By Rev. Canon Christopher B. J. Pratt
The hands of the bishop rested gently on my head as I knelt before him in Christ Church Cathedral, Fredericton, New Brunswick. Soon, I became aware of the hands of others, who, as they reached out to join their hands with our bishop, placed their hands on his, and on my head and shoulders.
Through the canopy that had formed with their vestments and the trellis of arms above me, I heard the bishop say, “Receive the Holy Ghost for the office and work of a priest in the Church of God, now committed unto thee by the imposition of our hands. Whose sins thou dost forgive, they are forgiven; and whose sins thou dost retain, they are retained. And be thou a faithful dispenser of the Word of God and of his holy Sacraments; In the Name of the Father and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.” (Book of Common Prayer, pg. 655)
Marked, indelibly as a priest, in the Church of God, I have tried to be faithful to the expectations of that moment. I have not always gotten it right, but I have always sought to recognize that the call to ministry to which I responded, years ago, carried with it certain expectations and responsibilities. They were expectations I had of myself, expectations individuals who exercised episcopal leadership had of me, and expectations that the people I served in the congregations and parishes where I carried out my ministry had of me.
With that mindset, I read, with some surprise, in a recent article of the Huron Church News, a perspective offered by a member of the Diocesan Human Resources Committee regarding the framework of clergy compensation. The paragraph, caught my attention with these words, “While it may sound a little crazy, we actually provide clergy with a stipend so they won’t work. As a community of faith, we join together to support people among us so that they can devote themselves to the non – work of prayer, study, reflection, caring presence, encouragement and teaching through word and example.” (HCN – Sept. 2018 – pg. 9).
The compensation of an ordained person, placed in the heart of the life of a community of faith, carries with it certain expectations. I am unaware of any ordained person who stood up in front of an expectant congregation gathered for worship who said, “I am sorry, but I did not feel like putting together a sermon this week….” The work of a priest is, “to preach the Word of God and to minister the Holy Sacraments in the Congregation….” (BCP, pg. 655)
Claiming time to pray, taking time to study, having an opportunity for reflection takes organization and commitment. For some, these elements of ministry come easily and take priority. For others, it is a challenge to establish a pattern that works in their day to day life and ministry.
Creating a balance in life to handle the expectations of others, church leadership and self, is not always an easy thing to establish. 24/7 availability to respond to personal crisis can be a very wearing experience. Being an always available caring presence is an expectation that a congregation has of those who are called to sacramental ministry in the life of a community of faith. Always being prepared to respond to calls of need at any time of the day or night, may take its toll in the life of a priest.
Being a priest is life lived as a response to a vocation, or call, to a ministry of faithful witness in the service of our Lord. For some, after years of education and discernment, the Church offers an opportunity to devote life fully to the cause of ordained ministry. Others follow an example of so many, whose ministry is enabled by their employment outside the structure of the Church. Still others offer ministry after a career following other pursuits and move into ordained ministry in their retirement. No matter what their background, the “work of a priest”, involves “prayer, study, reflection, caring presence encouragement and teaching through word and example.”
Ordained ministry is not a free ride. Baptismal ministry offers an opportunity for all of us to serve our Lord.
One of the realities of life as a Christian is that with our baptism comes a certain set of expectations. The Baptismal Covenant outlines very clearly how our faith must shape our lives. Whether or not you refer to the Book of Common Prayer Rule of Life ( page 555 ) or the Marks of Mission and the Baptismal Covenant set out in the Book of Alternative Services (pg. 155 ), being a faithful follower of Jesus takes time, takes effort, and whether we like it or not, it takes work.
We are all called to be mutually responsible and interdependent members of the Body of Christ. The compensation of those whose lives are committed to ordained ministry is a matter which needs constant review and both prayerful and practical support. Enabling all those who claim to be part of the Body of Christ, the Church, to live lives filled with meaning and purpose as all are nurtured by Word and Sacrament is a worthy vocation.
There is no room in lives of any of us for anything which may be placed in a category entitled “non-work…”. One of the joys of our faith is that the work to which we are called is not ”work”, it is a labour of Love.
Rev. Canon Christopher B. J. Pratt has retired from full time parish ministry,
but continues to offer priestly ministry in the Diocese of Huron.