By Calvin Lane
“Why not the priesthood?” someone in the circle asked. That question, I wager, was already on everyone’s mind, but when it tripped out into the open air the words were already stale. Several months ago, I encountered a vibrant seminarian who described a call to parish education and catechesis and to developing new ways to engage women, men, and children in God’s story and the life of God’s people, the Church. After years of prayerful discernment and service in multiple parishes, this seminarian said that her call from God was to develop and lead formation ministries, in order to grow congregations.
This seminarian exhibited missionary zeal, no lack of poise or charity, and a hunger for theological formation. Then came that question, “Why not the priesthood?” The seminarian shot back immediately, outlining politely but firmly that the call was a legitimate call to ministry, one clearly and rigorously discerned. And what is just as important is that it is a ministry needed for the Church’s growth and health. The next assertion the seminarian made ought to be underlined: Such a call is not “less than” the priesthood.
I want to say a few different but related things, all of which were swimming under the surface of that conversation. First, of course, is that we are facing a shortage in ministry. But that needs nuance. Many of us have long heard about a priest shortage, and yes, it is true that with the impending retirement of Baby Boomer priests, there will be a serious problem. And, yes there are many churches in the rural parts of the United States that are facing a dire need for priests. But merely ordaining scores and scores of priests isn’t going to fix the situation.
The priest shortage is only part of a larger ministry shortage, the root of which is a crisis of imagination. We’re having a tough time imagining vocations — callings from God discerned in community to meet the demands of gospel mission — that do not lead, inexorably, to the priesthood. Our knee-jerk reaction to equate ministry with the presbyterate betrays a stunted vision of the Church, one neither evangelical nor Catholic, but clericalist, consumerist, and advocacy-oriented. These substitute ecclesiologies cripple us.
I also want to suggest that the priesthood is paradoxically both less important and more important than we often think. But let’s return, first, to the crisis of the Christian imagination.
Imagining the Church, Imagining Ministry
Consider this image of the Church: the body of Christ receiving the body of Christ and continually being reconstituted as the body of Christ. In eucharistic lives, we lift up all that we have and all that we are — individually and corporately — to the glory of the living God whose grace and mercy remakes us into the image of his Son Jesus Christ. That means every woman, man, and child seeks and finds a place in the body, a vocation and calling to lift up adoration with that person’s whole being. This, I believe, captures what we mean by a “priesthood of all believers.”
Such a vision does not in any way diminish the sacred order of presbyters, but rather requires every part of the body to find the rightful place. Moreover, this expectation of all believers is not an extrato assuage Western democratic sensibilities, but a core element (the esse) of a healthy evangelical and Catholic ecclesiology.
If we buy into this image of the body, then we have to pony up the resources to equip all parts of the body for vocation. That may mean sending people to seminary to be catechists, missionaries, teachers in our Christian schools, or those who organize our shelters and food banks. All of these ministries (among others) are legitimate callings and they deserve careful, orthodox, vibrant theological formation.
Here’s the bottom line: This will make for stronger, growing congregations. And there is no way of being the Church and growing the Church without growing congregations. That’s where mission and ministry happen. That’s where people come to know and follow Jesus.
Substitute Visions for the Church
Are we facing a priest shortage? Yes, but we’re also facing a terrifying shortage of people engaging in all manner of Christ-centered ministries that will grow congregations. It’s too easy to envision the priest/pastor as the manager of a retail franchise, who happens to have a handful of volunteer store workers. That’s the substitute ecclesiology enjoyed in many mainline Protestant denominations in the 20th century. It can wear a Roman Catholic mask too. This substitute is, I suspect, largely obvious to most readers of this blog and doesn’t need a tremendous level of dissection.
But the retail franchise model isn’t the only substitute for a robust evangelical and Catholic ecclesiology.
Even more insidious is the new substitute whose hip advocates decry the Constantinian church and the institutional church by walking away from congregational ministry for social activism. They brazenly lift the rhetoric of the Anabaptists without adopting their rigorous understanding of the called-out community. And then they tear down the very thing that needs building up.
My goodness, who could quibble with a food bank or a community garden? We should not doubt in the least that those are good and holy things. But such programs are only part of our mission — our eucharistic life — when they grow out of a deep commitment to share the good news of Jesus Christ for the praise and adoration of the living God. Unfortunately, many churches make an unconscious decision to be food banks with congregations trailing behind rather than churches that also have food banks.
Moreover, this method objectively doesn’t work. Ruth Powell showed in her research on Australian Anglicanism that congregations that prioritized social action and ignored evangelism and serious Christian formation tended to decline (hat tip to David Goodhew who pointed me to Powell’s work: “Australia,” in David Goodhew, ed., Growth and Decline in the Anglican Communion since 1980 [Routledge, 2017]).
And, to be clear, evangelism must include the name of Jesus; please let’s not trot out poor old St. Francis’ dictum about “using words if necessary,” an adage that some misuse to get us off the hook. I think we owe Bishop Curry great thanks for his constant use of the most Holy Name. It must be clear, though, how the substitute of Church as social activism is part of that crisis of the Christian imagination, a demurring from a eucharistic vision.
What about the Priesthood?
What I have suggested (which is nothing novel, but rather, I hope, reflective of Scripture and the Fathers) still envisions the bishop encircled by presbyters, deacons, and the people of God at the table for the wedding feast of the Lamb. In other words, the priesthood is critical. And we do need more priests.
When we think about a priest shortage, however, we would be better served to say we have a severe shortage of young (under 40) well-formed ordinands who are deployable and unencumbered. We have a shortage of such priests who have a rich, confident eucharistic vision of the Church. At a recent gathering of theological educators, Bishop Neil Alexander commented that when people are surprised by his CV, specifically that he has served in so many different capacities, he replies that it is simply the by-product of having been ordained in his mid-20s. When we invest in younger ordinands, we set ourselves up for priests who have the luxury to make a few mistakes in their early years and learn from those mistakes. Then we have the rare combination of energy, verve, and decades of experience in an individual just reaching age 50. That’s why I have high hopes for the fantastic gathering in Dallas this September, RADVO. The Church will owe a deep debt to the planners and organizers of this conference and further gatherings like it.
Shortage and Imagination
Yes, we have a priest shortage, but we have a larger ministry shortage. And this is the result of a crisis of the imagination. For a variety of reasons, we’re having a hard time imagining Church as people of the story who are excited to tell the story to others — so that they may turn to Christ and be saved (conversion).
We’re having a hard time imagining the Church as the body of Christ receiving the body of Christ and thereby being continually reconstituted as the body of Christ. We are often lured away from a eucharistic vision in which all believers have a worthy vocation to lift their lives as thank offerings to God in Jesus Christ.
But that vision can, by the presence of the Holy Spirit, be recaptured. These bones can live.