“Priestly Formation” is a Term that Really Bugs Me!

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by Pat Henking

I am developing a serious allergy to the idea of “priestly formation”. The term brings to mind two things: First is the setting of carefully mapped and measured strips of wood at precise angles on a bed of crushed stone or leveled sand that forms wet concrete into patios and walkways. This picture yields a vision of preparation for priesthood that is clean, neat, sanitary and programmatic. It presupposes that the candidate is malleable and in some sense wet cement, perhaps, in fact, unformed. And this vision fits tidily with contemporary expectations of education measured by well-calibrated assessments for the sake of specific outcomes.

Second is the image of military and sports “formations”. This image has the added benefit of suggesting – even conjuring – team spirit and mutual effort. But the overriding issue is that these formations are practice for war, for conquering, and for winning over others. Even though singing “Onward Christian soldiers” still makes me happily nostalgic, and more subtle forms of triumphalism still excite me, triumphal piety is no longer in vogue – and it does not suit my own theology and that of our Baptismal covenant at all. Furthermore, these sorts of formations are also planned carefully, executed deliberately, and complicit in a worldview that makes everything too neat and tidy for human life. There is a very good reason that professional football fields are some of the best manicured acres of real estate on the planet.

I find a threefold antidote to my allergic response: First, the fourth verse of “Glorious things of thee are spoken” sounds forth in my mind:

Blest inhabitants of Zion,

washed in the Redeemer’s blood!

Jesus, whom their souls rely on,

makes them kings and priests to God.

‘Tis his love his people raises

over self to reign as kings:

and as priests, his solemn praises

each for a thank-offering brings.

I believe John Newton has it right: Jesus makes priests (I will leave aside for now all the issues about kings.) We only really become priests when we know our souls rely – in fact, must rely – on grace alone. The point is simple – to bring thank offerings. Or more precisely, to preside at that place where people bring their hearts to God and God provides the sustenance for their souls. Or rather – our souls. This is not to claim that there is no content to our faith, nor is it to suppose that the clergy ought not to be a learned clergy. It is to notice that all the content is vocabulary – it is a vocabulary and articulation of all that it means to affirm that, “It is meet, right and our bounden duty always and everywhere to give thanks.” It is also a content – in both rite and ceremony – that brings us full circle to the realization that the Peace of God passes all understanding – including most especially the understanding of God’s priests.

Thus the single, most critical thing that must imbue the souls, minds and countenances of those who would be priests is simply that it is not about us – it is about our Lord and Savior and all that He reveals to us and in us of the love of God. Be careful here – that revelation is God’s Self-disclosure, not our own. It is most apt to be discovered in us if we have discovered our utter dependence on Christ who saves us – and Who most particularly saves us from ourselves.

Precisely here is the greatest value of residential seminary in my view: At seminary we worshipped, ate, worked and studied together. These things are measurable and so far the tidy images of formation are workable. But must it be taboo to discuss the messes? Because it is through the messes and the continual need to cope with them that we learned in seminary to trust Christ’s forgiveness, mercy, friendship, shepherding and love in community. We did not only read and mark our Bibles, practice celebrating Eucharist and preaching, struggle with exegesis or doctrines of the atonement together. We also argued with each other, denied or even betrayed each other, walked the block in despair with each other. We knew who was having trouble at home, was going to bed with whom, didn’t have enough cash to go out to dinner, was drinking too much and who had been molested as a child. We knew who was exhausted, who was sick, who was seeing winter snow flakes for the first time, and who climbed up on the rood screen to replace the missing trumpet of one of the angels. We knew who was going to bed crying and who was waking up laughing – and who wished not to wake up at all. And then again, we knew that we had only begun to know and that we must respect the hidden legacies of one another’s lives. None of this can be gained through distance learning or occasional programs or reading at home – and what is gained is deep, abiding assurance of the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. Without dependence on the love and mercy, grace and presence of our Lord we would waste away in a priesthood we create in our own images.

