What I Learned in my First Year as a Parish Priest

Church of the Ascension

August 1 marked my one-year anniversary as an associate priest. Allow me a few brief moments to celebrate.

Anniversaries are perfect occasions to celebrate the accomplishments of the past year, the success and failure, the triumphs and the challenges. But more than that, anniversaries offer us an opportunity to reflect deeply on what has been in order to be better prepared for what is to be. From my reflection over the past few days, I want to offer a few thoughts from my first year as a parish priest in order to share my experience with soon-to-be seminary graduates, long-term clergy, and anyone who wants to listen in to shed a little bit more light on this sacred vocation.

1. Stay prayed up. Seminary is a truly formational experience, not simply because of the endless books that you read on every aspect of Christian faith and ministry, but mainly because of the formation that one undergoes while engaging in the rhythm of daily prayer. Praying shapes us. Prayer does indeed change things because over time, prayer changes the person who engages deeply in it.  It can be easy to give into the temptation to subvert one’s prayer and devotional life to the daily, mundane, unsexy tasks of seminary (sending e-mails, sitting in meetings, writing reports, etc.). Don’t do it. Your primary role as a parish priest is to be a person of prayer. How can you talk to people about God when you don’t take time to daily commune with God. Whatever you have to do to maintain that rhythm of prayer, do it. I have found that putting prayer on my calender as an “appointment” helps me not only remember to pray daily (which is very easy to forget when you’re in the trenches of ministry), but it also helps me to hold that boundary, which leads me to number 2.

2. Boundaries are your friend. The vocation and profession of a priest (or minister) are unlike any other. Avoiding the convoluted conversation around the Aristotelian physics of ontological change, a priest is something that you are – not simply something that you do. As such it can be tempting to give 100% of yourself to your work 100% of the time. Don’t do it. Create boundaries that help you maintain a safe and healthy relationship with the work you do. I was privileged to attend a seminary (the Interdenominational Theological Center) that drilled the idea of “self-care” into me. I never quite got what all the fuss was about until I began full-time ministry. A priest without proper boundaries around self-care, sabbath, re-creation, and rest is one who can very easily slip into cynicism, bitterness, and burnout. Think of ministry like a marathon. If you want to make it to “Finish Line,” you have to pace yourself. Remember this – “No” is a complete sentence. You will not be able to do everything, go everywhere, appear at every function, or attend every meeting, and that’s okay. Do what you can do, and let God handle the rest. There’s a story that says that Pope John XXIII knelt before his bed every night and said, “Lord Jesus, it’s your Church.  I’m going to bed!” Boundaries, saying “no,” and stopping even when things lay unfinished, help remind us that in the end it’s not our church, but this work and this church belong to Christ.

3. Find some friends you can really talk to. Being a priest will give you countless stories to tell, some funny, many frustrating. Find a friend or two that you can really trust, go out and grab a Manhattan or two, and tell them your stories. Not only will this make for a great evening of story-telling and laughing (people would not believe the stories that priests deal with on a regular basis), but bearing your soul in a safe place will make the burden of ministry a little bit lighter.

4. Be Gentle with yourself. You will mess up. You will call a parishioner the wrong name. You will forget you have a meeting with a committee. In a moment of high anxiety, you will say something biting to a colleague. You will send an e-mail that you wish you could unsend. And the sun with rise and the sun will set, and it will be evening and morning the next day. The holiness of our orders is not found in our perfection, but in our daily surrender to God – a surrender that creates a void and hunger for God, that only God can fill. As long as you are able to learn from your mistakes, to mend relationships that may be strained by unkind words or actions, and continue to make the choice to surrender to God over and over again, mistakes can be opportunities for growth and deeper relationship.

5. Find a way to deeply love your community. I honestly feel immensely blessed in that I have a parish that is easy to love. Sure it has it’s quirks and eccentricities, but overall the parish where I serve is very easy to love. Everyone from the older, retired women who gather for Noon Eucharist on Fridays to the brother-and-sister that I got to play Legos with on Christmas morning has embraced me, loved on me, and reminded me what Christian community is at it’s best. I am also very clear that this situation doesn’t exist everywhere. There are some real areas of unhealth and dis-ease in the Church, and yet our job as priests is to stand firm in the of love of Christ that “endures all things.” You will disagree with your parishioners politically. You will disagree with them on on programming, or budget issues. Yet through your disagreement, you are called to love.  The only way you can hope to be a faithful priest in your community is be falling deeply in love with the people you are called to serve. There is no way around that. Love has to underscore every encounter between a priest and her/his community – everything from Vestry meetings to hospital visitations.

6. Be yourself. The ministry of the priest can be a superhumanizing one. We wear clothes that are meant to not focus on us, we are constantly directing the attention of our parishioners to God, and we get the opportunity weekly to participate in the weekly in-breaking of the presence of God in the Eucharist. In the midst of all of that, you must be yourself otherwise your community will be tempted to fall in love with what you are not. Being yourself will help people see you as accessible, as someone they can relate to, as someone they can talk to.

7. Allow yourself to be awed. The work of the priest is hard, difficult, and stressful. You will work long hours and there are moments where you will feel the weight of this sacred ministry in a very tactile way. But you are a priest. You get to daily “handle things unseen.”  Allow yourself to sit in the mystery of that relationship to God and to the sacred vocation to which you have been called. You will never have it all figured out. You will only be able to live and love in the mystery of God, who God is becoming, and who your parish is becoming through your ministry. Allow yourself to be awed by that work, allow yourself to be awed by God.

Keep the faith, and make it COLORFUL!
Marcus+

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6 thoughts on “What I Learned in my First Year as a Parish Priest

  1. All good, but especially #7. As someone with almost 20 years in ordained ministry, I can testify that we sometimes take the mystery for granted. We get used to handling “things unseen” and don’t step back and say “Wow, this is amazing!” Keep the wonder!

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