“How does it feel to be back ‘in the parish’?”
“Now, tell me again, how long have you been ‘in the parish’?”
“After all your travels, are you finally getting settled ‘in the parish’?”
“Now that you are back ‘in the parish’, what are the goals you’d like to accomplish for the remainder of your time there?”
These questions are more or less representative of the sorts of queries I’ve fielded over the past five weeks. The themes of the questions are good ones to ponder. After so much time away, how does it feel to return to the daily duties of pastoral work? What’s it like to leave a group of people and then return to them after a period of time? What changes have occurred? In them? In me? How does the amount of time invested in this relationship of parish and priest yield something fruitful — for both parties individually and collectively? How does the relationship move forward toward a future together that’s not simply a recapitulation/revisitation of the past (the death-dealing boredom of “more of the same”)?
And yet, even though I’ve used the phrase “in the parish” myself through the years, lately I’ve found I’m increasingly uncomfortable with it. The phrase is a quaint euphemism reminiscent of our Anglican heritage — where “the parish” was a geographical area with definitive boundaries, within which a church building (with its dutiful vicar, of course!) was situated for the benefit of all residents in the lands surrounding it. Thus to be “in the parish” was like saying, “I live in Wauwatosa, Wisconsin.” One could, quite literally find the parish on the map.
While the church building for Trinity Episcopal Church can certainly be located on the map, my presence in that building six days a week does not constitute being “in the parish”. In fact, most of the real “action” in parishioners’ lives takes place outside the building. Their lives are mostly invisible to me (and their fellow parishioners) with the exception of brief interactions every few days after a liturgy or at a committee meeting here and there — and greatly depends upon what they are willing to share of their lives. Further, people who are part of the parish church called Trinity, Wauwatosa, don’t just live in Wauwatosa. They reside all over the Milwaukee metro area. Well over 50% of this congregation lives outside the city in which the Trinity Church building is situated.
I recognize I’m being nit-picky. Beyond such persnicketiness though, I think I’m simply becoming resistant to the notion that “the parish” is an entity that exists outside of/beyond the people and relationships that comprise it. “The parish” as a group of people has changed over the course of the time I’ve been here, and will continue to change, even if we’re not altogether aware of the change occurring. “The parish” isn’t solid (like some would say bricks and mortar or territory are), rather a parish church is the fluid chaos of people, brooded over by the creative force of God’s Holy Wind, the Spirit.
I will allow that the phrase, “in the parish” could be shorthand for this chaos of humanity. Parish life isn’t about programs, protocols, organizations and activities. Parish life, for me, is about knowing and relating to people’s stories and how those stories are woven together in the story of the Gospel and embodied as a community of the faithful. If that’s what some of those questions are asking, then I can say without reservation, “It feels GREAT to be back ‘in the parish’!”
Years ago, when I interviewed with the Vestry and other parish leaders of Trinity, Wauwatosa, I recall saying something like, “I don’t want a parish to ‘work on’, I want to ‘work with’ folks who want to grow in their love and service of the Lord.” This is still a calling for me. I am grateful to be “among” this parish of people who daily surprise me with their laughter, their generous hearts and the ways they continue to cultivate my growth into this vocation of priesthood.