Thursday, September 10, 2009

Struggles understanding rural parish ministry today

Last night at vestry I posed the question of what ministry, and especially parish ministry, is in today's context. There were three things that prompted the question.

The last was a request to facilitate a congregation through a major transition, which involves spending time outside my parish but in the same diocese.

Another was the sudden death of a priest in the diocese south of me. This leaves a friend of mine as the only stipendiary priest in an area larger than England consisting of five parishes. How might that impact me as the closest priest to some of those parishes, albeit in a different diocese? And, if it does affect me, what is the impact on my congregation and the larger PALS Community?

And running through all this is my ministry of presence in the larger community, which does not result in material gains for my parish. It does, however, meet a spiritual need as evidenced by the ever increasing calls on my presence and services by more members of that larger community.

Don't get me wrong - I love what I am being called to do. It actually energizes me. It certainly challenges me as I look for ways of meeting needs that traditional (and strongly male-oriented) expressions of spirituality no longer meet. And I will admit that there are a number of times that I skirt the edge or cross over traditionally accepted ways of placing things into the context of the people approaching me - especially when being with women for whom traditional (male-developed) practices have little to no resonance.

But I digress (which is typical). I am paid a full stipend by a community that can really only afford a half time stipend. For that full stipend I do about a half time traditional parish ministry. The other half is spent in my ministry of presence. This latter uses the same gifts, skills, and services as the former - I do blessings, listening, baptisms, funerals, spiritual direction in a community with few connections or defining boundaries.

So the question last night was somewhat of an effort to see how much acceptance my vestry had for the funding of calls on my time outside of the usual understanding of a parish priest's job.

Traditionally, in many congregations' minds, the priest is paid to minister to the people on the parish list. Oh, there is a sort of understanding of the parish as a geographical area and that the priest is to serve all in that area. But the reality is that the expectation is that the priest mostly serves those who contribute to the material fabric of the parish.

In general, I have been very blessed with a congregation that supports my ministry of presence. This is helped by the positive feedback and image in the larger community. But as I met with my wardens yesterday afternoon before the vestry meeting I sensed a lessening of tolerance for my extra little tasks.

The need out there is so great. The models of church from the 20th century are no longer capable of meeting that need. Most of the people I meet in the ministry of presence have a strong spirituality but feel the Church is no longer able to help them in that regard. Often things are explained in a context that no longer has a connection with personal experience and it leaves people struggling to understand their relationship and experience of the Divine. Traditional models of doing church no longer fit in with life-styles (and those life-styles are ones of necessity such as shift work that involves working on Sundays, two parents working different shifts, realities of rural life in a world where the family farm is no longer a viable option without an outside income etc.) Yet those people still need re-assurance and guidance every bit as much as those who are formally in a church community.

I am trying to help my people understand that being a church community is not just about the care of those who contribute to our particular community but also about making care available for all. This may involve work outside the parish boundaries, or even diocesan boundaries. It may involve a fair amount of time spent with people who in no way contribute to our particular church community. It is hard to get outside the expectation that the stipendiary priest is paid to show concrete results within the parish list and that there is a way of accounting for the time spent that shows material gain for the church - ie contributions toward the upkeep of the building and the stipend of the priest.

I don't even know where I am going with this post other than I am trying to form a question and then hopefully find some sort of answer that guides me in how I do the ministry to which I believe I am called while also honouring the hopes and expectations of the community that supports me. And maybe the larger question for me underlying all of this is - am I being fair to the people in that supporting community as I strive to do the larger ministry that I love so much and that actually feeds me spiritually.

I have often thought of resigning as parish priest. I could find a job that gave me some flex and allowed for a ministry of presence. I have always held back. This is mainly because I know that being the parish priest also helps people approach me. My being a parish priest thus becomes a tool in reaching out - a tool that would not be there is I were to find some other type of job and still do the ministry I feel called to do. Again, don't get me wrong - I also love being a parish priest and being with the community that looks after my physical support. It's just that I feel called to two slightly different styles of ministry and often feel guilty that the one is supporting the other without the other offering support back to the first. Is that being fair to my congregation? Is this a legitimate form or style of doing ministry?

Love and Prayers,
Ann Marie

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