Acts 6? … by David Knight

David Knight is Interim Rector of St. James Episcopal Church, Jackson, MS.  This article originally appeared on his blog, Kanite.  

1consecThere is a group of us in the Episcopal church who gathered at General Convention, proclaiming an “Acts 8″ moment for the church.  A recent post on the Acts 8 website asked what questions GOEs (General Ordination Exams) SHOULD pose to show whether seminarians are ready for parish ministry. A good question.

It lead me to thinking more about the role of the Priest. I currently am serving as Interim Rector at the largest church in our Diocese. It’s an amazing place, incredibly busy with a great staff and some of the best people I’ve ever known in the congregation.

As their Interim I have learned a lot about the difference in being the Rector of a large church vs. a pastoral size one. Rector as CEO is the model it seems we’ve adopted for resource size parishes. We have 10 full time staff (including 3 Priests) and several other part timers. Managing staff, working on budget and finance, making daily decisions about use of facilites (ours are really nice and used constantly, 7 days a week), running meetings – this is the stuff of the CEO Rector.

And I wonder about the model….

Oft times clergy will make the comment, “well I didn’t learn that in seminary”. I certainly said that myself post-Hurricane Katrina. And the same is certainly true for the administrative skills asked of Rectors of large parishes. Fortunately I have had a lot of experience in the secular world managing staffs and other admin duties – but that’s not why I became a Priest! It’s part of the job, though, part of the expectations placed on Episcopal clergy (and other denominations certainly). And even though we have many, many Priests who are quite good at it, very competent in those areas, the question is not “can” they do it, but “should” they do it.

And please hear me clearly – this is not a whine! I love (LOVE) where I am right now and enjoy going to work every day, even with the headaches that are sure to come. I really mean that. However, that still does not mean we have this right. Do we just expect our clergy to have all those gifts – preaching, pastoral care, teaching, sacramental presence, and killer admin skills?

One thing I had promised myself 10 years ago when I was ordained, is that I would not be one of those preachers who waits until Saturday to write a sermon. And recognizing that only I can control my own calendar (in most cases) I am here to confess that is exactly the situation I find myself in most weeks. And I hate it. Now it’s true that I read the lectionary lessons early in the week, that I jot down ideas when they come to me, that I spend some reflection time on what to say, but it is now my typical week to write the sermon on Friday (my day off) or Saturday. This is unfair to my family and to me and really to my church. They need more than that from me, yet the administrative demands of a place like this, with Rector-as-CEO as the norm, has put me right where I swore I would never be. And I mean to change that. I love preaching. I love teaching. I don’t love not being able to give the amount of time required to do both well.

And to be brutally honest what has been pushed further on the back burner in my life than anything else has been the time I spend in prayer! That is obviously a recipe for disaster! Recognizing that, I began last week scheduling prayer time on my calendar (sad to think it takes such steps). Of course I pray at other times and pray often for and with parishioners and folks in need,  and that has not stopped. But dedicated time in prayer, alone with God, well frankly I have let other duties and obligations overshadow that time, and that MUST CHANGE.

In the 6th chapter of the book of Acts, the 12 disciples are faced with some administrative problems. There was a complaint that some groups of people in need were receiving more help than others. Instead of putting this on the vestry agenda or hiring a consultant or building a consensus for a best approach or even just making an administrative decision on how to correct the problem, the disciples call the whole congregation together and tell them, basically, this is not part of our job description. They say, “We should not give up preaching God’s message in order to serve at tables. My friends, choose seven men who are respected and wise and filled with God’s Spirit. We will put them in charge of these things. We can spend our time praying and serving God by preaching.”

Now this may sound like the disciples felt those duties were beneath them. That’s not the case when you see the type of people they wanted to step up to the task. Instead, the disciples recognize what their true role was, what their gifts were, and what God had called them to spend their time on – praying and preaching.

There’s a model for ya!

Some of this is economic in nature. Rectors of most of our largest churches are paid quite well. With that salary comes the expectation, of course, that they will be the chief administrator, the CEO of the parish. I wonder if some of them have managed to move the admin stuff to someone else on staff? I would love to hear about that.

And please hear this – this is in no way saying that Rectors / Vicars of smaller churches don’t get strapped with tons of “non-seminary-trained” stuff. The priests in those places have to wear a LOT of hats, from plumber to pastor and everything in between, including “waiting on tables”. This question applies equally to them.

I am blessed to be at a big church that not only has a great staff, but we also have dedicated lay folks who work very hard with me on budget and finance and other administrative matters. Even so, the Acts 6 message keeps whispering in my ear. Is there a better way? A way that makes more sense to the call and gifts we each have? This is not about being “good at” something. It’s mostly about roles and expectations and how to best allocate the most precious resource we all have – time.

I don’t know. I hope so. Meanwhile, St. James’ folks – here is my promise to you. For the remainder of my time with you, dedicated prayer time, work on sermons and Bible studies and Inquirer’s classes will not be last on my agenda, they will be first (along with pastoral care and the like). You deserve that from me. And I know and understand the current expectations regarding the administrative tasks and they will not be neglected. Most of all, from time to time you will be unable to reach me because I will be praying – in the chapel, in my office, on a walk. I believe I will be a better priest for it.