The pelican papers

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Admissions essay: A theology of renunciation and renewal

Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary

Application for Admission: Doctor of Ministry

Written Statement

By Ronald E. George

January 22, 2002

Part I: Why a Layman Would Seek a Doctor of Ministry Degree

Since leaving ordained ministry in 1982, I have struggled with my faith and my sense of purpose in the church. For 13 years, I felt as though I were a fish out of water, uncomfortable within and without the community of faith. I left the church for 10 of those years, but leaving didn’t resolve a yearning I would later identify as a desire to fulfill the vocation I had abandoned. Since returning to regular church participation in May 1995, I have sought paths of lay ministry that would put to use my seminary training and pastoral experience. Restoration to ordained ministry is not an option, but I have now discovered a path I believe will be enhanced by earning a doctor of ministry degree at Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary.

I received solid academic training in seminary, but the primary work of Nashotah House focused upon the process of spiritual formation in worship and prayer, which partook of English spirituality as embodied in The Book of Common Prayer. I left seminary believing that whatever ministry came of Christian faith was empowered and strengthened by God through the liturgical community; in other words, the liturgy of the altar became the liturgy of the church in the world, the work of the people reaching out in love to those in need.

My pastoral work included a suburban parish in Arlington, Texas, and rural missions in Hamilton and Bosque counties. In Arlington, my primary role as parish worship leader and teacher led to the campus of the University of Texas at Arlington as chaplain and instructor of introductory New Testament courses. Small congregations in Hamilton and Meridian were generous in their support of a food pantry and free store and of my discretionary fund, which often helped families bridge the 10-day gap between applying for government assistance and actually receiving it. My interest in a struggling mental health center in Hamilton led to my serving as president of its board of directors.

Returning to journalism in 1982 left me spiritually disoriented, even though I did then and do now consider journalism a vital profession providing an important social service. I was determined, upon returning to regular church participation in 1995, to discover a spiritual center from which to fulfill my vocation to service in the church.

I have found since moving to College Station in January 1999 that the Episcopal Diocese of Texas provides a variety of ways for lay women and men to respond to God’s call to service in the church. I am currently enrolled in a 3-year ecumenical program that trains and licenses laity as spiritual directors. I am one of about a dozen lay readers appointed as vicars of small congregations unable to afford full-time clergy. The diocese hopes that continuity of pastoral care and administration, rather than the sporadic attentions of Sunday supply clergy, will result in healthy growth for these struggling communities.

Moreover, I have been encouraged by the bishop of my former diocese, who still has authority over my deposition, to explore an outreach ministry to deposed clergy. This is an especially exciting development, since it appears to be an emphasis virtually unexplored in The Episcopal Church.

I believe that pursuing a doctor of ministry degree would help me pursue these ministries effectively. First, it would help me reflect upon theological and pastoral issues attendant upon two pastoral settings in particular – spiritual direction and outreach to deposed clergy. Second, it would increase my knowledge base in these particular areas of pastoral ministry. Third, it would provide disciplined reflection for the pastoral tasks attendant upon working with a small, rural congregation, especially preaching and teaching. Fourth, it would help me rediscover theological tools that may have lain too long in the shed since I graduated from seminary in 1976.

I have discovered a profound truth in the teaching of John’s gospel: “Seek and you will find. Knock and it will be opened to you.” I may be an oddity – I haven’t met many deposed clergy who seek active lay ministry in the denomination by which they were ordained – but I do believe in the powerful story of the prodigal son, who, though his inheritance remained squandered after he returned to his father’s house to become a slave, was surprised by the joy of being greeted as a son.

Part II: Spiritual Direction and Clergy Misconduct

Mainline Protestant churches beset by clergy misconduct, especially sexual misconduct, have responded in recent years with new ethics and legal policies and, to some extent, with enhanced care for victims, especially women, clergy families and congregations. Evangelical free churches have tended to respond with theological debate, based primarily on various interpretations of scripture, with regard to how and whether offending clergy ought to be reinstated. Roman Catholic bishops have engaged in a variety of strategies for dealing with clergy sexual misconduct, many of which ultimately have proven unsuccessful, as the church has been forced to pay damages in civil actions brought against the clergy and their overseers.

Institutional response to clergy sexual misconduct has ranged from outright denial and scape-goating of victims to instantaneous and precipitous removal of offending clergy from pastoral positions. Despite the complex and broad range, however, an important aspect of clergy sexual misconduct and its aftermath has been almost ignored: How ought the institutional church provide spiritual direction to clergy who have scandalized the community of faith?

A cursory review of available literature shows that clergy sexual misconduct is usually seen through the prism of psychology and sociology. Telling studies suggest that these analyses would bear fruit once institutional leaders acknowledge their insights. Psychotherapeutic healing, however, and sociological tools by which congregations may understand their internal dynamics do not touch what might be called the theological heart of clergy misconduct: a crisis of faith and loss of pastoral identity. These are spiritual crises perhaps best confronted with the resources and tools of spiritual direction.

This essay will deal only with the beginning of such a process: Renunciation of ordination vows leading toward a renewed sense of vocation as a remedy for the dramatic sense of loss that accompanies removal from pastoral office.

Christian ordination changes the ordinand by publicly acknowledging, and thereby creating, something new, i.e., a spiritual leader. Evangelical authors Stanley J. Grenz and Roy D. Bell (Betrayal of Trust) write of church leadership as a symbolic office. Phenomenologically, the pastor is a symbol in the community of faith. People invest this living symbol, even if they wouldn’t recognize it as such, with meaning far beyond the idea of mere leadership. The pastor is a spiritual leader, a symbol in some ways of the presence of God in the community.

Such a transformation is possible because the church itself is holy, all of its members baptized into the body of Christ to be what Luther called the priesthood of all believers. Certain members of the body are set aside for certain functions without which the church is not the church – Eucharist, absolution, anointing, as well as ordination itself. This setting aside makes of ordination a holy process, so it’s legitimate to refer to “holy orders” – but it’s a problem when those who inhabit holy orders see it more as a privilege than an obligation. People who are ordained are tied to the church in certain ways that others are not by virtue of their authority to perform certain functions without which the church would not be the church. The gift of ordination is this authority, which when abused ought to be renounced forthwith.

Ordination is not, therefore, a special gift of the Holy Spirit, but a choice of personnel, as it were, whose setting aside for certain functions that express the church’s holiness. Ordination confers authority and the Spirit is invoked to empower the individual to function properly as a deacon, presbyter or bishop, but it is fallacious to suggest that ordination confers some sort of special grace from God. We pray that all Christians be empowered by the Holy Spirit to fulfill vocations in service to the church. There are no legitimate distinctions to make between empowering lay and clergy vocations, except that clergy vocations express the church’s vocation to be a holy community dedicated to making whole that which is broken in the world.

The idea that the clergy are a privileged class among Christians is fallacious and becomes pernicious when it fosters a protective response to such things as clergy sexual misconduct. On the other hand, the church invests a great deal in its clergy, because we believe that clergy ought to be educated to provide a wide range of ministry for which ordination isn’t required – preaching, teaching, pastoral counseling and spiritual direction, for example. So, even though the clergy should not be a privileged class, neither should the church be quick to cast out those who misbehave. They have no place among ordained ministers – and it would be one of the burdens of my doctoral study to show why this must be so – but deposed clergy remain highly trained Christians with knowledge and service to impart among the faithful and to the world. Moreover, even though ordination confers no special grace, being set aside doesnot set aside. Deposed clergy, therefore, are a kind of hybrid: neither fish nor fowl, betwixt and between, bearing a grave spiritual identity crisis I believe can’t be resolved without psychotherapy and spiritual direction focused on issues such as repentance, submission, grief, discernment, vocation and virtue. Clergy sexual misconduct is rooted in a crisis of faith, which must be restored if the church is to reclaim its wayward servants. change one. A person can not go back to being someone

Three true examples

A Presbyterian pastor is flushed from a prominent pulpit after sexual liaisons with women in the congregation. He is hired by a friend, a businessman, to manage a business – and earn something comparable to his clergy salary and benefits. It doesn’t work. It’s not about money. He changes denominations and enters an Episcopal seminary for an obligatory year he regards as penance. He accepts a call from modest congregation at far less compensation than he had earned in his last Presbyterian position. The Episcopal congregation flourishes under his pastoral leadership.

An Episcopal priest is inhibited from his duties after an illicit sexual liaison is disclosed in a scandalously public way. He divorces his wife, leaves his home diocese and later renounces the ordained ministry. He leaves the church for almost a decade then returns after the death of his second wife’s father. His faith recovered, he seeks restoration to the ministry. The bishop with authority over his deposition declines to support his restoration. Another bishop at first agrees to help then reverses course. The former priest weeps uncontrollably for the first time in his adult life. He decides that changing denominations is not an option. Spiritual direction leads him to deeper involvement as a lay teacher and preacher.

