Searching for Sunday: Holy Orders
In the third section of Searching for Sunday, Rachel Held Evans talks about Holy Orders. I was a little ashamed to admit that I wasn’t even familiar with the phrase “Holy Orders” so I’m glad she explained that it simply meant church leadership positions: pastor, priest, bishop, deacon, etc.
The central theme of the section was leadership failure. Rachel cites how 80% of pastor report feeling discouraged. Most pastors are working much more than 40 hours a week. Depending on the tradition and the size of the church, they are often expected to preach an inspiring 25 minute sermon, visit half of the church for counselling or just checking in, handle much of the administration, and challenge their congregation enough for them to not be bored but not enough to actually make them remotely uncomfortable or change their lives in any way. Anybody who thinks that wouldn’t be stressful hasn’t tried it. We get infatuated with a few celebrity pastors who get rich and famous and have lots of support from their megachurches, but that isn’t most pastors.
When I decided to go to seminary back in late 2009, I really had no idea if I ever wanted to be a pastor or not. I knew I wanted to be involved in ministry in some sense – maybe as my profession, maybe on the side; maybe in an up-front role, maybe in the background. There was probably about a 50% chance that I would go that route. By the end of my first semester, I had pretty effectively ruled out the possibility and have rarely entertained it since. A significant portion of that came back to realizing what a toll it took – a toll I didn’t (and still don’t) think I’m cut out for.
I was only an official spiritual leader in a church once, for a few months (Elder). I’m not going to go into details here, but it was a failure. Some of that failure was probably my fault, some of it probably the fault of others, but fault isn’t really the point. There were some occasional moments where it seemed like the time, energy, money, my health (from loss of sleep), and the emotional turmoil I invested were having some positive effects, but they were overwhelmed by repeatedly watching my efforts fail. It sucked. Rachel references an Epic Fail Pastor’s Conference where pastors “put their worst foot forward,” sharing their horror stories from life in ministry. I definitely would have appreciated that.
I’ve lead in parachurch organizations a few other times. There were definitely failures involved, but even when that ended pretty badly I still don’t regret because there were many positives, too. I’ve also been in other church positions like Audio-Video Committees, another great position for experiencing no recognition when you do everything right but immediately get all the attention when you mess something up.
Maybe that’s part of why Holy Orders are a sacrament in some traditions. It’s a very realistic role to fill. It’s a very hard role to fill without Jesus. He led in his time incarnated on Earth. His disciples – who he spent years investing everything he had into – betrayed him, ran away in fear, and often completely missed the point of his teachings. Then he was killed for all of that investment. Of course, after his resurrection, many of them went on to change the world at that huge cost to Jesus and to themselves.
That is the model of church leadership. Church leaders are the ones who wash the feet of those who may otherwise be deemed beneath them. They will probably be exhausted much of the time. They will probably be embarrassed and ridiculed for their words and actions. It may even lead to their death – probably not directly so in the developed “Christian” world, but even here possibly indirectly through health consequences. Yet they push on, being the servant of all as Jesus was. That is the calling of all of us, whether we have the official title or not. And that is a holy calling indeed.