The second thing that comes to mind is a discussion at a recent vestry meeting: In some now-forgotten context, we were talking about Heaven. Several people said that Heaven is a place of perfection, and that in that perfection there will be no problems and no suffering. Simultaneously several faces looked transfigured and someone asked, “What does the Bible say happens in heaven?” “God will wipe away the tears from every eye,” several members said at once. So, we agreed that our work as leaders of our congregation is not to make life perfect, but to make our life together one where we learn to wipe away one another’s tears in God’s Name. Years ago one of my colleagues wrote and published a paper about psychological transference and the role of priests: His idea was that people need to know that we are people. He wrote that if they cannot tell we are really people, folks will push us and push us and push us until they find out whether we cry and whether we bleed. In seminary, many, if not all, of us learned we cry and learned we bleed. And we learned to wipe away the tears. We learned how to find authentic spiritual ground within ourselves and within our Church so we could live and work and have our being among the people without making our needs their burdens. To be rather Evangelical about it, we learned to “be washed in the Blood of the Lamb” so we could come into our sanctuaries both humble and real.

The third thing on my mind is something I have heard attributed to Arthur Michael Ramsey’s pre-ordination retreats when he would explain that the work of the priest “is to come before the people with God on [his] mind and before God with the people on [his] mind.” I think this is the main reason I resent all efforts to quantify my hours at work as a priest. It is true that eternity can be found in a grain of sand, and some of the richest, grace-filled moments are small and fleeting. At other times birthing the nearness of our Lord can be an enormously long and painful labor. And yet this is the stuff of priestly ministry.

Nevertheless, this ministry is not simply ethereal or purely spiritual, it is incarnate. And here I return to the ugly word, “forms”. Our ministries take on myriad forms, and for some few of us the forms are tidy and neat like the color blocks of a balanced Mondrian painting. For others of us the forms are like Seurat’s work, filled with billions and billions of singular dots. There are those of us who make ministry look like Michelangelo’s Pieta and then there are the Picassos and Salvador Dalis among us. No matter our forms and styles we need skills. I, for one, am very sorry I didn’t learn about conflict resolution and the means of collaboration until a professor at a business school asked me to teach sections of his classes. But as long as someone would show us – kindly – that the fruits of the Spirit don’t go very far without commensurate skills, we can take ourselves off in any number of directions to gain the skills that go with the forms and styles and roles into which we are called. And that is the fundamental and the ultimate word – called. We are called and made by Christ to serve in the world He came to save.

The Rev. Pat Henking (General Theological Seminary 1979 and 1997) is Vicar of Faith Episcopal Church, Merrimack, NH. Pat has served several terms on Commissions on Ministry, the NH Standing Committee, the GTS Board of Trustees and various other committees. She has been an adjunct instructor in theology, Christian ethics, philosophy and organizational behavior. Pat is an avid fan of “Star Wars” and of the Boston Red Sox, with apologies to Yankees fans.

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6 Responses to "“Priestly Formation” is a Term that Really Bugs Me!"
  1. I'm not as put out by the term "formation" as Pat is, but that said ... I am very grateful for her words. Particularly those about the "messes" of the seminary community. I read for orders and then spent only one year in a residential seminary before being made a priest, but I value that year above all else, and precisely for those messy connections that she so wonderfully describes. Distance "book learning" is all well and good, but intimate human learning is a must and requires life in real-world, on-site, flesh-and-blood community.

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  2. "Distance 'book learning' is all well and good, but intimate human learning is a must and requires life in real-world, on-site, flesh-and-blood community." I did not experience a residential three-year seminary. My bishop said, "Why would we take you out of the job you're doing so well [state psychiatric hospital chaplain] to send you away for three years?" My education was through both distance learning AND attendance at a local, non-Episcopal, multi-denominational seminary. Perhaps because I was in my mid-40s so I was certainly well-acquainted with tbe messiness and depth of life in Christian community, and with the failings and glories of the church. I was already a trained pastoral caregiver and spiritual director. I had been through a great deal in life. I was well-acquainted with sorrow and joy, sin and virtue, suffering and creativity and all of it.

