Matthew T. Phillips

Building Lighthouses

An essay of mine was posted at Theolog (the blog of the Christian Century) today. The full version follows:

With the growth of our family from two to three people, travel to the grocery store, not to mention another country, has become challenging, so I watch PBS’s Rick Steves Europe on a regular basis to get my travel fix. In a recent episode, he told me about a remote corner of Ireland called “Hook Head” (Google Map). In the fifth or sixth century–who’s really counting when you get that far back?–a monk named Dubhan led a group to this peninsula, which juts out in a strategic position protecting the Waterford harbor, and set up a monastery. They soon noticed the bodies of sailors who had perished against the rocky coastline washing up on their pristine beach, and took time away from their monastic calling to set up a beacon. They operated the beacon for the next thousand years, give or take a few. Rick’s Irish tour guide says:

The monks came here for solitude and to save souls. It would have been their original task, I suppose, but they ended up saving lives. It probably became a bigger goal for them rather than saving souls.

I’m not sure I buy that theory. Saving lives was a logical and essential part of saving souls and not a separate goal at all. But the point remains: in the pursuit of their callings, they learned a whole other trade and devoted themselves to generations of tending a lighthouse. Were they any less true to their chief calling for that effort? It seems clear to me tending a lighthouse was the only way they could be true to their calling: they pursued God to a rocky coast and found a bunch of dead sailors. God occasionally speaks clearly.

Today we want clergy to professionalize and focus on their vocation as ministers without needing to earn an income through other commitments. Economists talk about “comparative advantage”: the principal that individuals and their societies benefit when each person does those things for which they are best skilled. Our churches’ ministers have extensive theological training that means they have a comparative advantage when preaching and providing pastoral case as opposed to, say, tending a lighthouse.

Focus on our own advantages holds a danger though: in an increasingly professionalized and specialized world, how will clergy and laity relate to each other? Dubhan’s monks understood the basic challenges of life as a sailor, and they worked at meeting needs on the way to building relationships. Can my minister understand the challenges for folks in all sorts of jobs who wear micro-specialties as badges of honor?

What if instead of one more preaching institute class or an extra meeting of the committee for the realignment of the Northeastern section of the Southern district, my minister went with me to a basic estate planning seminar? Or with one of my friends to a lesson planning meeting at the middle school? Or to a job site for an
afternoon with a general contractor? What if we decided to be radical and develop positions for interested new clergy in settings that enabled them to attend a year of graduate school in another discipline in the same way that foreign missionaries study the language of their host country? Clergy would not suddenly start building lighthouses, but they might have a better perspective on some of the dark places and bright spots in the world of their congregations.

What lighthouses do we need to build at the corner of our church property? Where will we find people to do the building?