You don’t learn to be a priest during seminary. You learn aspects of the vocation like preaching, some pastoral care, how to plan a service, and the like. But seminary cannot teach the bulk of the work you will do when you enter the field because every day is different from the day before and the one that will come after. The truth is that you learn to be a priest from other clergy, both inside and outside of your own tradition, from your parishioners who have worked with many priests before you arrived, and from good old trial and error (and failure!).
One of our sabbatical journeys took us to Tallahassee, FL, where I found myself on a Sunday morning sitting between one of my first Senior Wardens and the first adult I ever baptized. As we stood to sing, sat to listen to the sermon, kneeled to confess our sins, and walked together to receive communion, a wave of gratitude washed over me for the two of them and for every lay person who has taught and continues to teach me what it means to be a priest.
Chris and Cindy entered my life during the first year of my vocation, just a few months after I met Derek. Our church was very small and visitors were more than noticeable. I remember meeting Chris and Cindy their first day and feeling how well they would fit with our church family. We went to lunch or dinner, I don’t remember which now, and they shared with me how they had come to visit our church in the first place. It seems neither of them were deeply rooted in any church or denomination but both felt they needed a church family in their new married life. They went online and researched different church traditions and thought the Episcopal Church best fit their views. They had decided to visit all three Episcopal churches in our area and ours was the first.
It was also the last. My sense (and hope!) that they suited our church family was correct from day one and in short order they became central figures in the life of the congregation. The November after they joined we bought a large plastic tank (I actually think it was a trough!) and filled it with water in the church yard. During the All Saints Sunday service Cindy crawled in to take part in the resurrection of Christ, emerging as the newest saint in the church. It was a blessed day and a moment I will never forget.
Just over a year later Chris became the Senior Warden of the church, a position also known as “the rector’s warden” because the clergy chooses someone from the vestry to fill that position. It is someone the rector or vicar knows she will work with well in leading the congregation. Chris and I met every month over lunch between vestry meetings to go over “the list”, a notepad on which he kept a running record of projects and ideas from our conversations.
I didn’t lack confidence, passion, or energy in my first years as a priest. In fact, I split my time between two ministries – the church and a college chaplaincy gig – which translated into 60-80 hour weeks for me because I was so excited to be in the field. What I did lack was the knowledge to actually do that work. I knew how to examine text and prepare a sermon, how to examine myself and my actions after a pastoral care visit, and the basics of running a vestry meeting. Beyond that, I didn’t know much; all of it is knowledge that only can be gained “in the trenches”.
It was in those first three years of ministry that I started a running list of things you don’t learn in seminary. For example, how to: 1) mop up septic tank back-up in the men’s bathroom the day before the church’s big Advent Lessons and Carols service and get rid of the smell; 2) use desktop publishing software to produce Sunday bulletins, event fliers, and newsletters; 3) understand web design and work with a communications specialist to assist with evangelism; 4) clone yourself when you desperately want to be at the bedside of a dying member and also in the home of another who’s child has just died. Nor does it teach you that you will love the members of your church with a passion and depth only God could describe and how to receive their love and allow them to minister to you in your own time of need, especially when you don’t even recognize it yourself.
We left that first church over nine years ago now and Chris and Cindy moved away almost two years ago. Over the past eight years Chris and Cindy have traveled wherever we are to hold each of our children in turn as their godparents and say:Celebrant Will you be responsible for seeing that the child you present is brought up in the Christian faith and life?
Parents and Godparents I will, with God's help.
Celebrant Will you by your prayers and witness help this child to grow into the full stature of Christ?
Parents and Godparents I will, with God's help.
(Episcopal Book of Common Prayer, Baptism Service, Pg. 302)
This time we traveled to them to see their new life in Tallahassee. As newly married couples we built our relationship around church and food. Chris and Cindy both have worked in the restaurant industry and love to cook. When Alton Brown’s “Feasting on Asphalt” first came out, we gathered each week the show aired and cooked a meal together based around the theme for that evening’s show. For this trip, Chris and Cindy showed us around their town as we feasted at some favorite spots. It has been a couple of years since we had a good visit together but each time is like slipping into a favorite pair of shoes: the miles walked together in the past come back to cradle you perfectly for the miles ahead.
When we first met I was learning to be a priest, Derek was learning to be a priest’s husband (a real challenge!), and Chris and Cindy were learning how to be active and faithful Episcopalians. We learned many lessons together in those early years and as I watched them play with our children, their godchildren, in Tallahassee last week, I realized we’re still learning lessons together: how to love despite distances and different settings; how to share our lives with others in a way that they are a part of us, not just our lives; what faithfulness looks like in friendship, marriage, to children, and to God.
For more details about Tallahassee, places we visited, and where we ate, visit my husband’s sister blog at demmlertravels.blogspot.com.