The Narrow Path of the Parish Priest

By Kurt H. Dunkle

Continuing lockdown and contagion present challenges for all the faithful, but perhaps especially for the Church’s ordained leaders. How do we tend to our flocks when they feel scattered? Do we re-imagine creative ways to offer community, worship, and spiritual caregiving? Or do we move into other roles?

Ideally, the parish priest neither sits back, nor stands in front, but rather nurtures the laity to take broader leadership roles, while paying attention to the needs of the whole flock. The priest supports and encourages a community of diverse gifts and circumstances, thereby inspiring the ministry of all.

Now more than ever, we need supportive Christian leadership. We must accommodate the unique circumstances surrounding us, but remain grounded in the transcendent love of God.

Let me be blunt. The parish priest’s job must be narrow in its intention. With narrowness comes precision, and with precision and prayerfulness come clarity. Just as seminaries should prepare leaders to (1) know, and know about, God, (2) fall in love with Jesus, sometimes for the first time, and (3) recognize and respond to the Holy Spirit, the priest’s unique job is to help others do the same. Straying from that narrow path enhances the risk that others will not walk it.

The careful reader may argue that God inspires action – both individually and in the name of the Church. I agree, but the Church must be more careful in identifying the actor.

The roles of social justice advocates, scholars, chaplains, activists, and organizers are all natural and essential outgrowths of the fullness of knowing God, falling in love with Jesus, and responding to the Holy Spirit. Seminary should affirm and nurture all of these. But the roles are not where we start, certainly not in training church leaders like parish priests. The roles are the outgrowth. The beginning always remains strictly theological, tied to the persons of the Holy Trinity.

The Church and her members do not have a choice of whether or not to engage directly with the wider world. We must do so. The Church does, however, have a choice in recognizing the role of leading actor versus supporting actor. Once a new disciple is made and begins to act in the name of the Church, the parish priest must encourage the parishioner to respond to the Holy Spirit’s call in his or her life and the life of the community gathered. Often, the parishioner may be eager to hand it off to the priest, which explains the priestly urge to control. But it is not the role of priests to micromanage the Holy Spirit’s movement in the Body of Christ.

A growing need in the Church is, and has been for some time, the full, genuine affirmation of lay ministry. The current crisis presents a unique opportunity to advance in this area. We like to remind ourselves that the “Church” is less the building and more the “body.” This is good. But is it merely the body gathered, or is it the Body of Christ in the world? It is both.

As Augustine frequently warned clergy, we are at greater risk than others of being controlled by our pride through desire for public praise. It is difficult to resist the temptation of seeking our own glorification by way of the spotlight. Better to prayerfully discern if there is an opportunity to encourage and empower lay leaders, many of whom are better trained and equipped for such roles and responsibilities.

Parish priests are spiritually at risk of mistaking themselves as the lead actor in the Body of Christ rather than as a single, important part. The parish priest nurtures and grows the flock. Then, an effectively created group of disciples will create its own leadership without the constant intervention and control of the priest.

Let me suggest something: If your job is a parish priest, your job is to be so enmeshed in God, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit that you lead others to that life, too. Then, a God-inspired, Jesus-loving, Holy Spirit-empowered body, ever growing and nurtured by the steady focus of priestly servants, will change the world. And the priest’s job continues, nurturing the lay leaders and finding more disciples.

I regularly advocate maintaining a residential seminary system — even when, in certain respects, it differs from previous generations. Seminaries need space and opportunities for people to interact. We need more togetherness focused on Jesus Christ and one another, with less time in silos. The regular physical patterns of togetherness, centered on the worship of Jesus Christ and care for one another, are transformative to individuals and communities. The body of Christ must be fed by the body gathered.

However, when the body of Christ cannot be physically gathered, we must be creative. We must continue doing the work.

Health-care workers at all levels are emotionally and spiritually distraught right now, many traumatized. A recent article in The New York Times detailed the intensity and resulting burnout of the pandemic, which will lead inevitably to long-term anxiety, depression, and PTSD. Can we be there for workers without recasting ourselves as the hero of the story?

Delivery persons, grocery store clerks, and countless other essential workers have been called on to risk their health, their lives, and the health and safety of their families, so that the rest of us may remain stocked. Many of them lack health insurance. Can we be there for these heroes without being the center of attention?

And many parishioners are suffering financially, having been furloughed or laid off. They don’t see much hope in the news, nor in many positions of leadership. What would it look like if we had priests in local communities who were able to tend to the spiritual needs of the healthcare worker, other essential employees, those suffering financial hardship, and even those more marginally inconvenienced?

Thankfully, in some communities, we already do. Without holding anyone up for fear of leaving another out, I would like to thank all of the parish priests out there who have done their part in raising up God, Jesus, the Holy Spirit, and members of the Body. Using digital platforms, forming phone trees to check in on parishioners, partnering with medical providers, and carefully discerning in your own way how to do your part to nourish the body of Christ have been terrific responses.

Yet the persistent danger lies in parish priests mistaking their role. This happens when they mistake their part for the entirety of the body. By needing to be the sole actor, they disallow other parts of the body to interact with full functionality. This may also be one aspect of an antidote to the persistent challenge of clergy burnout.

In times like these, we may all find it helpful to recall that we are not alone. Parish priests have been blessed with a congregation of ministers. New and unique partnerships await connection. Most importantly, God, who created us, is still creating; Jesus is still loving us and knocking at the door; and the Holy Spirit continues to call us. The parish priest’s job remains the same in this time as ever. It is narrow, precise, and clear: to know God, fall in love with Jesus again, and recognize and respond to the Holy Spirit.

The Church and her members certainly can serve as first responder in the midst of disaster. But rather than standing at the helm as the hero of the story, could we be supporting characters? Can we rest content to care spiritually for the heroes, whoever they may be?

The Very Rev. Kurt H. Dunkle is the 13th dean and president of General Theological Seminary in New York.


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