How I became a better Parish Priest after being a School Chaplain

The Rev. Stacy Williams Duncan, Founder, Learning & Change Strategist

A few years ago, when teaching at Virginia Theological Seminary (VTS), I had the opportunity to teach a chaplaincy class and later an advanced chaplaincy class.  In that class, we spent a lot of time talking about what the model of ministry for chaplains is and how that compares or contrasts with the model for the parish priest. 

I’ve been thinking about that a lot lately. 

You see I am almost a year into…. well, not quite a year…10 months into serving as a parish priest again after years of chaplaincy and teaching at the seminary level. 

So, I’ve been asking: how I am different as a parish priest today than I was before I was a chaplain? How much of that is because I was a chaplain or because I’m a lot older than I was last time I was a parish priest?

One aspect is very different in this iteration as a parish priest… and I do think it is all about having been a chaplain.

As I preach the lectionary every week, I am aware that this lectionary- which defines and shapes our worship in the Episcopal Church and in so many other mainline denominations- assumes a knowledge of the Christian scripture and Christendom that is just not my experience in the real world. 

The back of a light wooden Church pew holds several blue hymnals.

What do I mean? Well, the lectionary is based on the idea that you can take three scriptures from different parts of the Canon and connect them with a thematic moment. The thing is… you hear bits and pieces from these stories week to week, but you actually may not know the whole story

I am more and more convinced when people hear scripture read and do not have the context for the entire narrative- all they hear are disconnected pieces that make no sense. So as preachers, we spend lots of time adding in the necessary context. This sometimes means I preach “too long” or I don’t feel like I get enough time to get to how this impacts our perspective on the world today. 

One of the arguments is that we need more Christian formation. We need to teach people the Cannon- the scriptural narrative- so that they understand the lectionary’s pieces.  I agree that would be ideal, and, yet, it is not the situation I find myself in. Even parishioners who attend church often have not been given the opportunity to develop a lifelong understanding of scripture, and it is very difficult to understand scripture outside of the narrative context. 

Now, what exactly does all this have to do with being a chaplain? 

You see, as a chaplain my perspective changed. I grew up in a lectionary based church. I believe and still believe  there is a discipline to lectionary based preaching that is positive and helps maintain an equal and healthy relationship with the congregation. Yet, as a chaplain, I learned that when people do not know the Christian story, they cannot even begin to imagine it might be part of their story.

When we tell that story and invite people into that story- not in bits and pieces but narratively- we can offer others the opportunity to see how God could change their story. There are many ways being a chaplain changed me, but one of the most powerful has been a growing discontent with the traditional lectionary structure of our worship. 

An antique black typewriter with a blank piece of paper sitting on a stark white table.

With that has come an ever-deepening understanding: the more we force people to do the incredibly difficult analytical work of understanding exactly where in the great Salvation narrative each piece of scripture comes, the more we prevent them from having the time and energy to invest in the deep spiritual work of asking how these scriptures… this inspired word of God… might be calling them to transform their lives and deliver them as disciples. 

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