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The Work of the Priest: A Conversation

By Jordan Hylden

One of the perks of my job as canon theologian for the Diocese of Dallas is a program we affectionately call Curate Camp.  Most months we gather for a day of conversation on some practical aspect of ministry, like preaching, stewardship, or pastoral care.  We always have an assignment  designed to prod us into thinking theologically about the topic of the month, and we travel around to meet in various parishes to hear from an experienced priest, soak up their practical wisdom, and learn more about their own ministry context.

As I say, it truly is one of the perks of my job. Most months I come away feeling as if I’ve learned just as much as our curates, and deeply grateful for the caliber and faithfulness of the young clergy I serve.  If your diocese has the critical curate mass to make something like this program work, I highly recommend it. (Bishop Claude Payne and Canon Kevin Martin started something similar in the Diocese of Texas, after which I modeled our program. Another helpful resource, for a more rural context, is Curacy Express, by Fr. Robert Michael Lewis.)

This month our topic was time management and administration, but as always we tried to see how the subject opens up onto wider theological vistas. There are basic time management tools that every priest should have in his or her toolkit. Neal Michell, in his must-read book How to Hit the Ground Running, lays out a standard system for planning out your day, week, month, and year in the context of a long-term multiyear vision.

The basic consensus in the room was that you need to have something like this in order to be proactive rather than simply reactive about the demands of ministry. If you don’t, you’ll be scattered and nibbled to death by a thousand ducks. You need to proactively decide what your ministry priorities are, and then make space for them on your calendar. If you don’t, the tyranny of email or the immediacy of busywork will crowd out what matters. There are many possible methods out there (apps like Wunderlist and todoist, or even good old-fashioned planners). The important thing is to have a method and do your best to stick to it.

You need to be not only a wise steward of your time, but also of the organization you’re called to lead. Staff structure and org charts matter. Once a church reaches a certain size, the priest can’t possibly do everything by him or herself. If you try, you’re actually working against the common good of the community by acting as a bottleneck, a control freak. You need to be comfortable with setting an overall vision, getting a good core team around you, and trusting them to do their work. You need to invest in them, set standards and goals, maintain accountability and constant communication, and then get out of their way. If your team knows you love them and trust them, and if they buy into and work hard for the vision, you can accomplish far more as a team than you ever could by yourself.

But how should the church think about management and achievement, if finally we are saved by grace through faith, and not by works?  How does the church keep time and measure productivity, if above all else we are invited to enjoy the unbought grace of life and give thanks for the unmerited gift of salvation by God in Christ? All of the above points about management could apply equally well to a widget factory, but we in the church are not making widgets but disciples of Jesus Christ. Should we not look different?

The struggle to properly balance the contemplative and the active virtues is not new to modern American life. St. Gregory the Great discussed the need for both in his classic Pastoral Care one thousand four hundred years ago.  Dante discussed it in the Purgatorio, in which he placed a group in purgatory who had been caught up in the rush and crush of daily tasks all their lives, but near death had finally turned their faces toward the eternal. He placed with them a Christian king who was well-known for his piety and religious observance, but who did so at the expense of the common good of his kingdom, which he had been consecrated by God to serve.

The lesson for the priest charged with the common good of his or her parish and the salvation of their eternal souls is clear enough. A good priest mustn’t lose him or herself in either the contemplative, or the active. Yet it is not simply a matter of “balance.” We serve the common good of the parish for the sake of leading souls to the everlasting holy places. Management skills and leadership techniques are good servants, and necessary ones; many are the well-meaning and pious priests who have neglected them to the peril of the people in the charge. These skills are good servants, but bad masters.

Central to this reality is that the church must always place at the center of its life not our action, but God’s action; not our achievement, but the “full, perfect, and sufficient sacrifice” for our sins already made for us on the cross of Christ. And this must re-order and upset our notions of productivity and efficiency.

Prayer does not look “productive” — the Daily Office, said by a priest and a few faithful souls, does not produce a program or raise a dollar. But prayer is the still point of the moving world, by which God turns the world upside down and speaks to us in a still, small voice that is stronger than an earthquake or a roaring fire.

The serious study of Scripture — in the coffee shop or the pastor’s study, not just the Episcopal branch office — can seem wasteful, when a serviceable sermon with three points and an illustration can be crafted in two or three hours. But Scripture is the living and active Word of God, sharper than any two-edged sword, and there is simply no substitute for the preacher and teacher whose imagination is formed by Scripture in depth and in detail.

We pondered all of this with the help of essays by my Covenant colleagues Zac Koons and Cole Hartin, and with a classic essay written by a then-unknown small church pastor named Eugene Peterson. The frenetic pace of modern life is in many ways a collective choice, a byproduct of the determination to squeeze every last inch of economic productivity and profit out of human capital.

It may well be that the church is called to be a counter-cultural community in the face of the modern tyranny of management and the almighty dollar, showing people by way of our oddly nonproductive insistence on setting aside time for prayer, Scripture, and Sabbath that what God has already achieved for us in Christ and already given us in creation is of far greater importance than what we can achieve by becoming our most productive and efficient selves.

Eugene Peterson’s determination to be an “unbusy pastor,” with time set aside for prayer, study of Scripture, and unhurried listening to the people in his charge challenged us, as a counter-cultural vision that must in some measure be required by the odd angle that Christians saved by grace through faith must take up in the modern world.

Yet at the same time, we also recognized that not every pastor may have the time or the gifting to be Eugene Peterson. Some are called to be church planters and directors of schools, some are called to oversee ambitious capital campaigns and building projects, and some are called to revitalize moribund churches at death’s door. George Herbert is dead, and clergy today must be builders, evangelists, and entrepreneurs in a way not required by the period of classical Anglicanism that still so powerfully shapes our DNA.

We puzzled over this without finding a solution, except to recognize that there is a time and a season for all things, and that if the church was blessed by Eugene Peterson, so surely was it also blessed by Jackson Kemper.

God’s action, and human action. God’s plan, and our daily planners. As Fleming Rutledge reminds us, the directional arrow must always point from God to humanity, as we can do no good except by God’s sovereign act to free us from the bondage of our sins. Yet by the Spirit we are given to participate in God’s work of salvation, and do far more than we ever could by ourselves.

I left the day of conversation usefully puzzled, as one, I think, always is when attempting to do theology. May those of us charged with the common good of the church and the proclamation of the eternal Kingdom, with the work of the priest that is but a signpost and a pointer to the accomplished work of Christ, be continually puzzled thus.

The Rev. Canon Dr. Jordan Hylden is canon theologian for the diocese of Dallas and priest associate of St. Augustine’s Episcopal Church in Dallas, Texas.

Special thanks to the Rev. Tom Smith, vicar of St. Paul’s, Prosper, our host for this conversation; and to our exceptionally able class of diocesan curates.


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