Person of the Week
The way in anyone’s mission is to find the ways you can collaborate with others to achieve your mission. I felt the mission depended on me. It doesn’t depend upon me. It doesn’t depend upon you. It depends upon all of you. It’s all about relationships.
1. What led you to the mission of being a priest?
It’s a long story. It really started when I was fourteen years old. That was the year I got confirmed in the Presbyterian Church. I really felt a tug towards ministry then. I had that warm bathtub religion that you get when you are fourteen or fifteen years old – that you are secure in God’s arms and everything’s going to be all right. I went to college and Christ became much less relevant to me. Religion became less and less relevant.
I went to a college that required that you go to seven services a semester, which was about half. I didn’t find that difficult because I started going to the Episcopal Church eight o’clock service and it was only a half hour long. That was good! There was no sermon. That was good! That was my introduction to the Episcopal Church.
I went to college thinking I was going to become a doctor. Chemistry disabused me of that idea. I had always loved history and decided to become a history major. I thought I’d become a history teacher. Part of my family’s ethic was that you go into helping professions. My brother was a banker, my younger brother is a doctor and another younger brother is a teacher. We are all in the helping professions.
I graduated from college and went to graduate school. I got my certification for teaching and I taught for three years in western Massachusetts and worked for three years in a curriculum development center. That curriculum center developed programs that were published by Holt, Rinehart, and Winston. They were used in the secondary schools from about 1968 to 1978. It didn’t last very long but we were revolutionizing the social studies instruction and we felt very proud. I came to St. Louis to get a doctorate. I wanted a PhD or EdD on my name and on the books that I was about to write.
What I found out is that I peaked too soon. I was not yet thirty years old and I had three books being used in the public schools. I had written most of the teaching materials for these books. I not only wrote the books and developed the audiovisual materials that were used in the schools, but also the teachers’ manuals. I felt like I had achieved my dream. Then I came to St. Louis and found out that I had to do more. The accomplishments just lasted for a second or two.
Because I created a certain amount of notoriety in this job, the Presbyterian Church called me and asked me if I would be their educational consultant on a couple of programs they were developing for high school kids. They also brought in an expert who was the theological consultant. One of them was William Stringfellow. He had written several books.
I was increasingly feeling very anxious and depressed. I discovered an angst I had about life at that point and his book spoke to that – that I had bought into the American ethic that you had to prove yourself – you have to justify your existence. Stringfellow pointed out, “Now, you don’t have to do that. Life is a gift not something you earn, but something you’ve been given. That changed my entire outlook and frame of reference about life. It did not change my profession; it just changed my outlook.
I increasingly thought of being a public school teacher as being far too narrow a profession. I wanted to deal with more than just the academic achievement of kids. I had some social justice visions. I found myself spending more time at church. I became friends with the priest that was in charge of the church at that time. At one point we were having dinner together and my wife said to the priest, “Don’t you think John would be a good priest.” He said, “I think he would be a terrific priest.” That got me thinking. I honored that comment.
Then we went through a health crisis for my wife’s father. He had come for Christmas and had multiple sclerosis. He was not strong to begin with and then he got pneumonia. We had to put him in the hospital. We were really scared. He came out on Christmas Eve. That was the best Christmas Eve I have ever spent. I was so relieved. It just firmed up my faith. Once they left, my wife and I sat up one night and talked about all the things we had gone through and what we might do. She went to bed and I took a bath. I was in the bathtub. I said, “Well, I am going to be a priest. That’s what I’m being called to do.” I don’t how else to say it, but that is how it happened.
2. What does this mission mean to you?
In some ways it’s a large part of my identity. The one thing I’ve learned is you can’t build your identity around your vocation. Theologically, priesthood is more than a function. It is a state of being. But more and more I’m thinking of priesthood as functionality rather than as a state of being.
