Wednesday, 1 December 2010

Ministry in the Incomplete

If it happens to be that you score highly against the Belbin model of the 'Completer-Finisher', and you are considering parochial preisthood as a life-choice, I would urge you to ponder long and hard about it. It might just be that your head will explode and that you will leave a vile gooey mess all over your shoes.

I have been feeling an increasing frustration with my role - one that I am in raptures about in every other way - because it is one where everything that I draw near to has be left incomplete.

I was sat around a table today discussing the possibilities for a very worthy project in Aylesbury for the homeless community. I was attracted by the significant possibilities that this project could offer, and felt that there was a considerable amount I could do to help. It will not come to pass. I help to oversee another project that provides Christmas Dinner for a hundred people on Christmas Day, without charge. Partly for the homeless community, partly for the people living around the church who might otherwise spend the day alone, or just those who want to join us - the possibilities for this project are considerable and far exceed Christmas Day. I was attracted and am still and feel that that there is much that I can offer over and above what I do. It will not come to pass. I have helped steer the parish community away from some very difficult financial times, helped form a fundraising group and been attracted by the possibilities that those enterprises offer. I feel that there is far more that I can do to help in those things. It will not come to pass. The list is significant, not because I am endlessly blessed with skills and 'solutions' (I am not), but because I am endlessly blessed with a heart to do the best that I can for all of those endeavours.

My ministry seems to be about 'touches'. Like a stone skipped across the surface of a still lake, I bounce along making little splashes. Each are touches on the surface of the life that those around me are caused to lead full-time. I want to do so much for all of them, but I increasingly sense that I will have to be satisfied for doing just a little. This doesn't suit me, I have to be honest - but I am trying to adapt. It probably means that I say 'no' too infrequently! People often joke that priests only work on Sundays, and who can blame those jokers?! It is often only on Sundays when we get to complete something that we start, but the rest of it feels like a working-embodiment of a contents page to the book of many lives we can only point towards. This week, I only 'touched' the life of a teacher/preacher, only 'touched' the life of a school governor, only 'touched' the life of a theologian and writer, only 'touched' the life of a homeless-action worker. All started, all unfinished - all incomplete in my hands.


  1. This is, as they say, a fair comment. Our role is often to start things that others will finish - and rightly so, as the church does not depend on us for its continued existence. This is something to be aware of, not to get stressed about: knowing when to jump out of something is one of the required skills.
    But sometimes it can be quite seductive to rush from one thing to the other, without ever really giving anything enough attention. We can be quite in love with the idea of the minister as omni-gifted multitasker - perhaps bloggers especially so? ("how do you find time to write your blog?" 'Oh, I just dash it off in a quiet moment - it really doesn't take up any of my time'). Paring down what we do is also a required skill.

  2. With the best will in the world (and no-ne who knows you could doubt that), you cannot be "all things to all men". Where your 'touch' alights it leaves its mark and the structure you helped put in place, in time will do the rest.
    All professional people in your position, whether church, health-care, social or legal - support organisations are faced with the same dilemma - where to make the cut-off point.

    There is always the danger that if you engage too closely with a group or an individual who is in any kind of need, that they will become dependant on you.

    Surely it is better to put a support system in place and step back, than to throw your whole person, time, energy etc into one pocket of need only to have ultimately to let that group or person down.

    God has allowed you to shine a light into several dark places but he will sustain that light. Your batteries will run out!

  3. Thank you to you all for your comments.

    I think it is seductive to almost anyone to the World Fixer and Planet Sorter, and I am not immune to that. I think that it goes against our instincts to leave things incomplete - or certainly the instincts of a retailer for whom incompleteness would be a measurable issue.

    Charlie, the observation about blogging is on the money too, and your illustrative words have surely fallen out of my mouth (every time my own wife asks how I managed to write a post yet not load the dishwasher).

    I think that this is another, and perhaps chief among the 'skills never taught at theological college' - the exit strategy, and how to grieve (just a little) about not being there to see a seed come to fruition.

  4. There are days when I long for my former life, when I went to work and came home being able to to say "I/we did that today." Our work now is often unquantifiable - we don't know quite what it is we have achieved as we "touch" lives and situations. The quantifiable stuff - services/ funerals/weddings/baptisms taken, sermons preached etc. - is just the tip of the iceberg.

    I think highlandponderings also has a point, though. We can sometimes think it should all depend on us, when really we are just one (very small) part of the big strategy which is God's. It doesn't do our egos any good, but since when was the Kingdom of God about our egos? Doesn't necessarily stop the frustration, though.

  5. David, I spent much of my time subbing for priests who are away, and so I am never in one place for very long - often only one Sunday. And so I have to find a way to be invested in the moment even as I know that I'll be moving on soon. But I come upon people I've met later on at a gathering and they will tell me how much they appreciated my sermon that day or my class or even just my presence. I find that the things I "see through" are the visit to the hospital when someone is in crisis or my relationships with my fellow clergy with whom I meet in support group. We drop a pebble in a pond and never know what shores the ripples will reach, but our job was just to drop the pebble, not to save the world. It's a struggle, for sure, and thanks for naming it.

  6. Penny, I like the model you use there - none of know the ripples we cause. Someone said much the same when I had the temerity to question that validity of preaching in services!

    And yes, Simmy, I agree with you there. I wonder if our mind sets are fixed on priesthood being a 'bigger thing' in life because we worked hard to make get there, when in fact it is a 'smaller thing'.

    This commentary is proving very helpful, and I thank you all for your time and visit!



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