I have never thought of myself as a pioneer, but, apparently, I am. The novelty of my bi-vocationality was brought home to me in a dramatic way in the autumn of 2015. And, as so often happens, it was accomplished through the eyes of another.
It was my last evening in Santiago, Spain. I was seated at a long table with 20 or so other pilgrims and we were celebrating the completion of our pilgrimages on the Camino de Santiago by breaking bread together. I found myself across the table from a young Canadian woman, Sarah, from Kingston. As the conversation ebbed and flowed, someone made the connection that three of us grouped together were all psychotherapists – at which point another person, Otto, from Winnipeg, piped up and said, “Yeah, and Susan’s also an Anglican priest.”
Words fail to do justice to the look of rapture on Sarah’s face. Too stunned to speak for many seconds, she was aglow with transfiguring amazement and awe. Looking ready to laugh and cry at the same time, she stammered: “I can’t believe this! I walked the entire Camino trying to discern if I should leave my profession of psychotherapy to answer what I believe is God’s call to the Anglican priesthood. I’ve been struggling with wanting to do both, not able to choose between them, not knowing or ever conceiving that both could be possible. And here I am, on the last night, thinking I wasn’t going to get an answer – and here you are, giving me the answer to five weeks of prayer.”
Now, with tears welling up, she continued, “I just can’t believe it! My heart’s going to burst. Because the answer is: ‘Sarah, you can do both.’”
Yes, you can do both. What for Sarah was a startling and awesome epiphany is simply my normal. My ordinary, bi-vocational life combines ministering to others as a part-time mental health professional and as the part-time incumbent of a small parish. Despite being one of the few bi-vocational priests in the Diocese of Toronto, I hadn’t appreciated its singularity and enormous potential. But she sure did. That she could still be a psychotherapist and also say yes to God’s call to ordained ministry was a tremendous gift to her.
As it has been to me. During the last five years, I have alternated every week between days spent in my part-time psychotherapy private practice and days spent as the part-time incumbent of St. Theodore of Canterbury in North York. It is, I suppose, an unusual rhythm: on Mondays and Thursdays I am Susan, the psychotherapist, and on Tuesdays, Wednesdays, Saturdays and Sundays I am Mother Susan, the parish priest.
While my professions may seem to outsiders as so similar as to be almost identical, they are not. This configuration requires me to be constantly alert. Not only is it vitally important to remember, as I open my eyes every morning, exactly what day of the week it is, it’s also vitally important to remember with precision the “clothes” I’m wearing at any given time. However, for me, there is both professional and personal fulfillment, as well as a stimulating synergy created by the tensions between the two, which more than compensate for the effort required in staying alert and switching gears.
What exactly does my part-time parish ministry look like? Like that of any incumbent of a small parish, with all the regular liturgical, pastoral, teaching, administrative and diocesan responsibilities of any other church leader. I do it part-time and on a proportionate basis. But not always! The vast majority of my administrative tasks cannot be delegated, and during Advent, Christmas, Lent and Holy Week, I preside at the same number of liturgies and find myself as stretched and busy as my full-time colleagues.
While, like most of my colleagues, I struggle at times with work/life balance and discerning when to forge ahead and when to say no and retreat to the mountain, I perceive that for the bi-vocational person the stakes are even higher. Rowan Williams, the former Archbishop of Canterbury, once said that the greatest gift a priest can give her people is what she cannot do. How very true! This is not so much a recognition that no ordained person has all the necessary talent, time, and energy to minister to all the needs of a parish and to fulfill God’s mission in that place; rather, it is that the limitations of an ordained leader open space for others to find and serve in their equally important ministries. While Archbishop Williams’ observation has broad relevance, it has a particular urgency for the bi-vocational parish leader and the people she serves.
When I began my ministry at St. Theodore’s, one of the first tasks I set for myself was transforming the understanding of my role and the congregation’s role, to accelerate the process of awakening in us a more baptismally oriented view of leadership and service. The homilist at my celebration of new ministry told the congregation bluntly that “Mother Susan will not be able to do this on her own.” Following her lead, I spent much time in exploring, inviting, and encouraging the gifts of others. Just one example: I saw early on that having a deacon would be a huge asset, and so moved as quickly as possible to discern with the parish and a potential candidate whether we and she were called in this way. By God’s grace, we were.
This opening of space brings lovely surprises to the life of a parish and to the blossoming of lay individuals, who might not otherwise develop or exercise their own ministries. A year ago, we conducted a very successful capital campaign that was conceived and executed by a former churchwarden who wasn’t a natural fundraiser but felt called to undertake a vital project that I could not have led myself. Time and again, I have observed that being a part-time incumbent creates a steady, salutary pressure on others to harken to God’s call to step up to fill the gaps that are so obvious and at times so large.
Finally, my bi-vocational status is a tremendous gift to today’s Church at large. Many churches in our diocese are somewhere towards the end of their life cycle; like St. Theodore’s, they may have years of Godly mission in which to engage still but not the numbers or financial resources to maintain a full-time priest. There is no reason for them to close; neither must they of necessity resort to non-stipendiary ministry, which may not be fulsome enough for the tasks at hand.
It is also a gift to the Church to have ordained servants who are “at the edge of inside.” In an op-ed article in The New York Times, David Brooks described the unique contribution to an organization made by those members who are neither inside and deeply embedded nor outside and throwing “missiles from beyond the walls.” The part-time priest with another active professional vocation is at the edge of inside, with “the loyalty of a faithful insider, but the judgment of the critical outsider.” As a person standing at the doorway, she is not “confused by trivia” nor “locked into the status quo.” Instead, her experience of watching constant comings and goings makes her comfortable with the process of perpetual questioning and transformation, and so able to evaluate and speak with a fresh perspective.
The voice of the bi-vocational priest is a unique voice amongst many other important voices – a voice the Church needs to hear. Hers is a unique vocation with plenteous gifts to offer the Church in our times, as it adapts and re-configures itself in response to new and sometimes challenging opportunities.
Reflections on moving forward