A rector’s lexicon

By Richard Helmer

This post is for clergy, and most especially Rectors. Not to put off laity, mind you. And I doubt I could if I tried. We still are in a very clerical Church, after all. But this post is really about clergy. And, more to the point, the words we use to describe what we as a Church do to them.

I think of all the words we use, and very few of them show up in the street lexicon anymore – if they ever did. Even before we’re called clergy, we are referred to using odd words: aspirants, postulants, and candidates.

Aspirants sound slightly medical to me – perhaps in need of respiratory support, or maybe too close to something having to do with under-arm odor and its prevention. Seriously. I can unpack aspirant and see the word aspire inside, but it’s the –ant on the end that has me standing somewhere in a pharmacy trying to pick out the cheapest anti- whatever.

Postulants more clearly belong in the area of mathematical proof – as in gets confused in my head with “postulate”. And does the Church expect us to “prove” something? Our worth perhaps? The Church often sends postulants to seminary, encourages us to acquire massive debt, and then through a process that often approaches hazing, reminds us that – hey – despite our best efforts, we may not go anywhere in the Church after all.

Candidates of course resonate mostly with our baptismal candidacy. But it is a bit like being a candidate with no election to run in. So there’s a “made-it” mentality there most of the time when we get to wear that title for six months to a year and think wistfully about a future in the Church. In other words, unless we really screw up, we’re destined to be ordained. Whatever that means. I was there five years ago. I’m still trying to figure that one out.

And I don’t mean to be rude by my irreverence here, either. “The process” as we like to call it from the inside, at least, was unbelievably annoying at times, but also deeply nurturing and formative for me, and I wouldn’t want to give it back. But what does our choice of words to describe it say to a post-Christian world? Is it just a bunch of episco-speak devoid of meaning for anyone other than the initiated? I wonder.

But then it gets better. Yes, the bishop comes along and ordains me. And then it’s smack into the deployment racket with all of its uncertainties, high hopes, and dead ends. It’s a tough place to be, looking for full-time work (which really means a half-time salary for 24/7 ops) in a financially strapped denomination (don’t let the big national figures and pension benefits fool you) where the cost-of-living is going nowhere but up.

And then you land one, and you get this delicious list to choose from: you might get installed (click) or, even better, instituted.

We also, I learned recently, invest some of our clergy. Our bishop, who was consecrated in another diocese, was welcomed in an investiture when he came to California. Actually, it’s a word reserved for bishops, apparently. And of all the ecclesiastical mouthfuls when it comes to describing as close to having “arrived” in this strange vocation as it gets. . . I like it the best. (But please don’t read too much into that last sentence!) I like investiture because it implies to me a delivery of trust, of being cloaked in an office, a position of responsibility.

And I like it, too, because, being a cloak, that means it can be taken off. Left behind, perhaps, or maybe just set aside for a period of time. We can divest as well as invest, after all. Perhaps a bit of a disposable position? Maybe that’s a cautionary tale for bishops-in-general.

A few weeks ago, I was instituted. Instituted as Rector of a parish that sits right in the heart of a part of the world that deplores institutions-in-general, and where, in fact, anything that is older than, say five years, is regarded by default with some suspicion (Pity the poor children.)

And instituted as Rector. In Latin, it means, most simply, “ruler.” It’s that sinister word, describing a mysterious figure with a dark tone in Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code. Should make me popular, right? More accessible to those in need? A better witness for the Gospel?

I have an image in my mind of my institution as becoming somehow statuesque, sitting in an office with the door open for people to straggle in demanding Christian wisdom for a bad day. Of my getting dusty, perhaps even a bit crusty, as I age. Of finding it harder to move, breathe, or simply live and be myself.

Again, no disrespect to the parish I serve (I love the people there dearly) or this strange vocation of priesthood (I wouldn’t have stuck with it for this long if I didn’t find God’s grace in it in so many surprising and wonderful ways. . .)

But instituted? What a strange word. More like institutionalized. I can see the clergy heads nodding. With some of the things that come at us at times from people we deeply care about, it really can be crazy-making.

As we were finalizing the liturgical booklet for my institution, our parish administrator and I were scratching our heads at what image to use for the front cover. She suggested one with a stole, two hands clasping, and a crown. I had to laugh: a marriage image. (The crown seems to fit well with the origin of Rector, no?)

And that’s an image that some clergy like to use when they talk about the “call” in parish ministry. But I’m uneasy with it. Marriage implies life-long union. Does that mean that almost all clergy today have fallen into serial monogamy along with the rest of our culture?

Besides, I’m already married to a wonderful and loving human being. I wouldn’t want to be accused of bigamy. Although, I must admit that with the stresses of parish ministry, at times I really “get,” and I mean in my bones, why Roman Catholicism demands celibacy of its clergy! Sometimes keeping the eye on the family at home and the family at work can be daunting.