    I would ask my colleagues who DID benefit from a three-year resident seminary life, which seems an enormous luxury to me, to consider that there are other ways God can form and educate priests, and to take these seriously, please.

    Also, I would point to the importance of remembering that it is not just the ordained that are priests in God's realm, but all who believe.

    I was ordained in a state psychiatric hospital chapel, presented by patients as well as church leaders and priests. I am now in parish ministry and grateful for the challenges and the opportunity. Nothing in my life went to waste in my formation as a priest.

    Connie Clark

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  3. Also, it seems to me we would be much better off if we focused a lot less as a church on clergy formation and education (important though they are) and a lot more on the development of strong, grounded lay leaders.

    Connie Clark

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  4. First of all, I want to say that I appreciate Pat Henking's perspective. I loved my three year residential seminary education as did my family. I wish everyone - lay and ordained - could enjoy that amazing, blessed luxury. Having said that, I should note that I spent the first ten years of my ordained service in debt to pay it all off. Many were the late night conversations about "inexpensive, alternate sources of protein" and the location of all the various thrift stores for school and professional clothing. I should also note that I applied to three seminaries - two turned me down because they could (or would) not accommodate my family - two women and six children. The third was willing to do whatever was necessary to accommodate us, for which I will be forever a grateful debtor.

    However, Connie Clark's comments above are absolutely spot on, in part because it goes to Pat's point about "formation" and also because it lifts up what St. Paul has to say about "the priesthood of all believers". I do believe, in the midst of all of what is painfully chaotic in our congregations in general and our seminaries in particular, that God is doing a new thing and bringing a new creation into being. It seems to me that it is the church whose "form" is being "reformed" and that this reformation is taking place to bring the church back from its sinful excesses.

    The cost of seminary education is nothing less than outrageous. I don't know how anyone can afford the cost of residential seminary without taking on large amounts of student loan debt, even if (and, in most cases it is a Very Big If) there is the generosity of a diocesan bishop. Then, there is asking a spouse to put his/her career on hold or leaving a well paid position and the possibility of moving children away from family and friends. All of these are very, very costly.

    My own children have obtained their Masters and PhDs online because they could not afford to leave their jobs, their homes, their family and friends to pursue their educational advancement. Why should we expect seminarians to do that? Because of some romantic notion of the "poverty" we think is required of the priesthood?

    Take a look at most congregational budgets and you will find that what is spent on the mission of the church (Mt 25), much less the Great Commission (Mt 28:19-20) is a teeny tiny percentage of what it costs to pay for clergy and the maintenance of buildings and grounds. Indeed, I've worked with some churches where the budget line item for property costs far exceeded the clergy salary and benefit.

    We love talking about "four orders of ministry" but it's pretty clear that only those who are ordained get financial remuneration and education and resources for their ministry. We talk a good line about "total ministry" but we only do it when we absolutely have to - like, when we don't have any money - and when there are no other alternatives.

    And, we talk a good line about "mission" but we do not empower all of the people of God to do the work of God's mission. As Byron Rushing has famously said, the church doesn't have a mission; God has a church to do God's mission. We need to be less about the formation of institutional people and more about the formation of Christians to do the work of mission and ministry.

    A good Anglican, I'm all for both/and - equipping and empowering all the baptized to do God's work as well as residential and distance learning - but I'm thinking that God has something up her sleeve that will make the decision for us.

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  5. My favorite point was this: "the single, most critical thing that must imbue the souls, minds and countenances of those who would be priests is simply that it is not about us – it is about our Lord and Savior and all that He reveals to us and in us of the love of God. Be careful here – that revelation is God’s Self-disclosure, not our own. It is most apt to be discovered in us if we have discovered our utter dependence on Christ who saves us – and Who most particularly saves us from ourselves."

    Word.

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  6. Pat, A simple thank you for beautiful words beautifully written that call, lay and ordained, back to our origins - the love of God in this messy and joyful life.

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