A priest friend and former classmate recently posted on Facebook that he had been asked to preach at the ordination to the priesthood. I replied with a quick comment. Although I have preached at a couple of ordination services, here are my thoughts today for a new ordinand. Caveat: I take for granted that the priest has been formed in the spiritual disciplines and will continue to be so formed as a person of prayer and fasting and so on.
1. It’s all about relationships. Relationships are the only thing on this earth that will continue in heaven. At the bottom of all your ministry is trust: do people trust you? It was either John Maxwell or Rick Warren who said, “People don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.” In any case, it’s a principle that goes back to Gregory the Great’s Book of Pastoral Rule. Pastoral care is rooted in trust. Stewardship and pledging are rooted in trust. The recruiting of volunteers is rooted in trust. Initiating change in the parish is about trust. Trust is earned over the long haul and lost in a moment.
2. The Sunday worship service is not a playground for your personal worship/liturgical/musical preferences. Please honor the liturgical patterns and norms of the congregation that you have inherited. Our Anglican worship tradition is full of liturgical variety. It is a gift of humble love to practice the liturgical norms of the congregation. Let your personal piety nourish your soul. Allow the norms of the congregation, which have nourished them long before you came along, nourish their souls. A bit of advice: when you arrive at a new church and are asked, “Father/Mother, what is your preference for _______.” The pastorally loving response is, “What do we normally do here?” And unless it is really bad theology or violates the rubrics of the Book of Common Prayer, just say, “Well, let’s continue that for awhile until I learn a bit more about the parish.” A word about music: if the people have to sight read the music or can’t sing the high notes, or the meter is awkward, it’s not worship; it’s work. Frustrating work. You want people to leave church humming one of the hymns sung — probably the final hymn.
3. The vision of your parish is written on the corporate soul of your congregation. Your task is not to create a new vision but to discover, discern, and articulate it. People may ask “Father/Mother, what is your vision for our church?” Don’t try to have one. The vision of the congregation has attracted people to your church for years before you came. Discern that vision; articulate it. Once you articulate it correctly, people will respond. Chances are very good that most of your congregation will not know what the vision is. Your job is to do your homework, learn the stories of the congregation, pray, and articulate what emerges from the stories that the congregation tells. Max DePree says, “The first responsibility of the leader is to define reality.” (I’ll tell you what he says is the last task in a moment.) I believe that part of defining reality is articulating the current reality of the parish and how it stacks up against the vision of the parish.
4. In your sermons use personal illustrations to reveal how you are working out the Gospel in your own life — from prior years. Some people will advise that the preacher never use personal illustrations for their sermons. I disagree. Your personal stories will capture your hearers’ attention; those stories will show how you yourself are encountered by the gospel in your personal life. They will remember your personal story long after they’ve forgotten your brilliant exegesis. However, the personal stories you tell should not embarrass your spouse or your children. I would give my children $2 if I told a story about them without their permission. Also, let all your personal stories be rooted in your past, not your present. You don’t want to give anyone a reason for not being able to come to you for pastoral counseling. A good rule of thumb is, “What would my mother say if she were in the congregation?”
5. Be in relationship with one or more poor, needy, or marginalized persons. I am a strong believer in the Pareto Principle, namely, 20% of the people do 80% of the work. The leader works primarily with the 20% of the congregation who are leaders. However, as Christians, we are also called to engage in acts of Christian charity, to be connected with broken people so that we might stay in touch with our own brokenness. Henri Nouwen’s book The Wounded Healer is a powerful image for the preacher. If you aren’t in relationship with broken people, chances are you will not be able to touch the brokenness in your parishioners’ lives with the good news of the gospel.
6. Have a clergy friend. Don’t isolate yourself. When I served in the bishop’s office I came to recognize that clergy who “get in trouble” did so after they became isolated from fellow clergy. A cleric has many things that he or she is simply prevented from sharing with his or her spouse and others. Many things only a fellow cleric will understand. Keep in relationship with at least one clergy friend. It’s good for your soul.
7. Make sure your spouse (or your child) is always able to reach you by telephone. It has been said that the Church (as well as the law or science) is a jealous mistress. It will eat up much of your time, take away precious time with your spouse or family at the drop of a hat. Always let your spouse or child reach you by phone. Even if you answer in the middle of a meeting, if it is your spouse or child, it l will send a significant message to others in the room.
8. Exercise regularly. Ordained ministry is tough. And stressful. Exercise will work much of that stress out in a healthy way.
9. When you tell a person that you will pray for them, do two things: (1) write it down on your intercessory prayer list; and (2) pray for them right then and there. When I agree to pray for a person, I write it in the Notes app on my smartphone so the person can see that I am making a real commitment to pray for him or her. I write date next to the person’s name and concern and commit to pray for thirty days unless I feel compelled to pray for longer. What a gift it is to pray for people’s concerns; it is truly privileged and holy ground. And what a gift to your parishioner to know that his or her pastor is actually praying for him or her by name. Praying for a person immediately allows you to pour grace into their soul right away. It is also a good model for your parishioners to emulate. It says that prayer really is a part of everyday life.
10. Be involved in service opportunities and relationships outside the church. Being involved in organizations outside the church — neighborhood associations, volunteering in a local school, and so on, extends your reach and profile in the community. Part of our task as ordained leaders is evangelism. How can we evangelize if we don’t know anyone to evangelize? Besides, it’s good for your soul to talk with people who are not church people.
11. Say “Thank you.” Max DePree says that the last task of the leader is to say Thank You. Write Thank You Notes regularly. People are simply not appreciated and noticed enough. When I was in parish ministry I would send birthday cards telling parishioners that we would pray for them at the altar on a certain Sunday. Each week I would write a personal note in their card about how I appreciated them, what I was praying for them. It is amazing the number of people who told me they looked forward each year to their card from me. One family said they would place my card on their fireplace mantle until the day of their child’s birthday, waiting to hear what I wrote that year. Another mom told me their children each looked forward to seeing what I would write to them each year. Besides birthday cards, set a goal of three to five Thank You cards each week. Look for opportunities to tell people Thank You. In this email proliferation age, nothing says that a person is appreciated like a hand-written card or letter.
Finally, if you forget everything I’ve written above, take Max Depree’s words to heart: “The first responsibility of a leader is to define reality. The last is to say thank you. In between, the leader is a servant.” – Max DePree.