But, no, the marriage image doesn’t really work for me.


Rectors in our tradition have an awful lot of power. My spiritual director reminds me that becoming Rector means I’m virtually unassailable canonically. Short of gross misconduct or negligence, it’s tough even for a bishop to get at a sitting Rector. Vestries can scream to high holy heaven, cut the salary, and the Rector can. . .well. . .just sit there and do whatever he or she pleases within fairly wide bounds. Truly. I would deplore the day I arrived at that point, of course. As most sensible people (Rectors included!) would.

But the point is well-taken. What do I do with this power, and why do I have it? Why am I called by the Church, foolish, misguided folk that they must surely be, to become an “institution?” Something that, aside from potentially providing a steady stream of meals for my family and shelter over our heads, seems otherwise absolutely counter-intuitive.

The answer began to arise for me a few Sundays ago while preaching on the floor of the nave. I asked people to raise their hands if they knew, when they were young, that they would end up living in this town – this strange, mixed up, and wonderful town with all of its old artisans, new wealth, old homes, wandering migrants, high performing professionals, struggling musicians, and strange self-proclaimed spiritualists.

No one, not a soul in a crowd of nearly a hundred, raised his or her hand. Even today, much of the world’s population is born, works, grows old, and dies in the same village, town, or city. But not here. Not in the highly mobile and mobilized West where a job, a relationship, or a whim tomorrow could have us whisked a thousand miles away on some new life adventure.

This town, like many all over the Episcopal Church, craves stability. Someone recognizable. Someone who will be present in thick times and thin. Marriage? Not quite. I can’t promise forever. But stable long-term leadership and presence? You bet.

When our newsletter editor wrote (half tongue-in-cheek) to the congregation about my being “installed” as our “permanent” Rector, I found myself pondering the emotional content behind the words. Something, it told me, no someone needs to stay still and collect a little dust.

Like the cliché goes, “Rolling stones gather no moss.”

Rector or not, elected, selected, instituted, installed, or just simply “here,” I want to put down some roots for the sake of the People of God. To be an anchor for a while for ships forever on the move. To stop and gather wisdom like fallen leaves that are never swept up. To really get to know people for a time before they move on, and to be a recognizable face when they return to visit or stay.

This is the old Benedictine way. It’s one of the deep roots of our tradition in being Church. In fact, it facilitates tradition. Stability.

That’s what “institute” means for me in the end: Be stable. Emotionally as best I can, without demanding perfection of myself or others. Grow up and down for sure, yet do it best by standing still. It’s where trust begins and skills are honed and the sharp edges that wound others get dulled with conflict, compassion, and time. Where the hearts of stone get pummeled – often with an imperceptible gentleness and occasionally with a bone-shattering rap – by our God into flesh.

Instituted. Be there for a long time for a People, crazy, loving, wonderful, and strange.

All that power for the Rector? It’s not about power. It’s about creating stability. And that notion bounds both the risks I face of abusing that power, and the vision to leverage it when people need stability to end the spiral of being rootless.

The Rev. Richard E. Helmer, a priest, pianist, and writer, serves as rector of Church of Our Saviour, Mill Valley, Calif. His sermons have been published at Sermons that Work, and he blogs regularly about spirituality, ministry, Anglicanism, and church politics at Caught by the Light.

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  1. When I left my last job people came up and said, you’re an institution here and you’re going to be missed. I appreciated the compliment.

  2. Roy Murphy

    Well, we should combine aspirants and postulants into one category — perspirants.

  3. William R. MacKaye

    Actually, rectors, you might want to take note of the Church of St. Stephen and the Incarnation in Washington, D.C., which for some years has had no rector other than the Episcopal bishop of Washington. Moreover, most of St. Stephen’s leaders believe the parish will not have a rector in the foreseeable future or possibly ever again.

    The congregation’s spiritual leader, the Rev. Frank Gasque Dunn, is styled “senior priest.” He shares authority with the senior warden and with a team of affiliated clergy, all of them volunteers whose incomes come from other sources. Father Dunn has no obligation to bear the full weight of leadership of congregational life on his shoulders alone.

    This model of collaborative congregational life is being pursued in continuing consultation with the bishop. St. Stephen’s commends the model to others for study and possible emulation. As a way of life, it puts into practice the principle that the whole people of God are the ministers of the church and that all are called to the Table. In such a realm rectors have no place.

  4. William,

    I think a rector’s true authority is best described and limited just as you outlined: collaboratively empowering God’s people in the ministry of the Gospel.

    Anything to do with the office of rector beyond that purpose might well be risking hubris!

    Hooray for St. Stephen’s!

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