From the First Letter to Timothy:

Let the elders who rule well be considered worthy of double honor, especially those who labor in preaching and teaching; for the scripture says, “You shall not muzzle an ox while it is treading out the grain,” and, “The laborer deserves to be paid.” Never accept any accusation against an elder except on the evidence of two or three witnesses.

(From the Daily Office Lectionary – 1 Tim. 5:17-19 (NRSV) – May 24, 2013.)

Dinner TableDuring the past decade the Episcopal Church has monkeyed about with its scheme for clergy discipline, the bunch of rules and canons and procedures that are lumped together in what we call “Title 4.” As a member of the Bar and a former diocesan chancellor who had had to assist a bishop in facing some clergy discipline situations, as well as from my standpoint as a priest, I didn’t think the extensive revisions (indeed, the word “overhaul” would apply) were necessary. But there they are. Whether they have done any good and whether they are actually working as the revisers apparently hoped is anybody’s guess.

A few days ago, a friend (a retired lay church professional) called just to chat. My friend lives in another area of the country but the Episcopal Church is a small denomination, really, and we have a lot of mutual acquaintances, including some clergy who have been subjected to the new disciplinary plan and their current whereabouts and goings-on came up. In the course of our conversation, he told me that in the diocese where he now lives something like twenty congregations and their clergy are at some point along the spectrum of investigations and activities that compromise the discipline and dissolution processes of Title 4. Twenty congregations in one diocese!

In my current diocese, there have been a couple of disciplinary matters over the past few years. One resulted in a cleric being suspended; the other, in the priest renouncing holy orders and leaving the Episcopal Church’s ordained ministry. Across the church (and across denominational lines) I have been told by colleagues that they live in fear of being subjected to discipline, not because they think they’ve done anything wrong, but simply because their careers could be ruined by an accusation. A Lutheran spouse recently published an internet essay critical of the lack of support given pastors by their hierarchical superiors and detailing the devastating effect of an accusation on the clergy family. I have friends who have moved from one jurisdiction to another because they felt they couldn’t trust their bishop (or bishop-equivalent) to back them up if an accusation was made.

I could not help but think of that conversation and these other instances when I read St. Paul’s advice to the young bishop Timothy regarding the compensation and then, immediately, the discipline of the presbyters (elders) in his jurisdiction. These pastors, he says, especially the preachers and teachers, are to be honored and compensated and, if an accusation is made against them, it must be supported by the corroborating testimony of other witnesses. The linkage of honor, compensation, accusation, and discipline in this text is probably purely circumstantial; I’d bet that Paul was dictating this letter to a scribe and just thinking of things “off the top of his head,” and yet now inscribed in Holy Writ for all time, the linkage is there.

Last week, my wife and I were invited to a parishioner couple’s home for an informal dinner. Just the four of us, a bottle of wine and a couple pizzas. It was great! We all had a good time; we talked about our experiences raising kids and now being parents of adults in their late 20s and early 30s. We shared stories of vacations, of illnesses, of family crises, of joys, and of disappointments. And it later occurred to me how rarely my wife and I have enjoyed this sort of intimate dinner in a parishioner’s home. In fact, I can count on the fingers of one hand the number of parishioner households who have hosted us for dinner in the last three years (not counting church group get-togethers, which I would suggest are a different category of event).

When I was a kid we didn’t go to church, so I have no nuclear family experience of dinners with clergy, but I do know that my Methodist grandparents (with whom I spent summer vacations) and my Disciples of Christ grandparents (who took care of me after school in the early elementary grades) both entertained their pastors and their wives on a regular basis. When I became an active Episcopalian adult, I was aware that our rector and his spouse regularly socialized with parishioners, and once I was ordained and began working as his assistant, my wife and I were often invited to join parishioners socially. Of course, those parishioners were also long-time friends as I had been a lay member of the congregation for about seventeen years before joining its clergy staff. So maybe that was an out-of-the-ordinary experience.

When we left that church and I took my first parish as rector, a very small parish in the rural exurbs of a midwestern city, we socialized often with parishioners. Then we came to Ohio. During our first couple of years, there were dinner invitations . . . but they tapered off and now they are, as I suggested above, rare.

Now I’ll admit that maybe I’m just not a likeable person and that it may just be that people don’t want to eat with me. That’s a distinct possibility. (It couldn’t possibly be my wife; she’s the sweetest person in the world.) But in my conversations with colleagues, I’ve been told that their experience is the same. Few of them, they tell me, are asked to socialize with their parishioners in the manner and to the extent that we might have been a few years ago, and certainly not to the extent that our predecessors seem to have been.

Back when I was practicing law, well actually before it – when I was a paralegal, I would socialize with the secretaries and other non-lawyer personnel of the law firm, but not so much with the attorneys, and then only with associates never with partners. Then I went to law school, passed the Bar exam, and became an associate. I still socialized with the secretaries and the paralegals, but more and more often with the other associates and occasionally with the partners. And then I became a partner. I’m not sure when it happened, but somewhere along the way in my early years of being a partner, it became clear (in fact, a senior partner made it explicit) that partners did not socialize with the secretaries. You didn’t invite “the help” to dinner; they didn’t invite you.

I wonder if that’s what’s happening in the church. For years we (the clergy, at least) have fought the idea that priests are “hired.” We are “called,” we insist. Our relationship with our congregations is not that of employer-employee. It’s more like a marriage or a partnership; we are colleagues in a ministry which is mutual and reciprocal. Of course, the one colleague (the parish) pays the other colleague (the priest) a salary, and we have letters of agreement and denominational policies requiring a pretty good array of benefits . . . but we are not, we insist, employees!

Are the discontinuance of social invitations, the increase of concern about disciplinary schemes, the upsurge in instances of clergy discipline cases, all symptomatic of a sea change in the church’s unspoken understanding of the priest-parish relationship? Is it all because clergy are no longer seen as respected elders “worthy of double honor?” Are we just “the help?”

Maybe so. There may be many reasons for such a paradigm shift. In a brief meditation on a short sentence of scripture one doesn’t have the time or the space to consider what all of them might be. All I can do here is suggest that these apparently disparate phenomena — changes in clergy disciplinary rules, a rise in the number of discipline cases, clergy moving out of fear, and a downturn in clergy-parishioner socializing — may be symptomatic of a change in the way the church community functions.

I admit that I don’t really know. But if my morning musing is even close to correct, I’m sorry to see the decline of the former model, the model of the pastor who could also be the social friend of those in his or her flock. I don’t believe an employment model is as conducive to mutual respect between priest and congregation, nor as supportive of relationships between bishops and clergy. I hope someday to see the church return to the earlier paradigm — or maybe find a new one; at any rate, we need to find a paradigm for this relationship with less of the fear that seems to pervade the one we have now.


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Father Funston is the rector of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio.