Monday, January 29, 2007

Workload, priorities, vocation

After my Opus Dei post last week – which was really run off without much prior thought, as a form of ‘jottings’ – my friend MadPriest took me to task. I think it would be worth sharing our conversation, and wrap up with a few musings about where my sense of vocation is leading me at the moment. Tim very kindly answered my request to describe what he does here, and I’ll have a few comments on that as well.

MP said:
With all my love, my friend, I think you need to do something drastic about your work load and your prioritising. Everything seems back to front. You are off-loading your priestly tasks to the laity and taking on tasks that the laity should be doing. I know how a priest can get into such a position and it took a breakdown or rather the life readjustment I had to do to fix myself afterwards, for me to realise the stupidity of the expectations of modern priesthood. However, because of the old-fashioned nature of priesthood I was able to put my readjustments into effect without any problems from above.

I stick to 3 jobs as defined by the Ordinal. Preside, teach, visit. I got rid of all jobs outside of the parish, including at deanery level and never attend meetings or courses unless my people will definitely benefit from my attendance. I got rid of my need to be in charge, even if I thought I could do a better job. There is no reason why the local church leadership should not come from members of the laity. This even includes PCCs. Certainly people can be found to do most of the admin jobs and do it far better than someone trained mainly in the niceties of Biblical hermeneutics and church history. I stopped worrying about the Protestant work ethic. I don't care if I'm not busy. Nobody acknowledges the fact when you work all hours anyway.

All this leaves me with plenty of time to do do my pastoral work properly. Visiting, arranging funerals as if each one is a major society wedding, walking round the parish, talking to people in the street. And you know what Sam, everything still gets done and people believe I am the only priest in the neighbourhood who does his job, even though I am the laziest sod in the priesthood.

The only downside is that because I have found success by applying old paradigms (albeit, definitely in a contemporary context), I will never be "promoted," as most people with authority in the Church prefer writing books on "new ways of being Church."

You are a spiritual man, Sam - don't suffocate the spirit.

I responded:
At my clergy support group the other day (one afternoon a month; a very good thing) we were discussing the phrase 'incumbency drives out priesthood' - and it is precisely this which is the 'thing that I am working through', and provoking that last blog entry. In truth I've been working it through for quite some time, and whilst I very much hear (and am sympathetic) to what you're saying, there's a bit of it which might be damaging for me.

Let me explain a bit further. My training incumbent (I get the sense I'm talking about him rather a lot at the moment) was a celibate Anglo-Catholic, wonderful man, and he's now a Bishop. He was very much of the traditional mould in terms of training me, and there was one particular phrase which he shared which I am coming to see as a curse. Not a curse in general, or for every priest, but a curse for me. That phrase was 'spend your spare time visiting' - visiting was very much something that he emphasised.

Thing is, visiting and things like it take a particular form of energy, principally listening. And I am half deaf; listening on an extended basis (especially to 'chatter') I find incredibly draining, and I have a limited capacity for it (significantly less than your average person). Consequently I am faced with the struggle: what do I give my time to? The last year of my curacy was an interregnum, and where I had joined a team of four full time clergy, for that year I was on my own - and I tried my best to live up to the training I had received. It was also the year that my father died (and I took his funeral) and various other things accumulated to make me, for a time, leave the clergy completely. I burnt out. We took ourselves off as a family up to Alnwick and we spent a year just 'living', recuperating. I was not at all sure that I was going to go back into full time ministry; I hardly ever even went to church; I came very close to starting a PhD at Durham; yet in the end I did come to a resolution and a sense of peace: that a) I was called to parish ministry, but b) I had to work out for myself what it meant for ME to be a parish priest - not what being a parish priest was in general, but what sort of ministry is God specifically calling ME to - and that the model of ministry that I had been trained and formed for was not appropriate; that in fact, if I allowed that model to dominate who I was, that I would simply be repeatedly broken.

Which is, of course, a distinct strand in priestly identity - that we precisely ARE here to be broken, as Christ was broken, and that we must simply button our lips and get on with the job. What I am coming to realise is that this strand of understanding the ministry - call it the masochistic minister syndrome - is not of God, it has as much to do with a soulless institution breaking butterflies on the wheel. What I am now trying to work through is precisely what sort of shape my ministry is going to take.

Thing is, I am still very new at all this - I'm only 3 1/2 years into my first incumbency, and most of those years have been taken up with working out which way is up! There is a lot which I am looking to divest myself of, and what I have said to the parish is that I am going to concentrate principally on 3 things (taken from Eugene Peterson): worship, teaching and spiritual direction. That latter, whilst most priests could incorporate it under the heading of 'visiting', I am going to do on a more formal basis, so that I can manage how much of my listening time gets used up with it. As for the wider pastoral task, there is the basic necessity of 'knowing and being known', but the 'farming of the parish' I do feel it essential to delegate - to a priest colleague, to the newly installed pastoral assistant, to a group of laity being trained up precisely to take it forward. The thing is, even if I wasn't half-deaf, I don't believe that I would be able to accomplish all the visiting required; as I am half-deaf, it seems to be a significant part of my vocation to enable this wider ministry to form.

But that phrase is what I am thinking about: "incumbency drives out priesthood". I'm called to be a priest; incumbency is simply the (presently) necessary context. What I need to negotiate, over the next couple of years, are the ways in which I can maximise the amount of time spent being the priest that God is calling me to be (which probably emphasises the teaching bit), and minimise the amount of time taken up with what is peripheral to that.

So I do agree with the thrust of what you're saying - especially about the Protestant Work Ethic and all the horrors associated with it - but in the end I suspect the priest I am meant to be is not the same as the priest that you are meant to be (or that most priests are meant to be). Which is all part of God's intention, I think. It sounds like you have got your priorities sorted - great, stick to your guns. But for the time being I'm going to stick to the motto I recently devised which is proving healing and helpful for me: "If you meet George Herbert on the road, kill him."

MP responded:
…whatever you decide is a priest's job, don't say "peripheral" say "somebody else's problem" and ignore it. We are at war with the powers and dominions that are eating away at the time our people have for themselves (and for God). England is officially home to he most overworked population in Europe. I spend a lot of time telling people to stop, and enabling them to stop, and I do this out of pastoral/spiritual concern. Priests/Christians should be counter-cultural in this respect, so don't you think you should lead by example by showing people (like I do) that you can do a good job and still have a life. Although I quite fancy the idea of you spending another year in Alnwick it would probably be better for the propagation of the gospel if you didn't blow another gasket. Suggestion - do like I did. Get yourself a good secular occupational therapist and work on definitions.

I am quite passionate about this because the more idiots like you there are rushing about 24 hours a day the more difficult it is for me to enjoy a cushy life, and I only became a priest because I was fed up of working for a living.

I said:
I don't think we're disagreeing here.... I particularly agree with the counter-cultural 'in praise of idleness' approach. It's where I'm headed to, even if I'm not there yet. Our clergy support group is chaired by a secular therapist - and my spiritual director is a psychotherapist as well! All useful grist.

MP responded:
No. We would be disagreeing (in part) if we were talking about exactly what constitutes the priestly task but I'm not interested in that. I am seriously worried that you are doing far too much for your own good and therefore your parishioners good (whether they realise it or not). From you original post I can discern that there are probably some areas of work which you can pull back from. I found getting rid of whole areas of work and concentrating on whole areas of work worked for me. I would assume that central to your ministry, and fitting into the definition I apply very nicely, is teaching. If this is true, put that in the centre then work outwards with the next necessary task area until you reach 40 hours a week. YES. 40 hours. And don't forget that includes all prep including reading. If you make it 40 hours then when you go over that which you will it still won't be too harmful, whilst if you start off with 60 hours (which I reckon you're probably doing and more) when you go over you're heading straight for the breaking point - yours and your families.

