Formed by the Church

Last week, the Rev. Liz Zivanov suggested that the Church be careful about installing young priests in positions that call for experience beyond their years. The Rev. Andrew T. Gerns, who has been ordained for half of his 50 years, has a few thoughts on the matter.

By Andrew T. Gerns

When I was a brand-new seminarian, I was sent from New York to Easton, Pennsylvania, one weekend in January to preach a sermon on Theological Education Sunday. If General Seminary raised any money that day, it certainly wasn’t my fault because while I came out here full of enthusiasm and big ideas, it was also before my first unit of CPE and well before my first homiletics class. What came out had to be in the running for The World’s Worst Sermon Award for 1980.

Twenty-two years later, I became Rector of that very same parish, in no small part because no one, and I do mean no one, remembered me or that sermon. From what I can tell, though, they seemed to have lived through the experience.

I knew I wanted to be a priest since sometime in my early teens, and while I noodled around with the idea of law or art school, I basically drove towards that goal with a certain relentlessness. The priest in my home parish had me do all kinds of kooky things to either test me or talk me out of it, like serving on parish, deanery and diocesan committees, working summers in urban day camps and even as a sexton. He made me join the Altar Guild and when I went away to college scolded me for missing church.

When I started out, the ordination canons were written for people just like me, and everyone seemed to come to the conclusion all at once that it was a bad idea. Some clergy told me that I should go out after college and get a job and experience “real life” before entering the process. Some people said three years was enough while others said five or eight. In my seminary class, which was one of the largest GTS saw until then, there were only three of us who came straight from college. They all reported to me that they had been given the same advice.

I could be wrong about this, but I think that when I became a postulant in 1979, I would be the last person in the Diocese of Connecticut to be given that status at age twenty-one for another eighteen years. In fact, I was told that my being accepted as postulant was an exception to a brand new policy that required a minimum of three years after college (essentially 25 years of age) before entry into the process. I was given a pass because I worked full time while being a full time student to pay for my education at a private liberal arts college. This, they supposed, gave me sufficient “life experience.”

Truthfully, it probably didn’t. When I was sent to my first parish, I was still 24, not-long married and with a one year old son. In other words, I didn’t know doodly about very much. I just thought I did. But I did not miss the ironic fact that people were calling me “Father” and I was young enough to be their kid or their grand-kid.

Now the truth is that between then and now, I did some really cool things—campus ministry, work in soup kitchens, community ministries, classes, camping trips and youth groups and so much more! I also did some really dumb things. There were times when I was arrogant and all-knowing and had to be cut down to size. I needed to grow up. I have crashed and burned, and at times it has been ugly. The important part was not that crashing and burning occurred, but what we—the congregations and I—have done with that experience that mattered.

As a person who has served on Commissions on Ministry, and now serves on a Standing Committee, the questions and challenges around the ordination of young adults in their mid-twenties is very alive to me. Since there are fairly few of us my age who came up that way, people may have forgotten what it is like.

Besides the obvious fact that I have accrued a quarter century of pastoral experience while I am still young enough to use it, there is a far more important truth about my journey.

In the last twenty-five years I have been formed as a priest, for sure, but I have also been formed as a person and as a Christian in the Church. The Church that formed me was not some rarified, special environment, but was the Church of ordinary parishes and missions that struggled with everyday problems of life, meaning, and how to follow Jesus every day. These communities understood, at least implicitly, that part of their vocation was to aide in the formation of young priests.

It certainly helped to be raised up in a Diocese that took the formation of new clergy very seriously and had the resources to do it well. At the time, Connecticut supervised their new ordinands through a CPE program supervised by the deployment officer. My second unit of Basic CPE was also my first year of ordained life. My second and third years were spent learning about organizational development and leadership skills. The ideal was the traditional two-year curacy, but it did not work out that way in my case where I ended flying solo or close to it. I stood in awe of the experiences of the people in my group who came to the priesthood from other careers and vocations, but we were all new together.

Most of all, it was the people in the parishes who formed me most. It was the Lebanese matriarch of a large extended family or the lonely elderly I visited who taught me the meaning of pastoral care and the ministry of presence. It was the recovering alcoholic who quietly shepherded the AA meeting in the parish hall who taught the meaning of addictions and recovery. It was choirs, altar guilds, sacristy rats and people who came every day to church even if no one else did who taught me the everyday importance of liturgy. Sometimes a layperson would gently pull me aside and make a suggestion. Sometimes someone would chew me out. Sometimes I would sit with another ordained person and work through the victories and the set-backs—including the ones of my own making.

To assume that one needs to live “real life” before becoming ordained is to assume that ordained ministry is not real life. Over and over again, I had to relearn what I had been taught in the contexts of the real life in front of me. The really important mementoes of every parish I ever served are not my office, but are the ones I carry with me wherever I go. Who I am and how I minister is largely a gift of God mediated through ordinary people in ordinary ways over many years.

The truth is that no one comes out of ordination fully formed and ready to go. All of us have tons to learn and we will never know it all. We will make mistakes, and some of them will deeply hurt people.

Age is not a predictor of competence or even of maturity. Neither does age and life experience necessarily mean that a new priest, however old, won’t do serious harm to persons or parishes. I have seen older new priests mess up just as badly—or worse—than younger new priests. I have seen priests, old and young, work out their insecurities in the pulpit before helpless congregations. I have seen clergy of every age experience crises of faith and the stresses of maturing right before our very eyes. Certainly, we can’t think that we can prevent the consequences of ordaining human beings to holy orders simply by setting higher age limits?

We must be careful of a kind of medical model of ministry that assumes that people and churches are essentially broken and need to be diagnosed and fixed by experts. As a clinical chaplain, I have come to view the sickness-model of pastoral care and counseling is of very limited, short-term value to be saved for emergencies. I have learned to balance what experts tell me with the actual experience of being with people. Just as with the formation of physicians, a fully formed priest is not only technically competent and conversant in their subjects, but have learned their craft by listening to the people they care for.

I learned this truth because I was formed, shaped for ministry, as a priest in the church. Throughout my whole adult life, through congregations that took on that delicate task of forming the clergy they have called to be their priests, I have been taught how to be both a priest and a person. Again, age is no predictor. It might even happen after we turn 50. I have a sneaking suspicion that my congregation is forming me right now. They and I might not know it, but it happens anyway.

Do I think I am a better priest after experiencing everything adult life can bring? You bet. But for me, experiencing all those things in the context of parish communities as a priest has been a lesson in how God shows up in real life and works through all of life to make us the people God made us to be.

The Rev. Andrew Gerns is the rector of Trinity Church, Easton, Pa., chair of the Evangelism Commission of the Diocese of Bethlehem and an avid Red Sox fan. Andrew is celebrating fifty years of living and twenty-five years of ordained living this year. He keeps the blog Andrew Plus.

On View: Station IX : Jesus Nailed to the Cross by Kathrin Burleson, as seen in The Soul’s Journey at Episcopal Church and Visual Arts

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