Thursday, September 29, 2011

Rural Clergy as Teams?

I attended a regional clergy gathering yesterday.  Between active and retired clergy I think there were maybe fifteen of us, plus the bishop.  We were gathered from an area extending maybe 160 miles from one end to the other in which there are ten parishes that, on a map, are strung out on an arcing line following the Yakima and Columbia River valleys.  It was a good meeting, a reunion of sorts for clergy who are not very often able to gather like this.
We began, like good clergy do, with a little prayer and bible study, notably Ephesians 4.11-16 in which we are called to equip the saints for the work of ministry to build up the body of Christ.  There were three questions for reflection that were to lead our group discussion:
  • In what ways do we, as a clergy team, honor the diversity of gifts among us?
  • In what ways doe we, as a clergy team, cultivate the unity that God intends for us?
  • In what ways can our example “promote the body’s growth here in our diocese?
I had a problem with the questions and it centered on the word team.  What is a team?  Think of the teams you know about or played on.  At some level they are organized, trained, disciplined and coordinated to pursue a common goal within certain rules of engagement.  I am on some church teams in our diocese.  The boards and committees on which I serve are teams that work pretty well.  I am on some teams here in town; one at the local Adventist hospital is especially rewarding since they have made room for and honored my presence as an Episcopalian.  
The group gathered around the table at yesterday’s clergy meeting was not a team.  We are colleagues in some sense.  For the most part, we are genuinely fond of each other.  We even work together in twos and threes from time to time and for particular reasons. Each of us, in our own congregations, has teams with which we work, but as a group gathered for this day of collegiality and prayer, a day which we will not see again for many months, we are not a team.  It was a good day.  We rejoiced in each other’s company.  We all think we should do it more often, but our lives filled with congregational leadership, families and community obligations make it unlikely.   
Noting the rural nature of our diocese with its long distances between towns and cities, the old bugaboo of isolation was raised, but it seemed to sink almost as fast as it arose.  We are not isolated, we are separated by distance.  Isolation evokes images of solitary confinement in which one either has no access to others or is prevented from enjoying whatever access might be around.  We are not isolated unless we choose to be isolated.  We are separated by long distances, and, if we want the face-to-face company of other Episcopal clergy, it takes some effort to make that happen.  
That brings up the issue of honoring the diversity of gifts among us.  Because we are not able to socialize frequently as a group, we really don’t know each other well enough to know what gifts each may have.  That is not universally true.  There are clusters of clergy, two here, three there, who live near each other, like each other, and get together often enough to know each other quite well.  But as a group?  No.  
In the end, I believe that the desire to see widely dispersed clergy in a rural area working together as a well oiled team is an impractical expectation.  What is both desirable and practical is the expectation that they can become more collegial, and that’s a good thing.

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