A friend of mine posted on Facebook a link to an article on how various professions are perceived in our society. Those responding are asked to state whether the profession contributes “a lot” or “some” or “not very much/nothing” to society. The article states,
…just 37% of Americans surveyed think the clergy make a big contribution to society, about the same as in 2009. Regular churchgoers tend to be more positive about ministers, priests and other clergy members. But even among adults who say they attend religious services at least once a week, only about half (52%) rate clergy in general as contributing “a lot” to society, while 29% say the clergy make “some” contribution, and 11% say the clergy contribute “not very much” or “nothing at all.”
This poll of public perception gets at the heart of many of the dilemmas we face as members and leaders of the Church. Had the poll asked what the value of steam engine train operators, elevator attendants, and lamp lighters the answers might have been about as high as they were for clergy. The times made them less and less relevant until people find themselves charmed at the notion of running across one in these days.
Yet, the Church has never existed to be charming. We exist as a Body which carries with it a Spirit which is calling us to fresh engagement with the world around us.
I think what I am finding true in many places is that I think the 37% might be being a little generous. To say that clergy contribute “a lot” feels like some folks just don’t want to hurt our feelings. The reality is that I am in doubt that clergy contribute much to society – and I’m ok with that. Now, the deeper question is how clergy do or do not equip others to contribute to society – and not only contribute to society but transform it.
Clergy have a fairly simple job in some ways. We pray, teach, offer the Sacraments, preach, and console. Many clergy are being asked to do far beyond those core competencies. My days now are filled with budgets, meetings, agendas, community engagements, and more. Yet we begin and end each day in prayer and at the Altar. Our days here are held in the tension of knowing that our real, true, and lasting work is in the chapel and at the Altar even as we have other tasks that need to be done.
The busyness of many clergy lives has not resulted in the perception that we are somehow bettering society – to the contrary. As clergy seem to be busier and busier the public perception is that we are less and less relevant. Of course it would be folly not to note the impact of successive clergy scandals on public perceptions yet I think the issues are deeper than that. In a culture that is becoming more “spiritual” and less “religious” the middlemen (and women) of religion are going to be called to account. We are going to be asked what it is that we contribute to society.
Our answer should be nothing. We contribute nothing to society. Yet we have the potential to change everything.
Our role is not to contribute to society – to somehow by our own hand build it up. Our role is something entirely more subversive. We call people to know the True and the Holy so that they can name that which is unholy about them and work to change it. We call people to places of peace and refreshment so that they can engage the powers and principalities of this society armed with the knowledge of God’s love. We hold a trembling hand at the bedside as all the pride of this society fades away as the glory of the beyond is revealed. We know that there are things being cast down and more being raised up. We teach word of Christ’s peace as our people hear tidings of hatred and strife. We hold up the innocent so that justice and injustice may be seen and weighed. We offer forgiveness for sins and offenses. We wash through and through in baptism. We send sinners and saints to the grave. We marry those who thought themselves unlovable.
All of this does nothing to build up society – it points us to a deeper one – to the Body.
This is not to say that it is a good thing that much of society seems to think we’re wastrels and unproductive. Yet, it’s a very Protestant question to ask – are we productive, do we contribute, are we doing enough? The challenge for clergy is that our work is utterly counter-cultural and outside of the recognizable “contributions” to society that are easy to note.
When I worked for Brooks Brothers, one of the things I noticed was how unexpected and unfamiliar good service was for many people. They had simply had it drilled into them that you went to a box store, grabbed ill-fitting and badly made things, drug them to a conveyor belt of a checkout counter, paid, and went home a bit ensaddened by the whole thing. Our approach was different and changed their expectations of how they could be treated and how that experience could look. And we did it by doing the absolutely traditional with a sense that it was important that we did it well and with integrity.
Our church members are not “shoppers” even though many will even use that term when going from church to church. Yet the experience of so many of them is as bad if not worse than the encounters with big box retailers. We have the opportunity to change that experience. To offer the kind of transforming, deep, grounded, forward looking religious experience that they didn’t even know existed let alone that they could be part of. This is the great excitement I felt when I came to the Episcopal Church. If you had asked me what the clergy were contributing to society – I would have been a bit flummoxed. Yet I knew they were changing me – my experience there was something new and unexpected that would not have happened without them.
I didn’t think of them as “productive” – I thought of them as holy. That grounded holiness I found there convinced me that there was something more for my wife and I to explore.
The role of the clergy is not to contribute – it is to call those who are contributing, who are working day and day out, who are struggling, who are striving, who are lost – it is to call people to holiness of life. To see life as a sacred thing set apart not for society’s use but for God’s. This will mean that we spend time in prayer, reflection, and contemplation. It means that we will be writing, spending time at bedsides, and at bars (for pastoral care of course). Our work is to help others know the reality of their own baptized lives so that they can go out into the world.
We tell them to go in peace, to love and serve, and we prepare for their returning – day after day, week after week, year after year welcoming the penitent and the proud, seeking the blameless and the bereaved, finding the convert and the curious. This is work of a sort – but it is really much more about substance – about who we are as the people of God. It contributes very little to society but it has the power to change it utterly.