A Roman Catholic priest assigned to a cathedral parish is “laicized” after having an affair with a married woman in the congregation. He seeks secular employment, marries another woman, then begins a doctoral program in English literature that he hopes will lead to a teaching career. Meanwhile, he is accepted into the United Church of Christ as an ordained minister and accepts part-time preaching jobs; and he posts his name on a Web site where former Catholic clergy proffer their services for fees under the lame theological rationale of “once ordained, always ordained.” He then joins The Episcopal Church and is received as an ordained minister. It is unlikely that he ever will work as an English professor.

Underlying each of these stories is what might be interpreted as an obsession with being set aside for pastoral leadership. These men felt called and the church said yes, trained them and put them into pastoral positions. Their talents were tuned for public ministry, their minds trained for pastoral care, but their characters were flawed at least to the extent that they engaged in harmful, inappropriate sexual behavior. They were removed from office – but the vocation did not cease. They vigorously sought other means to fulfill not just a call to ministry but ordination itself. Their hearts would not rest, it seems, until they found ways to conquer the sense of displacement and defeat that accompanies removal from pastoral office.

Each case manifested a crisis of faith: The Presbyterian and Roman Catholic left their denominations and the Episcopalian left the church altogether, all of which required significant theological reorientation. Spiritual direction and pastoral care played decisive roles in the directions these lives took. In no case, however, was this care provided as part of the church’s institutional response to their sexual misconduct.

The institutional church tends to treat clergy misconduct, especially sexual abuse, as a political problem; viz.,Understanding Clergy Sexual Misconduct.) Congregations, according to Benyei, also tend to blame the victim, “the sinful woman” and historically have been ambivalent about punishing offending clergy. Again, this would seem to make institutional stability of more importance than pastoral care. Regardless of institutional response, however, the offending clergyman – and it is almost always a male – remains virtually unexamined, regardless of whether he is removed from pastoral leadership. immediate pastoral concerns seem secondary to containing public scandal and maintaining congregational stability. (See Candace Benyei,

Consequently, it is likely that while some psychological issues may be dealt with, the crisis of faith that attends clergy sexual abuse remains unattended. Such a crisis no doubt ripples through the entire milieu and includes the clergy, families (if any), victims and congregations. My focus would be ordained clergy, and I would propose that the remedy lies in spiritual direction rooted in a discipline of prayer, study and work – the classic Benedictine model, though removed from the monastic setting.

I would propose a process of spiritual direction that begins with renunciation of ordination vows and submission to the authority of the church. This is the point in the story of the Prodigal Son at which the son “comes to himself,” deciding that it would be better to be a slave in his father’s house than a pig-feeder in a far country. Coming to one’s self implies a great deal, but it’s the moment in the story where renunciation and submission become the operating principles for the Prodigal Son. From then on, the initiative is in the father’s hands, not the son’s – and the son will never have back his squandered inheritance, even though he’s been “restored to sonship.” ( See Wilson, Friesen and Paulsen, Restoring the Fallen, InterVarsity Press, Downers Grove, Ill.)

Coming to one’s self leads to repentance. In the story, the son turns away from the pig pens to the long road home. Walking that road is the spiritual image I would explore with deposed clergy in spiritual direction. I believe that such repentance for offending clergy ought to include giving up one’s leadership in the church in order to let God’s healing work begin by and through the church, the community of faith. I doubt there is a remedy that leads to restoration of ordained pastoral leadership; however, I do believe that alternative vocational paths can and must be found for deposed clergy; otherwise, both church and deposed clergy are bereft of gifts, skills and spiritual insight. So-called “wounded healers” may have no place among the clergy, but they may bring to their lay ministry a deepened sense of the grace of God and the church’s ministry of reconciliation.

I believe that clergy who have sinned sexually, who have so deeply violated their ordination and/or marriage vows, will forever feel strange in church. The strangeness is rooted in the symbolic power of ordination to change how one sees one’s self in the world. One’s spirituality, which Robert Marsh Cooper once called “perspectival activity,” is changed forever such that one can not return from whence one came. It wouldn’t be a “step down” to return to the laity, but it would be a return to a different state – and it doesn’t happen, can’t happen, because of the symbolic change of ordination.

The counsel of despair is that, like a reformed drunk, former clergy must get up every day and remember that they have given it up and that they will never again function as an ordained person. It’s a hard sell, certainly not what deposed clergy want to hear. It’s not what I wanted to hear, but it’s the truth as I see it after 20 years of struggling with these issues emotionally, spiritually and theologically.

The central message for deposed clergy would be, “There is life in the church after deposition. You have nothing to fear.” The goal of spiritual direction would be to inspire the courage to face a future of feeling strange, out of place – but hopeful, and put to good use.


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