Our son, Patrick, will be ordained to the priesthood on January 7, 2011, at Grace Cathedral in Topeka, Kansas. Since being ordained a deacon last June, Patrick has been serving as chaplain at the Seabury Academy, a private Episcopal middle- and high-school in Lawrence, Kansas. On Sundays, he has ministered in a variety of congregations in northeastern Kansas and will continue to do so once ordained a priest.
As I look forward to the New Year, it is Patrick’s new ministry that is foremost in my mind and so I share with you an open letter to him:
The mix of emotions I am experiencing as we get close to your priestly ordination is beyond description: joy, pride, fear, apprehension, love, and many other feelings. You have already started on the great, often exciting, frequently troubling, occasionally maddening journey of ordained ministry: I am praying for God’s guidance as you continue the journey. I hope you don’t mind if I publicly share with you a few words of advice. I have made many mistakes in ministry, so I hope my experience can be useful to you.
First, preach the word honestly and genuinely; preach it as you understand it. Writing to the young bishop Timothy, St. Paul asserted that all Scripture is inspired by God, and thus he admonished Timothy to proclaim the gospel whether it was popular or not, and whether it was convenient or not. There will be many words that you can preach and teach, but never stray from the gospel as you know it.
Second, love the people committed to your care. I’m talking about agape, Patrick, not mushy sentimentality. Respect them, guard their dignity; if you disagree with them, try to do so without being disagreeable; be genuine with and to them. I have spent many hours with several clergy, both Episcopalians and those of other traditions. Many of these good men and women are hurting. They are cynical about ministry and the local church. They have been criticized and hurt by church members many times. I often find myself sharing their cynicism, their hurt, and their anger. When you feel this way, take some time for yourself; talk to a friend; seek the advice of a colleague; rely on your bishop. Try as hard as you can to not reflect your hurt back to the people you serve.
Patrick, ministry is tough; it’s demanding and it’s often painful. If you haven’t already, you soon will find out that you can’t please everyone. But you must struggle to not become cynical. You must love the people you have been called to serve – no matter what. You must try to love unconditionally as Christ loved me and you. Jesus didn’t give up on us. He loves us even when we aren’t loveable. Try to reflect that in your ministry.
A friend of mine once characterized priestly ministry as “being required to be with people in their worst nightmares, but being privileged to also share their greatest joys.” Let the nightmares go and hang on for dear life to the joys, my son.
Third, stay connected to your colleagues in ministry. Be a part of a clergy discussion group; work with a spiritual director. Ordained ministry can be and often is a lonely calling and, certainly, there are times when one needs solitude. But there will be more times when you will need the support of those who share this calling.
Fourth, make your family a priority. You and Michael are still newlyweds, and she needs and deserves your attention. The work of ordained ministry is never done, so don’t think that 80 hours a week at the school or the church is necessary to stay caught up. Accept the reality that you will never catch up fully. God willing, you will soon be a father yourself (very soon if this would-be grandfather had his choice). They will need their father, and Michael needs her husband.
One of the most heartbreaking aspects of my ministry is that I know that I failed to heed this advice myself. I spent too much time trying to be the perfect rector, trying to grow our parish in Kansas, and too little time with you and your sister as you grew up. (Truth be told, I still do that – I still spend too much time trying to be the perfect rector and I still fail at it. It’s hard to break old habits.) I’m very proud of the way you have both turned out, but I can take very little credit for that.
Patrick, you have many great days ahead of you. The church is an imperfect but wonderful gift from God. You have so much to offer, but keep your priorities in order and don’t squander your gifts. Spend time with God. Spend time with colleagues. Especially spend time with your family. Tell others the Good News of Jesus. Preach the Word. And love your students and, when you move into parish ministry, your church members with joy and acceptance.
Patrick, I am here if you ever need me. But even if you can’t call me for advice and conversation, our heavenly Father is always there for you. Remember what Paul wrote to the Church in Rome: “I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (Romans 8:38-39)
I love you, my son.
My New Year’s Resolution is try to follow my own advice. I trust that the members of my parish will remind me when I fail to do so; they always do.