I’m a priest until I die. Priesthood is an opportunity for me to find a lot of joy in life. I find more joy in my relationships with my friends, my family, my wife and previously with my first wife. (I’m a widow so I have a new wife who is also widower). I have three children living here. I have friends that I’ve made in every congregation I’ve ever been able to pastor. These relationships are more important to me than almost anything I do.
What I do, I absolutely love. The joy of celebrating the Eucharist and the joy of preaching and the joy of teaching – these are the things that give fire to my life – as well as those relationships. I actually discovered the relationships later in life. I should have done that earlier. This is an evolved understanding of who I am and where I am.
Priesthood has meant that I’ve had that opportunity to help others develop a relationship with Jesus and God. It’s their transformation that validates what I’ve been doing. Not everybody transforms of course, and there may be a lot of people who hate me because of what I have done, but I figure, “Well, they hated Jesus too!” (Even though I know it’s a terrible arrogance to put your self on a par with Jesus!)
3. What was your best day as a priest?
One Sunday — in the most difficult congregation I have ever dealt with. It was a Sunday in August. It was August 27th. The anniversary of the day I got married. This was our fortieth anniversary. The text was (as it was every three years), “Wives be subject to your husbands; husbands love your wives.” It couldn’t have been more perfect. The sermon I gave was a testimony to the love of my wife. It was the only time in my life that I was ever applauded for giving a sermon. You don’t applaud sermons. In the Episcopal Church we do everything in order and you are never to applaud. But, they were so moved they did applaud. Norma was overcome. She had no idea this was coming, but this is what the sermon was all about – husbands loving their wives. The topic of husbands serving their wives was obvious at the time this passage was written. But what was not obvious was “husbands love your wives”. I don’t remember how I termed it, but I remember it was about her, not about me. That was probably the best day. In terms of the emotion, it was the best day.
4. What was your worst day as a priest?
There were two of them. I think the second one was worse. I was fired twice. It was called the dissolution of the pastoral relationship. It’s not easy to do because two of three people have to agree to dissolve the relationship: the bishop, the vestry that calls you (the church board), and yourself. For example if I decide I want to leave, I get the vestry’s approval or the bishop’s approval for doing that. Otherwise the vestry and the bishop decide that you have to go. It happened to me twice and it can be engineered by a very small group of people.
The reason for the firing is that I was called to change the congregations. They had been in drift. They had been declining. They didn’t know where they were going and I had been called to help them develop a vision. I imposed my vision on them. This was my mistake. Change is painful and the congregation was feeling that pain. I wasn’t very sensitive to their pain. So that was my part in it. Their part in it was overreacting and not realizing what they were doing to themselves. They were killing themselves.
The second one was the worst because the people were so mean. They called me all kinds of names. The bishop actually engineered it. He wanted me out. Part of it was I was a Yankee with certain Yankee values that were not going over well in the South. The congregation was in a drift and I wasn’t sensitive to them. They didn’t understand what was happening to them. They wouldn’t change or deal with things that they needed to deal with. The bishop finally said, “Well OK. We might as well end it.”
We had two bishops. The other one was kind. He was my friend and he said, “John, you’re just not cut out for long term ministry. Why don’t you go into interim ministry?” This is what I did. Interim ministry is taking a congregation for a short period of time and helping it between Pastor A to Pastor B. You help them forget Pastor A and get ready for Pastor B.
With the second firing, I was really disappointed in the bishop. He caved into pressure. He allowed the mean spirited people to gain the upper hand. That mean spirit carried on and eventually killed the congregation. The other thing that made it so bad was that this firing was a second failure. I obviously hadn’t learned from the first one. That’s true! I hadn’t. There were a lot of people who were on my side, however, in both cases there were about six people who made a conspiracy, worked it out, and carried it out. It’s amazing what they could do. I have since learned that in both congregations, there are people who now regret what they did. Not everyone, but a few.
