It only took a week or two of Mr. Holder’s European History class for me to see that this teacher was something special. His fast paced lectures traced coherent threads through jumbles of names and dates. He was a master of the telling quotation and the witty aside. He even arrived to class in costume a few times. I was entranced, convinced of some deep kinship with this man, as he was connected to so much that was most important to me. And that was before I learned he was a priest.
He came to class one day in a black suit and clerical collar. He’d be leaving after lunch, he explained. One of his parishioners had died, and he needed to officiate at the funeral. Aha! A priest. So that was why we’d spent two whole days on the English Reformation. He served at St. Luke’s in Brownsville, he explained, and some of the others nodded, knowing more than me. It was a little church in a little place, and he’d been serving there for sixteen years, since just after I was born.
I was quite impressed. I’d been telling people I wanted to be a pastor for about a decade by then, and I never really thought about combining this vocation with one of my other passions. A priest and a history teacher — why not? Or a priest and a newspaper columnist? A priest and a congressman even!? I guess I knew that Saint Paul had worked a trade alongside all his preaching and pastoral work. But I’d never encountered a living example before.
Years later I reconnected with the man I now instinctively call “Fr. Holder” (High Church clergymen find honorifics impossible to discard). We worked alongside each other, fellow priest-history teachers, at an Episcopalian boarding school only a few miles from where he’d first introduced me to the English Reformation. As a colleague, I found him extremely helpful, and I have also come to cherish him as a dear friend.
Last spring he retired after 36 years as vicar of St. Luke’s, leaving the common life of the congregation there, on the whole, in a better place than when he started in 1979. It’s still a small congregation, but one doesn’t look for enormous crowds in one of the three churches in Brownsville: a village of only 94 souls. The congregation has a core of committed lay leaders. They are engaged in a number of important charitable works. Their parish house is pretty much Brownsville’s community center. It only took them a month or two to find a new permanent priest.
I gave him a call last week, to ask how he was enjoying retirement. It turns out his life still had plenty of room for Sunday duties and a community college lectureship; multitasking was a habit not easily set aside.
Bivocational ministry, like Fr. Holder’s, is widely touted as our future model in the Episcopal Church. Last summer’s groundbreaking TREC report encouraged exploration of “diverse ways for ordained clergy to make a living inside and outside the Church” as part of its plan for “restructuring the church for spiritual encounter” (Resolution A001). My hope for my conversation with Fr. Holder was that could tell me a little more about how this actually works, for the bivocational leader and for the congregation that ministers with him or her. Could the experience he shared with St. Luke’s be replicated in other places, or was it unique, dependent on unusual local circumstances?
Fr. Holder began by talking about the joy he had found in the many opportunities he had found for pastoral care and spiritual witness as part of his work as a public school teacher. Colleagues came to ask him for help with their marriages or for prayers in sickness. When a student died tragically, people would seek him out first, and he’d officiated a few of those sad high-school gym funerals. A Roman Catholic mother once thanked him for explaining the doctrine of transubstantiation to her daughter. Despite a dozen years in catechism class, she’d never paid attention to sacramental theology until she needed to know it for a history test. Once, the principal came down the hallway, asking Fr. Holder if he had “that black thing” (his clerical shirt) in his closet. A belligerent drunk, a former Catholic schoolboy, was refusing to leave the property until he’d seen both the principal and the priest.
Fr. Holder also believed that the limitations his secular work imposed helped lay people to emerge as leaders and to deepen their understanding of ministry as a shared vocation. “It empowered people who would have said, ‘I would like to do that, but I don’t want to get in the clergy’s way.’” He spoke of a woman who’d been visiting the elderly at nursing homes for years and who was so pleased to receive training as a pastoral visitor. It helped her see she was doing her work for the Lord, and she was still at it, going to see “the old people,” when she died at 104.
Fr. Holder began his priestly ministry as part of a total ministry team, a group of people who had trained together for four years, using a model imported to Western Maryland’s rural parishes from the Diocese of Alaska. To serve three parishes of “The Washington County Mission,” two lay people were trained and ordained as priests, but each congregation also had a Christian formation director, an outreach minister, a parish administrator, a liturgy director, and a pastoral care visitation team. While a few of those trained 34 years ago are still engaged in the work, new parishioners were incorporated, and new leaders trained. As he said to me, “The church got to be stronger because people took ownership of their ministry. People began to understand who to see about tasks. I don’t know that St. Luke’s would have survived if we hadn’t diversified the ministry.”
