By Ed Keithly, Deputy Transition Ministry Director
Pretty much everyone I serve is in a time of anxious waiting. As deputy transition director, I split my time between working with men and women in the ordination process, rector search committees, and clergy discerning where they’re called to next. I have the distinction of saying that everyone I work with hopes to spend as little time with me as possible.
Take one example: As soon as a seeker starts in the discernment process, he wants to be accepted for postulancy and off to seminary as soon as he can manage. Once he’s in seminary, he casts his eyes toward ordination three years later. After ordination, he hopes to settle into a multi-clergy parish as assistant rector, and three to five years later he’ll take on the next challenge as rector of a small- to mid-sized parish. Five to seven years after that, he’ll move to Richmond, Alexandria, DC or maybe even New York City, and take on a large parish.
I work, too, with churches in search of their next rector, after their current rector has retired or moved to another parish. The congregation feels like it was only yesterday they were completing their last rector search, that they’re doomed to a pattern of three years with a rector and 18 months in search for all eternity. Or maybe they feel that their long-tenured rector’s departure is like a long, crucial thread of the church was just yanked out. They fear that the sweater is no longer wearable or recognizable; that the rest of it will unravel and they’ll be relegated to the back of the proverbial closet.
If this sounds glib, you’re right. These narratives strip away all of the intervening wonder, joy and sorrow between the “major events” in our lives: The Sunday morning when the seminarian found his preaching style; when he mourned a loss in the community with his classmates; the search committee meeting where two seemingly opposed members formed a bond after realizing they share remarkably similar visions for their church; the spiritual gifts uncovered by those in the parish who stepped up when there was more work to be done.
Everyone feels anxiety from the times we spend in the wilderness, and it’s easy to see our journeys as lurching from one wilderness to the next. But if we can train our eyes to see that wilderness as a forest full of wonder and self-discovery, we open ourselves up to growth guided by the Holy Spirit.
Earlier this month, the Rev. Hilary Smith, priest-in-charge of Holy Comforter, Richmond, led an Advent retreat at Fresh Start, a diocesan program that supports clergy who have just come out of the wilderness of seminary or a recent job search. In our small group, we discussed the previous Sunday’s Gospel reading and the idea of waiting for an uncertain time when the master would come. The Rev. Jim Papile of St. Anne’s, Reston,, one of the Fresh Start facilitators, talked about how we as a society have tried out hardest to plan and manage our way out of uncertain dates, both at work and in our personal lives.
“It used to be that pregnancy was a time of uncertain waiting, but even that has become more of a certainty; now we talk to the doctors and pick a date to induce,” Jim said. “The only thing left [that resembles uncertain waiting] is waiting for a diagnosis. Once we have the prognosis, even if it’s bad, we can begin to make plans about what needs to happen next. But the hardest thing is the powerlessness we experience in that waiting.” If you’re applying for postulancy or searching for your next rector, this is probably not the metaphor you want, but once we unpack it we can begin to find the freedom in that powerlessness.
Look to tomorrow’s DioDocs post for the continuation of today’s “Transition and Holy Waiting” post.