On Parish Property
In the midst of serious and sincere debates about the letter of the law, I can’t help but thinking of property disputes in a different paradigm... the spirit of church property as I have known and experienced it for almost fifty years.
I had two extraordinary mentors as a seminarian, and then as newly ordained. Though quite different, each was a model of the quintessential parish priest. They strongly agreed on the way each priest should approach a call to a parish community.
We are stewards, not owners. We are privileged to serve this community on behalf of Jesus and the Body of Christ; to be invited into the privacy of families; to stand with them at birth, death, marriage, and in times of both trials and tribulation. We are “temps.” When we arrive, we meet people with long histories in the parish. When we leave, most of them will be there to thank us and wish us well as we move on.
I was told by them not to refer to “my” parish, “my” church... “my congregation.” As a steward, I must not only maintain the trust, but seek to improve it as much as possible. Most discussion about the “Communion of Saints” is grander and more theological. But I often think of the “Communion of Saints” as the hundreds, and even thousands, of wonderful examples of real people and fellow sinners in my life who rose to an occasion, gave witness in tough moments, sacrificed to serve the community in the name of Christ, forgave or chose graciousness in times of strife and enmity.
Finally, they taught me that each bishop with jurisdiction, each member of the clergy assigned responsibility for a congregation had fiduciary responsibility (along with vestries, et al.). When I left, I was to turn it all over to my successor. This system of trust, as imperfect as all of us who make up these congregations, has worked well for centuries. May we be humble enough to continue this trust in the name of God, who gave us his only begotten Son.