The congregation at St. Luke’s was probably better equipped to receive the new model because they had grown dissatisfied with the old system, a strained “yoke” with another distant congregation, who shared a series of minimally stipended, short-term vicars. Having lacked consistent clerical leadership for generations, the congregation had relied on lay initiative for a long time. St. Luke’s was also used to Morning Prayer on Sundays, led by lay readers twice a month. When the old lay readers (Fr. Holder one of them) became the new priests, the change was both familiar and new, an opportunity for a long-desired weekly Eucharist. Transition vicars — seminary-trained clergy sent in by the diocese to work alongside Fr. Holder and his fellow new priests while “working themselves out of a job” — helped ease the way into the new model.
Even with such extensive training and deep commitment, the new model did bring tensions. Some people found it difficult to accept a minister without seminary training as a “real priest” — though this prejudice, Fr. Holder noted, was much stronger among the diocesan clergy than the laity. It also proved difficult to sustain for the long term. When Father Holder’s fellow co-vicar reached the mandatory retirement age of 72, his own responsibility doubled, and in time he received a small stipend from the congregation in recognition of his increased commitment. The shared ministry model did not fare so well in the two other parishes of the Washington County Mission, which reverted to part-time seminary trained clergy in about a decade. The model required intensive diocesan support and local buy-in, and wasn’t replicated again for over 20 years, in a neighboring rural county. Interestingly, Fr. Holder’s successor at St. Luke’s was part of this second class of locally trained, “total ministry” clerics.
It’s clear that the model Fr. Holder and the people of St. Luke’s have lived out for over three decades is an inspiring pattern for how “total ministry” can be done very well. Fr. Holder’s willingness to live out a call to two different vocations deepened his own witness for Christ, and the model of shared ministry raised up new gifts and deepened commitments among the people of the congregation.
But after an hour’s pleasant conversation, I was reminded many times of how difficult this model must be to replicate, and how much of a paradigm shift it would represent for many of the struggling “pastoral sized” congregations I have known. Total ministry worked well for Fr. Holder because his secular employers supported his clerical vocation, because he did not assume any seminary debt, and because he had a clear sense of call and was carefully trained by talented teachers (his instructor went on to write scores of books on congregational development). Total ministry worked well at Saint Luke’s because the congregation was so isolated and had a static population, because there was already little dependence on clerical leadership and there was excitement about trying something new, and (not least) because Fr. Holder was a particularly holy man who served them faithfully for half his lifetime. And the whole system was enabled by massive diocesan investment, intensive training programs, and people who made promises and remained faithful to them for decades. The Washington County Mission was an exciting enterprise, part of the new adventure of shared ministry in the aftermath of Vatican II and the new Prayer Book. Forward Movement published a book about it. It was a pilot project for the church of the future.
I’m not sure it’s a plan for the 100-member suburban congregation of already over-committed people, or the aging downtown parish whose Victorian endowment is slowly draining away. It might be far more difficult for seminary-trained priests to be hired for secular jobs in an age when public trust in the clergy has so sharply declined. Are dioceses ready to commit substantial resources to “marginal congregations?” Do we really have the imagination to see beyond the consistent narrative decline, to imagine this kind of model as something more than “life-support?”
With God, we know that all things are possible. But not every bright and beautiful idea is the way of the future. People like Fr. Holder have a great deal to teach us as we face an approaching crisis in the ministry of the Episcopal church. But I’m not sure their experience is as helpful as many have suggested. I left our chat uplifted, but more certain than ever that there is no clear out-of-the-box plan for the future. Planning for future ministry will require real discernment, careful assessment of the opportunities and challenges of each local congregation and the wider community it serves. It will require clergy who are willing to be flexible and to make sacrifices, seeking for innovative ways to witness and exercise pastoral care. Above all, it will require us to trust less in methods and more in the guiding hand of God. As I’m sure someone as holy as Fr. Holder would be quick to say, there is no safer and more faithful place to be.