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The Five-Tool Priest

Among baseball scouts and executives, the classic metric by which the value of a player is judged is what has become known as the “five tools”: hit, hit for power, run, throw, field. A player who excels in all five is exceptionally rare, and is highly sought-after. These abilities may not be displayed fully in a young player on the cusp of his professional career. But experienced scouts have at least spotted their potential, and coaches are working hard on creating the conditions under which they can develop and flourish.

Analogies are never perfect, but, as I look back at more than a quarter-century of experience in ordained ministry, nearly four of those years as a bishop, I’ve had ample opportunity to evaluate the gifts and skills of priests, and something akin to the five-tool baseball player suggests itself. As I consider the raw gifts of those in discernment for potential ordination to the priesthood, and as I look at the demonstrated skills of priests while engaging in deployment, there are five core abilities that I hope to spot, whether in the rough, or in a more developed form:

Preside. A priest is a public person, and needs to have a public presence in liturgy that inspires confidence, that enables a worshiper to relax and let go of any anxiety about whether the event is in capable hands. A priest who is uncomfortable at the altar is like a fish that is uncomfortable in water. This does not mean that the priest attracts attention; quite the contrary, actually — a presiding priest should move and speak in and around the sanctuary with such fluidity and grace that everything about the event becomes a conduit for attention to the One who alone is appropriately the object of such attention. A priest can learn how to be a better presider, but it helps if the innate gift is there to begin with.

Preach. It is telling that, in the culture around us, “preacher” is often a generic moniker for any member of the clergy. In churches that adhere to ancient liturgical patterns, the sermon is not so much the main event as it is in worshiping communities that have lost touch with that inheritance. Still, even in the context of a Eucharist celebrated according to traditional norms, the sermon is critically important. Preaching, at its best, is very much both a craft and an art. The craft can be taught, practiced, and honed. The art is more mysterious and elusive. Some priests have a homiletical fire in them fully ablaze the day they are ordained. The church does well to recognize the spark that leads to such a fire when it first shows itself, and encourage the one who possesses it to nurture the gift.

Teach. The charism for teaching is related to the one for preaching, but they are distinct. I have known superb teachers who were mediocre preachers, and excellent preachers who were inadequate teachers. There are moments when it feels to me as though the ministry of teaching is the most underdeveloped of the five tools of priestcraft, but if that is the case, it may well be because it is also the least appreciated. The catechesis gap among Episcopalians (and many other Christians as well) is massive. We desperately need more disciples of Jesus who patiently hunger to be taught, and priest-teachers who are able to articulate the tradition of Scripture, theology, and spirituality in ways that are readily understood.

Lead. Leadership, like preaching and teaching, can be taught and learned, though innate talent is certainly an occasion of gratitude. A leader need not have exceptional charisma, and need not be particularly outgoing. What is truly critical is that a leader have an extraordinary degree of self-awareness that supports an ability to accurately read people and situations. But leadership instincts are rarely, in themselves, sufficient. Leadership is a science and a craft, and there is an abundance of both theoretical and practical material available to help turn ordinary leaders into exceptional leaders. A priest needs to be able and willing to apply self-awareness to the craft of leadership.

Care. The priest and author Neal Michell reminds us that people will not “care how much you know until they know how much you care.” A priest is — by definition, if not by actual circumstance — a pastor, and the heart of pastoral care is bringing the power and the glory of the paschal mystery to bear in the lives of real people who both suffer and sin, sometime simultaneously. And most members of the flock of Christ will not be of a mind to make space for a priest to do this sort of work until they have gotten a sense that the priest authentically cares about them and is concerned for their best interests. This is not to say that a priest will never offer words of challenge or admonition, but the leave to do so will probably have already been earned by an established pattern of personal connection. Not everybody who has a big heart will make a good priest. But a likely candidate for becoming a good priest will have shown some evidence of having a big heart.

Even at the Major League level, very few people are true five-tool players. But any who achieve sustained success are probably outstanding in three of the five, and at least marginally adept in the others. Similarly, very few priests excel in all five of presiding, preaching, teaching, leading, and caring. But those who serve the Church by engaging in consistently fruitful ministries are probably exemplary in at least three of the five, and basically competent, if not outstanding, in the others. Those involved in the processes of discernment and deployment will want to be alert for signs of raw giftedness in these areas, that those in positions of authority and influence might help cultivate these gifts — these tools — for the benefit of the whole body of Christ.

Five Tool Priest


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