I said:
Actually, that is precisely what I'm looking at. I've been reading this excellent little book by Gordon MacDonald called 'Ordering your private world', in which, amongst other things, he gives 'Four Laws of Unmanaged Time':

1. Unmanaged time flows towards weaknesses - in other words, if you can 'get by' with natural ability in some areas, without working at them, your time is spent on things which you have less natural ability in, so you precisely don't build on the specific gifts which God gives you.

2. Unmanaged time comes under the influence of dominant personalities in our world. Other people set the agenda for your life.

3. Unmanaged time is driven by emergencies, not priorities. (Obvious really)

4. Unmanaged time is given to things which provide public acclamation - we drift to where the applause is.

I've found this very helpful (especially #1).

40 hours though. I'll find that a bit difficult... I remember being taught that a priest should give the same number of hours per week as a church volunteer who also has a full time job, ie 40 hours plus an extra ten - so a priest should do at least 50 hours a week. I generally do 55+ (I kept a record at one point, when I was feeling guilty about not working hard enough. Strange but true.)

So yes, I am looking at putting the teaching element central in terms of my working hours, and stripping back much of the rest. But it'll take time to pull it together.

40 hours. That's a really, really attractive thought (see here) ..... This strange little voice within me has started jumping up and down grinning.....

Thing is, I'm learning to start from the assumption that the workload is, to all intents and purposes, infinite. Therefore, it must be managed from the other end, in order to find a sustainable way through.

