had those bases covered. However, on this side of ordination, I find it deeply disturbing how my formation process gave so little thought to pastoral formation. Even my field education, by design, was focused on my preparing for and participating in my field parish’s worshiping life. The seminary’s field education director told me that I wasn’t there to make pastoral visits. So I didn’t.
I regularly hear fellow priests talk about how their principal responsibilities are to plan and execute Sunday worship. Lay people can visit the sick members of their parishes, they tell me. After all, priests are trained for other things.
If my own experience of formation is typical, and I believe that it is, then my colleagues are right. They were trained for other things. However, this seems incredibly shortsighted. In a world that is increasingly post-Christian, where I explain to coworkers what an Episcopalian is at least ten times a day, why are we focusing so much of our energy on a single hour of the week?
Some of it comes from a misguided understanding of lay ministry. The Book of Common Prayer presents the laity as the church’s primary ministers by virtue of baptism, and many diocesan discernment processes encourage “lay ministry,” without ever really defining what that is. By definition it must be whatever you don’t need to be a priest or deacon to do. However, most dioceses and parishes don’t provide any sort of systematic training for it.
Don’t get me wrong. Pastoral care is certainly part of the ministry of the laity, but it must also be part of the ministry of the priesthood, because we priests will train lay people how to do it. Pastoral care is difficult, demanding work. Historically, our tradition has recognized this. Three of the classical Anglican works on pastoral ministry, George Herbert’s The Country Parson, Richard Baxter’s The Reformed Pastor, and Michael Ramsey’s The Christian Priest Today, all spend much more time talking about how a priest lives with and cares for their parishioners than they do on how the priest presides at worship. By watching the priest caring for them, the laity learn how to care for one another, as Gregory the Great observes in his Book of P.astoral Rule.
In light of this, the lack of attention to the pastoral formation of priests is a grave matter. After all, in the ordination service, the Book of Common prayer describes the priest’s work as primarily that of a pastor. In the examination, the bishop charges the ordinand that her call is to work as “pastor, priest, and teacher,” and reminds her that her call is “to nourish Christ’s people from the riches of his grace.” This certainly includes sacramental nourishment in the Eucharist. However, to produce well-rounded lay ministers it must include much more.
There is a saying among Clinical Pastoral Education supervisors: “you can’t take your students where you haven’t gone yourself.” To nourish the people of Christ with the riches of his grace, we priests must spend much more time in becoming excellent pastors. Otherwise, how will we equip the laity to fulfill their baptismal ministries?
The Rev. Joshua Rodriguez-Hobbs serves as the Episcopal Chaplain to the Johns Hopkins Hospital, a joint ministry of the Johns Hopkins Medical Institutions and the Episcopal Diocese of Maryland. He is a Certified Educator Candidate in the Association for Clinical Pastoral Education and has previously served as a hospice chaplain and a parish priest.
Good for you. Churches need pastors who understand how to build community.