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Thursday, July 17, 2014

The Priest Model Must Change

The model of Christian priest that was predominant in the middle to latter part of the last century has outlived its usefulness. That priest was a kind of technician, the spiritual equivalent of a very good guitar player who knows all the chords and how to put them together in all the right progressions but never improvises and so is perceived as having little soul. They were trained to be expert in a number of areas including parish administration, church history, doctrine, even church music. On the other hand, they received little training in pastoral care or preaching. Depending on where they went to seminary, they may or may not have had a degree of spiritual formation or developed a spiritual practice. If they did succeed in developing a practice in seminary, somewhat against the odds, the demands of parish life soon pushed their spiritual practice out the door as committee meetings, visiting the sick, and other administrative tasks came to predominate their life. In the Catholic Church the priest shortage has made this situation even worse, but even in the broader Church the decision to focus on a morality and theology of the groin and manage the local church like a business has only increased the problem. What does it mean to be in charge of a parish with a two hundred fifty thousand dollar budget that allocates no money for outreach into the local community and that does not want to be spiritually challenged from the pulpit? You might say it means that you are the administrator of a country club. For these reasons it's perfectly understandable that many clergy have lost their spiritual grounding, but that doesn't mean it's desirable.

With the implosion of organized Christianity in the west, new forms and ways of being church are emerging. On the whole, both these groups and the remaining local parishes of the institution tend to be smaller, with under fifty people in attendance. These situations don't require a country club manager. In the case of a shrinking parish, a grief counselor may be what's needed most - along with someone who can do some visioning around moving forward in a new way. In the case of a new community developing, what's needed is someone who can teach spiritual practice. Ostensibly, that's why we seek out spiritual community. While there is need for a survey of church history and belief - we need to know where we have come from if we are to know where we are going - the emphasis needs to shift to preparing leaders who themselves are spiritual practitioners and who can teach others to develop their own spiritual practice. I want to say that it is from these things that all the rest emerges. It is from practice that compassion and the realization we are called to serve others develops. If the practice is missing, so is the understanding of the importance of service, outreach, and helping others. It's as if the Christian community as a whole has gotten the cart before the horse, believing that if we get the forms right the discernment and drive to serve will follow. The evidence is in that the opposite is true.

A person can be an absolute technician at the altar, flawlessly executing every ritual assigned to them - but if they can't improvise at the sick bed they will fail to support people at the time they need it most. A person can know the month, day, and year of every ecumenical Church council, but if they can't remember how many children someone has they are done before they have started. A person can be the stoic leader of an organization, but if they can't weep with us they cannot lead us spiritually. All of yesterday's leaders who have been trained to erase their personality and present an image have gotten us precisely to where the Church finds itself today. I don't want to lay too much blame at their feet, they were after all simply doing what they were trained to do. I want to ask, though, how one feels fulfilled as a spiritual leader when one has a flock that doesn't want to be challenged to grow but rather prefers to have a congregation that gathers to make professional connections and find new clients?

This is why I believe a spiritual teacher model is a more fitting one for the future. Yes, we certainly need to be able to negotiate the mechanics of our various settings. Equally if not more important is that we help people develop their spirituality. Healthy spirituality is much more than a moral code, it's a way of making sense of our world. We can only do that with a paradigm shift, and there's no time to start that like the present!

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