Hmmmmmmmm…

~~~

That was where we left it, but I’ve been pondering it a lot in the last week, and had one or two conversations with my beloved as well. This thing about 40 hours is a real kicker, and it is digging away at me.

Anyhow, a little bit on what Tim had to say. Tim wrote: “the four fundamental tasks to which God has called me are to pray, to love, to share the good news, and to make disciples and help them grow” – which I think is a great summary of our task. Some things I do differently to Tim on that score – I do much more ‘formal’ prayers than Tim, ie the Daily Office. I’m not 100% compliant (especially now I have a colleague or two to cover), but pretty much each morning and evening will find me in church saying the set prayers. Private prayers get squeezed to the margins a bit, but Ollie’s arrival has certainly helped, especially when he gets a long walk. The workload of the occasional offices has lessened significantly in the past year – I only had 22 funerals in 2006 for example – but it’s still significant (around 15 weddings and a few less baptisms). Of course, what I find really challenging – in other words, what I find really painful in the sense of careless wound exploring(!) was this that Tim said: “I have gradually accepted that the best way for me to touch the lives of these people is to be an old fashioned vicar and visit them.” Which is, of course, precisely the ‘George Herbert model’ which a) I was trained in, and b) I find tremendously attractive. It’s just that I experience it to be an overwhelmingly impossible task, which threatens both my physical health and my spiritual peace of mind. Hence ‘if you meet George Herbert on the road, kill him!’ Partly this may be due to the size of the responsibility, in that the decline in Anglican clergy numbers has led to absurdly large and complex parish sizes. Where George Herbert had the incumbency of a single village, with a population of 300 souls, and where, moreover, he had several full-time curates to assist him, my ‘cure’ presently consists of a little less than 10,000 souls; split amongst four separate parishes; where the combined electoral roll is just under 300; and where I am assisted, in week-day terms, by a (very good) house-for-duty colleague who works two days a week. There are many more people involved on Sunday duties, of course, who do absolutely essential things, across the eight or so services which take place each Sunday. Moreover, there is a wider ministry undertaken by all the Christians in the churches themselves, and like Tim, I do see that as an essential part of the work: “God calls all Christians to these tasks, and that’s a big part of my philosophy right up front: we pastors do full time what most Christians do part time, in order to help them do those things better.”

Bob Jackson, in his influential book ‘Hope for the Church’, describes different sized churches and the different forms of ministry required. This is his typology:

a) the family church (1 – 50 members); these are dominated by a handful of families and the pastor acts effectively as a local chaplain;
b) the pastoral church (50 – 150 members); here the minister is pastor to all the members of the church, and the relationship with the minister is key (for both growth and death);
c) the multiple-benefice church, which can combine a number of the above, in which the minister supports various lay members to plug their own gaps; and
d) the programme church (150 – 400 members) where there is team with specialisation, and the incumbent becomes more of a manager than a pastor, who “resources programmes, enables the ministry of others, gives dynamic vision & leads others in mission”.

The Mersea Benefice effectively includes all four! (One programme-size church, one pastoral church and two family churches, all in one multiple-benefice!!!)

Accepting that the pastoral has priority – and yet that it is impossible for me to carry it all out – I see an essential element as setting up a structure and environment within which the wider body can take forward this task. So: we now have a pastoral group, under the leadership of my clergy colleague and new pastoral assistant to precisely take forward the ministry of ‘drinking coffee’ which Tim describes. In addition, I am trying to encourage a ‘house-group’ ministry, which can provide the proper forum for relational growth, which, again, is moving forward.

One helpful analysis (for me) was the idea of a ‘spectrum of pastoral care’, rather like this: Prevention (eg teaching) -> Availability -> Casual contact -> Contact at church -> Home visits -> Counselling -> Crises. In parishes below a certain size the pastor can carry out all of these. What I conclude is that, beyond a certain size, the pastor has to specialise and choose which of those pastoral forms to carry out him or herself, and which need to be passed on to others. For me, it is the elements in the middle which I seek to encourage other members of the Body to take on, so that I can focus on the two extremes: teaching and spiritual direction. I also see availability as important. Just last week, for example, I was telephoned by someone who has been given a diagnosis of terminal cancer, and – naturally – wanted to have a chat. Thankfully, I am going to be able to go and see her tomorrow – but that can only happen when there is sufficient ‘give’ in the timetable.

Which comes back to the question of working hours, and available energy. I am envious that Tim can give six hours a week to his sermon! In a good week a sermon will get two hours, sometimes it’s significantly less. One of the main things I’ve been pondering this last week is MacDonald’s first law of unmanaged time, viz: unmanaged time will flow to weakness. He writes this: “Since I knew I could preach an acceptable sermon with a minimum of preparation, I was actually doing less than my best in the pulpit.”

Now that was a sentence which struck home!

It all comes back to the question of vocation, or, to modify what I wrote to MP, I have to work out for myself what it means for ME to be a parish priest - not what being a parish priest is in general, but what sort of ministry is God specifically calling ME to. The shape of that is going to take time to establish, but I think it is going to have much more dedicated time for teaching in it, especially through Bible studies and sermons. I keep pondering Neil’s argument that according to the Apostle Paul, a church pastor should possess 3 basic qualities:

1. Good Christian Character
2. Sound Doctrine
3. An Ability to Teach

I think the first element is a constant endeavour, rather than an achievement, but the rest of it seems right to me. In particular, I don’t think that pastoral responsibility can be divorced from sound doctrine – indeed, the pastoral work that we are called to do is, I believe, precisely about providing that sound doctrine, the ‘medicine of the gospel’.

It seems that this is what I am called to do. Teach the faith, ensure that the people are not destroyed from lack of knowledge. To accept that this is also a pastoral task, and not to become crippled by guilt and self-destructive about all the things which I am not doing, but to accept the particular vocation that God has given to me, and to develop the gifts that He has given me for that task.

After all, it is a task worthy of wholehearted commitment - to teach the faith. To concentrate on that - this is such a liberating prospect.

2 comments:

  1. Thanks for re-sharing this. For those of us working all those hours and more at college, aware we're going to arrive in parish on the 2nd July conditioned to work from 7.40am - 9.45pm, it's a really helpful reminder to start as we ought to be meaning to carry on!

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  2. And thanks from me too. I had an MDR last week with one of our senior diocesan staff and these themes formed a fair bit of our discussion, as they did at a clergy lunch a couple of days later. We certainly live in "interesting times."

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