Wednesday, July 22, 2020

On Success in Ministry

It was my own University Chaplain who first pointed out that I was addicted to achievement. After January exams in the third year, I showed him my back-of-an-envelope workings-out of what I would need to score in each of my final modules and my dissertation to get a first. He was less impressed than I had imagined he'd be. "You've spent the last three years aiming for the next set of exam results" he said, "what will you do when you can't measure success by numbers on a piece of paper?"

A good question. But, of course, I found ways to do just that. Graduating from University, my shiny new PA job was a dream for my tendency to give myself big fat ticks. I made long to-do lists.
Print papers for my managers' afternoon meeting. Tick.
Phone the head of HR's PA to chase actions from the Strategy meeting. Tick.
Book my manager onto that conference, put in travel requests for the train and hotel. Tick tick tick.
God, I loved looking back at those ticked-off lists. I had achieved all I had set out to do in my working day. It may have only been a little job, in a little corner of the County Council, but I was acing it.

Do you know one of the scariest things about ministry? It's not like that at all.

Of course, we can still build ourselves artificial success criteria.  'Bums on seats' is the classic, and while we would be churlish to jealously sniff at big, growing, thriving congregations, it is a truth that the size of the congregation is not the only indicator of health and that some ministers are called to small congregations. I've been privileged to be a part of two very well-behaved, mature Clergy Chapters, but I've heard of clergy who can barely get through the door of a Chapter meeting without telling their colleagues how many hours they've worked this week, how many late nights ploughing through emails, how many funerals taken. Overloaded clergy of course need to get these things off their chests sometimes, but as indicators of 'success' in ministry they are false. Numbers are only part of the story.

I suppose this topic is especially on my mind at the moment because of the season my ministry is in. Chaplaincy is a funny old animal, because many of those moments as a Curate when I could pretend I was succeeding have been stripped away. I can't fall into bed at the end of the week, telling myself that I have been a busy Priest, for I have taken 2 funerals, 3 school assemblies, done a wedding visit, and a baptism visit, as well as rushed around several Churches on Sunday morning. Many of my Parish friends are in the unenviable position of having a vocation that should counter-culturally lean away from the world's lies that busy/sucessful=worthy, and yet are in a role where they are forced to juggle overloaded diaries. As a University Chaplain, the reality is that I do have a bit more time than I would do if I were, say, the Priest in Charge of a benefice of 5 rural parishes. I have a small congregation of students, staff and members of the public who physically gather for worship in term-time only, and a larger group of students and staff who seek pastoral care, also mainly in term-time.

A global pandemic has added to this. I can't even busy myself with the tidying of the vestry and the organizing Freshers week that would normally define my summer season.

Of course, the right response should be to celebrate. In an ideal world, a Priest should not have a busy diary. I repeat, in an ideal world, a Priest should not have a busy diary! It should not be unreasonable to expect time each day to read the Bible and to pray, to look out for those golden unexpected interruptions where we may end up entertaining angels unaware.

But a quiet diary still scares me.

There are a number of fantastic books on this topic. Emma Percy's 'What Clergy Do (Especially When it Looks Like Nothing)' is a must-read for clergy who struggle with precisely this sort of thing. WH Vanstone's 'The Stature of Waiting' looks at the Godliness of inactivity, as seen in people in seasons of disability, older age and worklessness, and is a real challenge for those of us, lay and ordained, who can't imagine what we'd be without tangible achievements. Henri Nouwen's 'In the Name of Jesus' rallies against the idea of the Christian minister as someone who succeeds and achieves, using Christ's rejection of the temptations of bread, fame and forced Kingship to hammer home his point. I've lent it my copy someone at the moment, but in one of the most striking lines, Nouwen asserts that the Priest should strive through the world empty-handed and "irrelevant." Crikey.

I woke up this morning with all this in my head, and smiled when I opened my app for morning prayer. Today the Church celebrates St Mary Magdalene. Of course it does. Her sister hurried about with cooking pots and brooms, ticking things off her list, because these things have to be done don't they? But Mary sat at Christ's feet, having chosen the better part. I'm a natural Martha, and maybe you are too. But I'm looking to nurture my inner Mary. Yes, there's lots of admin to do, emails to answer, and some of it must be done out of professionalism, a responsibility to my people, and a respect for those who need a response. But life's not a set of things to be achieved, tasks to be completed. At the root of all those tasks is love for God, for neighbour, and for self. So I suppose it's about seeing those tasks upside-down. And before, after, and intertwined with it all, the better part is the moment we look beyond our own activity and busyness, knowing that all activity springs from that place. Christ's feet are still there to be sat at.

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On Success in Ministry

It was my own University Chaplain who first pointed out that I was addicted to achievement. After January exams in the third year, I showed ...