One of the vows in “The Ordination of a Priest,” bcp p. 532
That I can recall, in my forty-three-plus years as a pastor in The Episcopal Church I have missed Sunday services for which I was responsible twice, both because of illness. (There are probably a half-dozen or more Sundays that I should have been absent, but that is part of this story.)
Like most Episcopal clergy I feel not only the highest sense of responsibility for such, but I also worry that “things will not go well in my absence.” NOT because I think I am irreplaceable, but because I feel intense guilt when I fall short of my vision of what a parish priest is and does.
On the official side of things there are the vows we take and the canon law we pledge to uphold. The vows are said in response to questions from the bishop who is seated before you while a church full of people are silently listening and looking. (The ordinand has their back to the congregation, including the clergy of the diocese, but you know that everyone is looking at you.) It is a particularly solemn moment that one does not forget.
The vows take up one page in The Book of Common Prayer. The canon titled “Life and Work of the Priest” takes up about twenty pages in small print. It is difficult for a lay person to imagine the breadth of the responsibilities a parish priest has, including pastoral care, education, administration, worship, social...etc. It is not hard to feel overworked and inadequate all at the same time.
I am old enough and experience enough to be able to balance most of these things, and even to let go of the things I cannot do, by virtue of talent, skills, or time. More importantly, along the way I learned that one must look at the entirety of the vow noted above. We clergy tend to place a period after “service,” and delete the rest of it. It may be that the truly important part is in fact the second part, about working together to build up the family of God.
I am fortunate to be serving in a congregation that lives into the “working together” stuff. From my first Sunday at St. Mary’s Church, I have noted the willingness of people to step up and step in when needed. So, when things got really crazy in my life last week I knew I could count on that reality of mutual support. I just had not realized how much . . . .
Many of you are aware that Rob Jones, Deacon Sandra’s husband, became ill early last week. He was admitted to University Hospital for tests, but at the same time his condition continued to worsen. Late in the week he was notified that he would need a liver transplant. Saturday afternoon he was told a liver was available, and the surgery would be noon Sunday. (As I write this on Tuesday I can report that the surgery went well, and that Rob continues to recover quite nicely.)
The details of what happened in my life from Friday through Sunday are not important, but the broad outline is. Four clergy and one bishop (!) played tag team as Rob prepared for surgery and after. A fifth priest, Mary June Nestler, late Saturday evening during a phone call offered to cover for me at St. Mary’s while I attended to Rob and family.
I drove down to Provo early Sunday morning, made sure things were in order (did I mention the hyper-responsibility?), and then drove back to the University of Utah in time to give Rob a blessing on his way to surgery. I then spend most of the day staying with Sandra et al., until one of the other clergy appeared and gladly offered to stay the rest of the afternoon, and I headed home. At St. Mary’s Church the worship went well, and a delightful potluck was enjoyed by all. Bishop Hayashi spent considerable time visiting with Rob on Monday. Others have continued their vigils as well.
I offer this little bit of history not to brag but to demonstrate what happens when we work together for a common goal: the building up of the body of Christ (in this case, caring for Sandra and Rob).
Note that in forty-three years of parish ministry I have never had anything like this happen. I suppose it has happened in other places and perhaps in other ways, but never involving me. And I do not feel one bit of guilt for missing church at St. Mary’s on Sunday. Well, maybe a tiny bit . . . .