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Priestly Identity and Formation

I have been packing boxes because I am retiring this June. I was doing pretty well until I began to pack my vestments. As I began to fold the stoles, some altar linens, and three chasubles (hardly worn, except for Easter Vigils and days when I couldn't contain the fullness of my sense of the church's liturgy), and stow a a "Tabga" chalice safely down in the middle of them, I felt the emotion well up within. I told Mary O, my spouse, that this was a tough moment. Then the tears began to make their way down my cheeks. Choking back the flood of memories and aspirations floating on saltwater, I asked, "Is this how it ends? Packing up who you are and putting yourself in a box?" (That is how it ends in one sense!)

Of course I know that I am much more than my vestments, but not too fast! I may not be what I wear when presiding at the font, lectern, or table, but for me those garments are closely tied with an identity that has been in formation for more than thirty-five years. I was ordained a deacon of the church in 1968 and a presbyter/elder in 1971. Every ordination service I have attended since has been a renewal in the amazement of what the Trinity and the church have set me apart to be and do.

Now, though I will still be ordained in Christ's church, I prepare to accept the retired relationship in the covenant community of itinerating elders. How I dread that three minutes standing before my annual conference to say something about what all of this has meant to me. What can I possibly say in words that that old, frayed, green stole of raw silk could say if it could speak, telling of the communion services with hundreds of Christians bringing themselves in penitence and praise, of the sermons to struggling congregations deciding what to do in mission, of the baptisms of babies and adults being joined to Christ, of the yearning for liturgy to be fully catholic and vitally local. If those chasubles could speak, what would might they say about United Methodists holding back and holding out on what Christ Jesus seeks to give to a people hungry for real encounter with him?

We United Methodists don't think of our pastors as "priests"; and in the vacuum we think of them as preachers.* (I, for one, think that "preacher" has become problematic and debilitating because it diminishes the fullness of what elders and deacons are ordained to be and do. We should fast from using it for the next 25 years!) Maybe not naming or thinking of elders as priests is good and true to our tradition and the historical contingencies of the rise of Methodism. Yet the sense of identity I felt as I packed the box is that I am, within the fullness of Christ's royal priesthood, a priest. The experience of the passing years, the grace of God, and the needs of people (every special and peculiar one of them and the mass of all humanity) has formed me to be a "priest" of the gospel mystery proclaimed in preaching, enacted in the sacraments, and lived out in sacramental relationships. Terms like "elder" or the more ecumenically familiar "presbyter" are cold and lack the relational potency of the word "priest."

The New Testament nowhere speaks of individual priests except for Jesus Christ. Peter speaks collectively of the whole church being a "royal priesthood" (1 Peter 2) and our baptismal liturgy welcomes each baptized person to "Christ's royal priesthood." Perhaps "pastor" comes as close to "priest" as we get. In its favor is its connotation of relationship with the flock of God. Whether priest or pastor, the essential component of the being of such a person is one of spiritual leadership grounded in the liturgical and pastoral office.

Ordained elders (along with those elders who are bishops) and deacons bear the gospel of grace within ourselves as we internalize it through practice of the means of grace. As bearers of what we know intimately in daily practice, we offer it via the instituted means of grace (baptism, Holy Communion) and through use of the prudential means of grace (reading and preaching the Scriptures; prayer in all of its forms, including daily disciplines of the daily office, journaling, and self-care; hearing confession and offering forgiveness; instigating Christian conferencing; and fasting and other personal disciplines).

Baptism, Eucharist, and Ministry states the ministry of elders/presbyters this way: M 30 Presbyters serve as pastoral ministers of Word and sacraments in a local eucharistic community. [Emphasis added.] They are preachers and teachers of the faith, exercise pastoral care, and bear responsibility for the discipline of the congregation to the end that the world may believe and that the entire membership of the Church may be renewed, strengthened and equipped in ministry. Presbyters have particular responsibility for the preparation of members for Christian life and ministry.

I take note of BEM's locating this pastoral ministry in "a local eucharistic community." That is both where we are located (appointed) spatially and ecclesially. Maybe that is why the tears began to roll: having served in an extension ministry beyond the local church for twelve years, I have been an onlooker and not truly a pastoral minister "in a local eucharistic community." In terms of my identity, I have been isolated from a congregation gathered around the water, word, and meal. Retiring, I will not serve as "pastoral minister of Word and sacrament in a local eucharistic community," except on occasion and at the invitation of a congregation through its appointed pastor or District Superintendent.

I have loved the work that God and the church have given me to do over the last twelve years as Worship Resources Director at the Discipleship Ministries. Nevertheless, I hold within me this sense of "priest" that will not go away as I pack my vestments in a box.

Soli deo gloria!

* Other identities and appellations include "reverend," CEO ("pastor in charge"), clerical prince/princesses (of course nobody would admit to this, though the fact is some of us act this way), agents of the annual conference, functionaries in the system, and at times a few expletives deleted.

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