Sunday, August 15, 2010

Brava, Bonnie! (AKA "Madame President")

Great letter-to-the-editor by House of Deputies President Bonnie Anderson in the New York Times responding to one of the recent flurry of commentaries on "clergy burnout." (I started a blog on the subject a week or so ago but Judge Walker [happily] got in the way and I've been too busy to be burnt out much less find time to write about burnout.) Anyway -- here's Bonnie's great letter:
To the Editor:

G. Jeffrey MacDonald ascribes clergy burnout to “congregational pressure to forsake one’s highest calling.” The real problem is the provider versus consumer mentality.

Ministry is not solely the work of professionally trained clergy. Rather it is a shared enterprise in which lay people are equal partners. Clergy burnout occurs because both parties lose sight of this fact. The result is clergy who believe that they must meet everyone’s needs while playing the
role of a lone superhero, and members of the laity who are either infantilized or embittered because they cannot make meaningful contributions to their church.

Embracing a circular ministry model that values and uses the gifts of laity and clergy while sharing power and authority engages everyone in the work of reconciliation. The big questions are: Will the clergy be able to give up their ascribed power? And will the laity be able to step up to the challenge of their baptism?

Bonnie Anderson
New York, Aug. 9, 2010

*The writer is president of the House of Deputies of the Episcopal Church. *
And what it's reminding me of is my own ordination process -- which I began after serving as a lay professional in the church for a number of years.

"What can you do as a priest you can't do as a lay person?" was one of the questions we got during the process. The textbook answer is -- of course -- "bless, consecrate and absolve." But the "other" answer -- the one I gave -- was "work to dismantle clericalism."

I remember in one interview saying that we need to give up on the idea that the congregation hires a priest to stand up front and "be Jesus" for an hour a week so they don't have to. And to do that we were going to need to dismantle clericalism -- which the laity were complicit in perpetuating. And since we hadn't YET dismantled clericalism, in order to be part of the revolution of the baptized some of us needed to use the power of the white plastic around our necks to work from the inside.

And they ordained me anyway.

Go figure.

And Go, Bonnie!!!! (And once we get things settled down on the marriage equality front in CA maybe I'll be get back to that burnout blog.)


Lerewayah said...

Having recently been denied the privilege of wearing that hard, hot plastic collar, I can tell you that I feel so much lighter going back to the business of the "priesthood of the rest of us!" Well said, Bonnie. Well said, Susan.

One more thought: Bill Countryman's Living on the Border of the Holy is a great book that explores the priesthood of all of us, including those called to wear the thrall collar.

Gretchen Chateau

JimB said...

Interesting. The question came up when I was before the discernment sub-committee of the standing committee. My answer was use the leadership position to make ministry the work of the entire congregation. They got rid of me. ;-) Different diocese, different decisions.



All of this made me dig out Verna Dozier's "The Dream of God" and re-read what she wrote about "... what the church -- the institution -- has done to the ministry of the laity.

The people of the Torah made the gracious gift of the law into a system. The people of the resurrection made the incomprehensible gift of grace into a structure.

Both were escaping from God's high calling to be something new in the world. Each time the frighteningly free gift of God to be a new thing in the world -- a witness that all of life could be different for everybody -- that gift was harnessed by an institution that established a hierarchy of those who "know" above the great mass of people who must be told.

Rev. David Justin Lynch said...

The ordination process is entirely too political and too subjective. To become a lawyer in California, one studies law (either at a law school [not necessarily accredited], in a law firm, online, in a judge's chambers or by correspondence), pass the Bar Examination (proctored, closed book, 3 days, 6 hours each day), and pass a rather extensive moral character background check. Once you've done that you are sworn in (but you have no guarantee of clients or a job - you're on your own). Seems to me the Church could learn something here and adopt some variation of this procedure for ordination. I think it would democratize the ranks of the ordained and do away with the snooty attitudes sported by so many clergy other than Susan.

Unknown said...

As someone contemplating whether to go through the formal discernment process, I was very happy to read Bonnie's letter and am happy for her lifting up of the laity.

I also take comfort in the words of the commenters here. I agree that the discernment process is ridiculous--driven by subjectivity, finances, and politics. One goes through 1-2 years of strict examination, followed by seminary (where you are still being examined) for which you foot the entire bill yourself, incurring massive debt, and for what? Congregations aren't hiring rectors or full-time priests. I was told that bi-vocational was the only way to go if I wanted to be able to pay my seminary bills. Huh??

This isn't how a lot of other denominations do it. I'm sad it's the way we do it. I've seen too many people with obvious gifts be turned away for laughable reasons. Shame on us. Maybe this could be addressed at the next GC.

Thank you, Susan and Bonnie for lifting the collarless up.

Joe B.

Unknown said...

The institution of The Episcopal Church is maintained by clergy who derive their financial security (salary, health benefits, retirement) from the institution. A self-perpetuating system. And Verna Dozier is absolutely right. The institutionalization of the message has been happening for a long time. Clericalism will be a long time being dismantled.

Peace, Richard

Rev. David Justin Lynch said...

The traditional model of ministry - 3 years seminary, full time clerical employment - is not financially tenable anymore for the Church or for ordinands. A better model is lower the barriers to ordination, decrease the cost of the process through online and local education, and make part-time, non-stipendiary ministry the new norm in all but the largest parishes.