5. How did you survive your worst day?
I had help. I had help from the bishop that said, “Let’s find another way for you to be who you are.” I had people from the congregation who were very disappointed and supported me. They declared their love for me. I loved them and they loved me. It was a pastor, parishioner relationship. My wife was my great defender. She didn’t see that I had done anything wrong, but felt everyone else was wrong.
All congregations have an angel. The angel can be a good angel or a bad angel. In this case, it was a bad angel who thought that the whole purpose of the congregation was to keep everybody together and happy and if you didn’t do that then it wasn’t a good congregation. I followed a pastor who had been there for twenty-eight years, so I wasn’t going to be him. Some people got upset and they dropped out.
On the other hand we attracted a lot of people who were not quite the same as the people who were already there. For instance, because I was there, there were four unwed mothers who found a home in that congregation. When I left, only one of them stayed because the one found some allies, two wonderful women. But the congregation was screening out people who were not like them. I was doing my best to change that. I was doing the right thing for the congregation and my vision was correct, but at times I may have done things badly. The congregation needed to change, but refused.
Trust in God got me through both of these situations. During the first firing, I was cleaning out my office and a really good priest friend came in to see me. We sat and talked. He said, “I don’t understand you, John. You’ve just gone through this devastating thing and here you are cheery.” I said, “What else can I be? I know this is not the end of the world. God has some place for me to be. I don’t know what it is yet, and maybe He doesn’t even know, but I feel something is going to happen.”
I think that trust was extremely important. I was supported by the fact that people steered me in the right direction and gave me support outside of myself – their love, their care. Those were the sacraments on why I trusted God. Because they were doing those loving things, I realized I could trust them – they were God’s people and I could trust God.
It turns out that my last ten years were my best years — despite the fact that one congregation hadn’t turned the corner. What happened was that when I went to that congregation, they were more interested in their Thursday night once a month spaghetti dinner than in the worship of Jesus Christ on Sunday morning. They did worship service so they could have the dinners. We did a few things like a formation program that got people seeing that they were hungry for the spiritual relationship with Jesus. We gave them a formation program that would help them develop.
I was only there for two years, but by the end of the first year, we had thirty people willing to say, “We will take in twenty-five homeless people for a week and take care of them, feed them, house them, and be there with them.” It was an amazing thing. A parishioner said he had never done anything like this in his life. It’s one thing to get people to give money, it’s another to get them to give themselves – and they were willing to give themselves.
We had about seventy people in that congregation and our average worship attendance was about one hundred. We had almost three quarters of the congregation involved in this ministry in one way or another. Some people didn’t do the touchy feely stuff with the people who were there, but they prepared lunches and breakfasts. It really was an amazing turnaround. We had ninety visitors and kept about fifty of them.
One of the things I was good at was helping the congregation develop hospitality. The new people who came were in their late forties and fifties. They were baby boomers who fulfilled all those promises about the American Dream, but found out that wasn’t enough. They had to come back and were looking for some kind of spiritual center. They found it in that place. This was one of the things that pleased me most. I saw more transformation in that congregation than I had in any other place.
I would say if you fail, look at your mission. If the mission is OK, don’t lose sight of that. Ask yourself, “What is it that you did that failed the mission?” I think you have to start there. You are going to end up giving recriminations to people around you. But what you have to think about is, “What was it that I did?” I’ll tell you what it was for me. I learned too late that ministry is all about relationships. Things happen in churches collaboratively. The way in anyone’s mission is to find the ways you can collaborate with others to achieve your mission. I felt the mission depended on me. It doesn’t depend upon me. It doesn’t depend upon you. It depends upon all of you. I think that is one of the things you have to do.
Ask yourself, “What is it that you did to destroy the relationships that might have made the mission work out, or that job work out, or whatever it was that failed?” I would keep faith with the thing that got you there to begin with. For me it was God. It might be something else for somebody else. Whatever it was that called you to that particular mission – that initial faith was probably important and something that you have to hold on to.