The vows of ordination present a cleric with a life of vulnerability. Clerics and other experts interviewed for this website say vulnerability comes from both personal and external stresses inherent to the vocation. Managing personal vulnerability and maintaining constant vigilance and boundaries is necessary to prevent Title IV-level incidents and claims.
Vulnerability is lonely. Noted theologian Dr. Fredrica Harris Thompsett identifies the responsibility to listen in a Christ-like manner as a cost of discipleship. As a seminary professor and dean, she watched and mentored thousands of future clerics as they entered that discipleship. She says it must be painful to confidentially listen to others who are also in pain. A cleric is bound to know many of those whom he or she will guide and yet the boundary must be maintained between the member of the clergy and the person who comes in need.
Often vulnerability is hard to define in determining boundaries. Longtime cleric and church official, the Rev. Canon Michael Barlowe, says the clergy need to assess their roles as teachers and counselors in each case of pastoral care. The clergy must constantly remember that they are “servants of God” in delivering their expertise and direction to others. Canon Barlowe says the criterion is to recognize that the servant is giving the gift and not being the one to receive. That is a reality check for vulnerability.
The discussion to this point has been generally about vulnerability as it is inherent to the nature of the vocation. The toll on the body and mind increases as clerics further the Jesus Movement into new frontiers. The reality of the modern church model, where congregations often only have a lone priest, can increase vulnerability because of isolation. Modern ministries reach an increasingly hurting world full of vulnerability in both urban and rural areas. Furthermore, clerics are now reaching out into cultures that were perhaps foreign to The Episcopal Church fifty years ago. One who has watched the church evolve is the past Presiding Bishop of The Episcopal Church, the Rt. Rev. Katharine Jefferts Schori.
One notable example of how dynamic the change can be in the mission of the urban church and its clergy is the history of Christ Church Cathedral in downtown Hartford, Connecticut. The church dates back to 1762 as a colonial church. The current spectacular cathedral building is nearly 200 years old and was built to honor the Lord in one of America’s most prosperous cities of the era. Census data gave Hartford the reputation as America’s richest city in the mid 1800s. Today, a third of the city’s population lives in poverty. The Very Rev. Miguelina Howell is the Dean of Christ Church Cathedral and oversees a ministry that serves 40,000 meals a year to impoverished neighbors. As a Dominican Republic native, she also represents a diverse and multicultural change in both membership and clergy. She shares her expertise in experiencing a vulnerability in the new urban ministry.