Do you want to see something funny? Take a look at someone driving a car who has just realized that there is a pothole ahead, and they’re too late to go around it. The way they look in that moment is hilarious. Every muscle in their body tightens. They grip the wheel as if it’s their only means of not flying off into the air. Every feature on their face is pulled into a tight little knot as they prepare for the oncoming doom.
They drive along, more-or-less perfectly relaxed, singing along to the radio, thinking about their day, or talking to others in the car. Then absolute terror hits them. And sometimes they hit the pothole dead on. Sometimes it turns out to be not so bad. And sometimes, mercifully, they miss it entirely.
But that face… in there is all the struggle, confusion, and fear of a human being faced with a broken world, and expecting, just for a moment, the worst.
Expectation is perhaps one of the most complicating and difficult aspects of ministry today. The clergy face it all the time, in a wide variety of circumstances and concerning many issues. We face expectations of tradition, expectations of activity and lifestyle, even expectations of how we pray.
One expectation which I think needs to be discussed is the traditional expectation that clergy will depart a parish after a particular period of time (most commonly between three to six years). I’ve heard it talked about time and time again since I began my discernment for ordination. I continue to see it every time a clergy approaches the half-decade mark. People, lay and clergy alike, start to quietly put forth the expectation: they’ll probably be moving on soon.
It’s not something I’ve ever really understood.
When a clergy faces the decision as to whether or not to move to a new parish there are a number of questions that must be considered. First, what does the clergy want/need? Often I wonder if this question gets its fair share of thought, particularly by the clergy themselves. Part of our calling is to put service to others before ourselves, we perhaps don’t always examine this as fully as we should.
Second, what does the clergy’s family want/need (if there is a family to consider)? As a priest’s kid I went through this side of things myself. There is a strong expectation that the clergy family will put aside their own feelings for the sake of ministry. I moved several times when I was young, and I have to say it wasn’t always easy. And to this day I have never been in one place in my life longer than six years, and have many regrets about that fact.
Third, the wants/needs of the parish need to be considered. I think these have changed dramatically from the early days of my father’s ministry. Certainly, if a parish wishes a clergy to go then that must be given serious attention. However, barring that, we now live in a world where clergy for rural communities are harder to come by. Long periods of time may pass before a new clergy comes—if at all, in some cases. As we see churches struggling it is far too easy to perceive (however incorrect that perception may be) a departing clergy as “jumping ship.” Equally, it’s hard for a community to take seriously a clergy’s cry of unity when everyone expects the clergy to be gone in a few years.
Fourthly, there are the needs of the diocese and the greater Church. The work of clergy is needed in many places, and it can be hard to justify a lengthy stay in one place when there are others who may benefit from new ministry.
Finally, there is what God wants. This is perhaps the most important of the considerations, yet it is also often the most difficult one to get a handle on. The other questions press upon us so hard that the will of God can get lost in the din.
With so many questions facing any clergy looking at the future of their ministry, the addition of expectation to the mix does little except complicate matters and make clear discernment hard to reach. It puts a pressure on all that we do that does not need to be there, and often is detrimental to our work, as we rush to do things too early, or give up on things which we fear we cannot complete “in time.”
The Church is in a time of change. We’re learning many new things and are (with varying degrees of speed) adapting as best we can. As we take on new ideas and let go of old habits, perhaps it’s time to give consideration to the expectations that we cling to, so that as each clergy drives down the road of our lives in service we face each twist and turn with hope and confidence, trusting the path before us, and well prepared for the occasional pothole.