Letter to a young priest


I found a use for the crozier my father gave when he retired his flock of sheep on our farm. Blackberries about on Whidbey Island along the cliff-side by which I live.

Love will, in the end, win out. I am sure of little else than that; except that patience, discernment and kindness will be the only three tools that will inform and electrify your ministry. 

Patience will help you to wait on saying “yes” to a creepy vestry offering a big package so that, instead,  you find a job offered by an honest vestry with big hopes. Patience will help when you want to be a prophet in church councils but choose a different ditch in which to die.  And yet, when you need to die in a ditch, please do so.  There will be resurrection in time. Patience will help you to see this work as a marathon and not a sprint. 

As you let go of time and energy given over to infighting and institution maintenance, use your time to teach.  But be careful.  With age and suffering come wisdom, so while you are young, read voraciously so that you have something worthy to say. And as you discern what to teach, ask yourself: “Does this help people to love their real, daily lives?” You might choose to teach less Augustine and more Brene Brown, Anne Lamott, and Byron Katie. Spend less time preaching answers to a mystery and more time hosting conversations about the questions of life. And take care that you are never so righteous about dogma, liturgy, scriptures, and canons as to forget that this is all a mystery interpreted and passed down to us by racist patriarchy. Claim humility until you achieve it through your suffering.

Discernment will help you to identify what you see before you.  If you think you are being manipulated, you probably are. Discernment will, as Ignatius said, show you that the “lamb” you see before you is sometimes just a pelt on something else.  Lambs don’t have paws, sweeping tails of hair or whiskers on snouts no matter how lovely the pelt looks. There will be a few wolves in sheep’s clothing in the clergy – beside you, in the vestry – around you and in the bishops – above you.  It’s ok.  It’s the way of things. If you can discern “kind and honest” from “successful and creepy” you will be fine, as will your congregations. So don’t trust only what God says to you in prayer-time, as it may not be God’s voice you hear.  Rather, trust God by trusting your gut, having spent time in prayer – which is different.  God is there if you are kind and honest. 

Your bishops will demand loyalty.  Make them earn it. Get into good trouble. If you are bullied by clergy or bishops, count it a badge of honor – they see something in you that they wish they had.  Will they use patriarchy to attack you? Not if you remain quiet and blend into the ecclesial camouflage.  But if you do speak out, and they attack, then go back to patience. Patriarchy is collapsing and may even collapse before they do their worst. There are some wonderful bishops and clergy – keep sorting the apples.

As the church slowly becomes de-funded by younger generations under 40, bishops and clergy will become anxious about budgets and prestige. The church cannot live on post-boomer pledges nor can it live on liturgies empty of attendees. A clock is ticking as this molting-church continues its silent work under its silken cocoon,  ignoring the input of theologians. Indeed, this current COVID realty may be a valuable training ground for the upcoming unfunded-church of the millennium’s third decade.

Kindness will get you through this molting through which the Church is going. Kindness will mark you as trustworthy.  Kindness and its mother, mission, will mark you as worthy of financial stewardship and philanthropic investment. Let the other churches die their natural death. Kindness will mark you as humble.  Your parish will live if it is worthy of investment.

Kindness will mark you as a target for evil bishops and clergy – and there are some few bad apples in the basket.  But remain kind and honest. You may not be able to turn on the kind of charm needed to get cardinal rectorships and to win bishop elections, but you will be a good representative of Jesus, who has sandals, a tunic, and a walking stick. If someone gives you a bishop’s crozier for future use, use it to pull those blackberry branches down close enough to eat your fill and feed some to others, leaving bishops to their thorns.  The good bishops will be evident, the evil ones will be too. That’s what is so great about group-discernment. Remember this great old saying when you encounter a bishop – “Cross and crozier of gold…heart of wood.  Cross and crozier of wood…heart of gold.” (Brother Paul Wessinger, SSJE, Cambridge, MA, 2004)

We are in an age in which people are asking hard questions about our police. Are there bad apples there? Should we begin to defund police in favor of an investment in teams of good social workers and counselors? These same questions are in the minds of younger generations about our clergy. They are not being spoken out loud yet, but rather are being expressed as votes registered in as attendance and pledging. 

Gather around you kind, honest parishioners. And one effective spiritual director – older, wise women work best.  They will keep you honest and humble.  They will apply bandages when you fight incompetent authority – for you will be wounded in those fights.  But you will also be blessed by the good, honest parishioners, clergy, and bishops whose goodness you will discern out of your spiritual disciplines and who will nurse you back to health. 

Begin each day in an hour of silence, no matter what needs to happen to make that possible.  Get to know yourself before you worry about getting to know the scriptures and canons or they will end up weaponized by you.

Give up being an expert on liturgy, resolutions, and canons in favor of being an expert in humility, patience, kindness, and love.  And the next time you see a crozier, grab it, run to a blackberry bush and pull down some good fruit, then take – eat.

Charles LaFond is a potter, fundraiser, and author who lives on the cliff of an island in the Salish Sea with his dog Sugar, eating blackberries throughout August.

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