The Priest and the Rockstar, or, Why I don't want to be a Priest

Anyone who says that being a priest is their ideal career path should seriously examine themselves, because they might be crazy. Don't get me wrong--there is a lot that's good about the priestly lifestyle--I've talked about that somewhat in past blogs, but should also mention the cool collar and fancy robes (wink wink Charlie), a chance to help people out, good seats at the Church's holiday shows, occasional baking delivered by appreciative parishioners, etc. However, there are plenty of reasons to not want to be a priest as well, even if you do like to wear dresses and eat brownies.

For me, most of those reasons fall into the category of negative social expectations attached to the priesthood.

1. At an institutional level, there is a church culture which seems to encourage workaholism and an absence of boundaries A good priest is one who does whatever is asked of them by the bishop and their congregation. Anyone who has ever tried to please anyone else realizes that that is an impossible task. The pressure is constant, however. That's not unlike the pressure of most jobs in America though, so I won't go on about that.

2. At a congregational level though, there's another dynamic, which I've been thinking about as the "minister-as-rockstar" phenomena, which has to do with power and influence as well as social expectations. There's a common human tendency to (often subconsciously) put other individuals on a pedestal as somehow greater than the average human, and therefore place a level of trust in them which is not warranted. Worship comes naturally to us, and we tend to worship things or people we can see--like rockstars or priests. Like the rockstar, people--especially young people--often don't question priest's positions on complicated issues, regardless of how unqualified they may be in expressing them. Why, really, do we turn to musicians and religious leaders for advice on political, social, or scientific matters, and then trust what they say? Sometimes, I think, it's because these sorts of people can "sanctify" what we already believe, or at least affirm that there are others in the world who believe like us. Often, though, there can also be a sort of naive trust that we place in others, simply because we need someone to lead us.

Entering into leadership, you have to question whether you are really comfortable with having people trust you in that way. At a personal level, I know that I've given religious sanction to beliefs and behaviours that I no longer would, so who's to say that I won't find again in the future that I've been leading people down the wrong path? You have to question whether you're worthy of trust, and whether you can handle the responsibility that comes along with it. You also have to think about how you can healthily diffuse the sort of illegitimate trust that is often placed in leadership, without undermining your ability to lead.

3. Along with this power dynamic comes a sense of isolation: When you're a leader in the church, you're no longer one of the congregation in the same sense, so your relationship to people in church changes. Most church people, including myself, find that community is one of the central reasons that they are a part of the church. When you become a minister, to a large degree that's cut off. You now have a responsibility to maintain a professional and pastoral relationship which is different from the social relationships that make church satisfying. You're often placed in the difficult situation of having to devote more time to relationships that you don't enjoy than to ones that you do. Frankly, you have to put up with people that you normally wouldn't, and no longer have the freedom to choose who you spend time with. You also have to become more guarded about sharing your personal feelings with those you work most closely with, because broken relationships or side-taking can negatively impact your ability to lead, and can ultimately lead to divisions in congregations. The church has some support structures in place to help alleviate the isolation that comes with ordination, but in many cases it becomes the responsibility of the individual priest to figure out how to use those, and what is needed. Another thing to sort out if you're going to put yourself in the leadership position.

4. A lot of people see the collar and think "pedophile!"

5. Ordination, like marriage, is a sacrament that sticks with you. Once you're ordained, you're ordained for life, and you have to go through a long process to get out of the commitment that comes with that. When you're ordained, you're restricted to fidelity to the church. You can't explore other options, really, and you can't function completely freely--you've committed to a specific role in your ordination rite. You place yourself at the mercy of the community and the heirarchy of the institution, so you have to answer to the community and the institution in major life decisions. That restricts your ability to do what you would like as an individual.

5. By being ordained, you're also placing strain on your family. Churches tend to have unrealistic expectations for their ministers, but they also have unrealistic, and unfair, expectations for their ministers' families. Families also have to deal with the pressures of the public commitments, frequent late night meetings, emotional demands and inevitable spiritual turmoil that comes with being a priest. You really can't decide to be ordained without deciding with your family, because it's something that will deeply affect their life as well as your own.

6. There's also a worrisome grab-bag of other issues: I prefer to sleep in on Sundays, and I'm usually not awake in the morning, I'm worried that I'm going to bore people with my sermons, I don't want to have to be a constant fundraiser, I suck at selling things, and I'll spend my life selling religion, I get restless in the same place, and my travel will be restricted, jobs are scarce in the Episcopal church, what if I get stuck with a bad bishop?, how can I possibly know how I'll stand up to years of pressure and scrutiny, a priest's skills are not generally valued in secular society, so what happens if it doesn't work out?, how can I know how this job will affect my wife, her career, etc.?, why not just find a no-stress job and enjoy a relaxed life?,etc., etc.

Despite all that, I still do want to be a priest.