I am a tentmaker priest. I know that the “modern” term is bi-vocational minister, but I prefer tentmaker; it connects me in straight-line fashion to the Apostle Paul and to his free-of-charge Gospel ministry. I do not boast in this as Paul did; I can find no cause to. It is good and proper for a priest to earn his daily bread from the ministry, if God has so blessed him. But, I do not have to.
Nearly three decades ago, God called me to the education profession; I have tried to serve my students and my Lord well in a high school setting. Paul funded his ministry making tents; I fund my ministry teaching calculus and algebra, and soon, God willing, with a retirement check. I do not boast of it, but neither am I ashamed of my status as tentmaker priest; it is not a diminished form of priesthood, and, for many, it is a practical necessity. Rather, I delight that I can offer pastoral and sacramental care to my parish without placing a financial burden on it just as I delight in being able to help support our full-time priests. To each the Spirit has given gifts as He sees fit.
While the tentmaker priesthood is neither inherently better nor worse than full-time, paid ministry, it is different, with unique challenges and blessings. The most obvious – and very real – challenge is time. The pastoral needs of a parish do not limit themselves to weekends to or to weekday hours between 5:00 and 10:00 p.m. And though I often take clericals to school, change after classes, and head directly to hospitals, there are times when I simply cannot offer the priestly presence that is needed. Of course, I am only one priest at my parish – an assisting priest at that — and part of a team that makes certain such needs are met.
Other challenges are perhaps less obvious. There are times that my students clearly need – and some probably want – overtly Christian pastoral care; the questions they ask, the needs they express, the burdens they bear call out for a priest. But, under current interpretations of the First Amendment, I can only minister to them discretely, a priest incognito. I can treat them with compassion and dignity and respect – with the love of Christ – though I cannot mention the love of Christ to them. I can pray for them (privately), but I cannot pray with them. I can challenge and provoke them to think carefully about the meta-narratives of our culture, but I cannot offer a Christian alternative.
There are also times when my professional responsibilities clash obliquely with my priesthood. I am called to assess students and to evaluate their performance. Would a priest who believes in and depends upon grace and mercy assign a student a failing grade? Well, yes, and I do from time to time because it is my job, but I never feel “good” about it.
Occasionally, I am required to discipline students for infractions of school policy. How would such a student feel about me – the “evil” teacher who confiscated his cell phone, who reported the tardy that led to in-school detention, who called out the repeated dress code violation, who [fill in the blank] – if he or she visited my church one Sunday when I was preaching or celebrating Eucharist? I think about that. And then there are the parents. The vast majority of parents I encounter are supportive – Thanks be to God! – but a few – particularly those of students whose performance is lackluster or who have discipline issues – are combative, sometimes crossing the line from professional critique to personal attack. Often the parents are simply afraid or desperate and I am a convenient scapegoat; I think of these meetings as spiritual direction or even reconciliation. I listen. I counsel. I pray for wisdom.
Far more rarely – Thanks be to God! – some parents are simply bullies there to intimidate me into their desired course of action. I know that my refusal to capitulate – even if that refusal is given politely and with reason – will only escalate the tension. There are meetings with parents and guidance counselors and other teachers, meetings about students who are “going off the rails” and are one short step from serious problems. I want to offer them the hope that is found only in Christ, or to call them to repentance, or to tell them to get their child (and themselves) to church before it is too late. But, I cannot. What would Jesus do? What would a priest do? Sometimes, frankly, I am not sure. I just do my best as a tentmaker priest in the world.
It is not all challenge, though; there are abundant blessings as a tentmaker priest. My parish-at-large is truly large: twelve hundred students, their parents, my colleagues, my administrators, the wonderful lunchroom ladies, the custodial staff.
If I encounter even a small fraction of all these, it is still a large parish to which I minister; that is a blessing. “You’re a minister, aren’t you?” I was asked by a staff member some time ago. “Can I ask you something?” I just went for a quick cup of coffee and found myself neck-deep in theodicy – a gut-wrenching discussion prompted by the potentially fatal illness of her infant granddaughter. But that discussion led to prayer and ultimately to praise as together we watched God perform miracles over the next several months. “Do you have about thirty minutes later today? Nothing bad – nothing about school. I just need to talk.” Later that day this colleague told me about her young son who needs yet another surgery. And though she is a woman of strong faith who has ministered to me in the past, she just needed to pour out her heart, to be reassured that God can handle her anger and her frustration and her fear, and to hear how much He truly loves her and her son. In a quiet classroom with the students long gone for the day, we prayed together. Christ was there on Tuesday afternoon in my parish-at-large as surely as he is with us on Sunday morning. “Father!” my principal calls out as he sees me down the hall. It’s just a greeting, but it is important to us both, a blessing to us both.
There are strange blessings that only Christians could name as such. James counsels us to “count it all joy…when you meet trials of various kinds, for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness” (James 1:2-3, ESV). Trials abound in the workplace; there is no need to be specific about public education, for there are trials enough in every job or profession. I do not like these trial any more than anyone else does, James notwithstanding.
But I do find it valuable to face the same types of difficulties that my parishioners face; I find it a strange blessing. I know what it is to go to work each morning well or sick, to scurry around arranging child care for a sick child while trying to make it to work on time, to deal with unreasonable deadlines and to jump through bureaucratic hoops, to work for someone and to say “Yes, sir,” when you want to scream, “You’ve got to be kidding!” I know what it is to face 5:15 Monday morning after Monday morning, to watch minute-by-minute of your life drip away in yet another useless meeting, to put a child through college, to save for retirement. And, I know what it is to form a professional community and to work together for a common goal, to receive a “well done” from a boss or a thank-you from a student even years after the fact.
Work is simply part of the common human experience before and after the fall, and I enjoy sharing it with my brothers and sisters. I am intrigued and blessed by how God uses the mundane tasks and interactions of the workplace to transform sinners into the likeness of his Son. Which reminds me: Jesus learned and practiced a trade, also. He was no less Son of God at the carpenter’s bench than around the table in the Upper Room: a tentmaker God. Indeed.
Photo: Akash Kataruka via Flickr