Tuesday, 20 September 2011

Can't Stop Won't Stop

The wider world may perceive priests and/or ministers as those engage in prayerful knee crunching contortion for many long hours of the day and night. In some cases that may well be true. Some may think that professional religious people hide away in book be-decked aeries where we hover in a God-adoring effervescence of self-hypnosis. In some cases that may well be true. 

Then there are priests like me.

With the intra-ministerial sojourn behind me, I must confess a behaviour that surprised me, although not others when I spoke with them about it.

The issue at the heart of this is simple - priests can't stop. I spoke with my good mate and former boss about this, and he stated in alarmingly simple terms - we aren't equipped to stop. Upon pondering this and my inability to stop fidgeting when ensconced in a work-free vacuum, I deduced the following: we are built to to occupy an ungoverned and un-bordered working life where we have to be self-disciplined to the highest degree to get 'the job' done. Our work is vague, ever-changing, always wonderful, intoxicating, rewarding, never-ending and our efforts never see this 'job' done. This means that we keep chipping away, day after day. Stopping does not form a helpful habit for those of us for whom the work ethic is set to Level 10.

I can hear your cries from here. Yes, I know we must replenish. Yes, I know we must devote time to be with God (but we get around that one by believing quite sincerely that we are with God in all that we do, so stopping makes no difference). Yes, this is surely the path to burn-out (but apply faith to that and we have us a God who surely won't let us fail, surely). Even family life is another form of keeping going which is why the rapturous mix of priestly potterings and familial forays (in my case) are great. 

As I say, many of us priests are not equipped to stop. Perhaps we are like sharks who, if we stop, succumb to mortality. Perhaps we have learned to rest and sleep on the move (you only need hear my sermonising). Perhaps we are on a path to an early grave.


  1. It's a pride thing. This post is a boast.

  2. J, don't sit on the fence - say what you really think :)

    In truth, I am describing something that I regard as a problem and as a person of prayer, this is hardly the material of boasting. I am acknowledging a lack of balance for which I know no easy solution.

    Thanks, though, for your comment.

  3. I'm not convinced. I have observed far too many conversations between parish priests which were nothing more than "I do more than you do" oneupmanship.

    But it's not just a pride thing. It's also an insecurity thing. I think that a lot of priests are scared to the core that what they are doing is not real work. So they overcompensate and end up looking busy but doing very little of worth.

  4. On your first point I wholly agree and there is probably a vanity incorporated within it somewhere.

    However, my own experience of this behaviour in myself was one of frustration and a little futility. It causes friction with Mrs Acular at times, and I never cherish that.

    Whilst you are right in many circumstances, this is not one. I think that an ability to stop is a worrying thing over a working lifetime, albeit one that is born of an annoying sense that everything somehow depends on us.

    I am assured of the worth of what I do, and what you do even in the present where you have been relieved of the formal ministry that you loved - because we are both way-markers to something better - arent we?

  5. Maybe you just need a wife more like mine. Someone you're more worried about upsetting than your bishop and congregation put together.

  6. Sorry to interrupt the fascinating dialogue/duel between you and Jonathon, David, but I think it is not peculiar to all priests by any means. A lot of the ever-running motor is a personal inability to find that "still small voice of calm".
    You would I feel sure, be the first to admit that "eating on the hoof" is more your style than sedate dining, and this is part of your unique approach to everything you do.
    If God had intended you to ride a push-bike, he would not have given you a Ferrari engine.

  7. Ray, like the analogy - thank you

    J - you must meet my wife! She is quiet and diligent, but always right and were it not for her, I'd have let my Messiah Complex spiral out of control!!! We are both lucky men, I think!

  8. Maybe it is the Protestant work ethic, one should always be busy doing 'something'. Presumably as each parish is different there is no "new vicar" job description or structure that fits all.

    Although no longer in paid employment I feel guilty about say just sitting around and thinking, about reading a book during the day, taking longer over a meal, or relaxing especially if chores like ironing are waiting.

    As I need to be dashing away with the smoothing iron as washing was done yesterday (Monday) I must be away from cyberspace.

  9. PixieMum is right. If, as Ray says, you are someone who naturally works at full speed all day then you should keep very quiet about it. Otherwise you will be used as an example by those who do believe that people should work till they drop. Your profession has one of the highest occurrences of work related stress and burnout in the UK. You would be doing your colleagues more good if you refused to work beyond an absolute maximum of 48 hours a week over 6 days.

    Every parish priest only chips a few ice cubes off the top of the iceberg. With a parish population of thousands you cannot possibly do all the work that could be done. So you have to decide what a sensible workload is and then stick to it. They can't sack you unless you refuse to do the stuff that you are legally required to do and that is hardly anything.

  10. Am reminded of a priest friend who was told, when he moved to a new diocese, by his bishop, that he must take x time off - one full day a week, x weeks in the year. At the end of that year, there was a complaint at the PCC meeting about how frequently he was absent from the parish
    It's often the fault of the parishioners, if you feel that it never stops -

  11. Good post and interesting comments. I think the un-bordered part is very true. There is something seamless about the priestly life for many of us, that it's not something we can go in and out of very easily.

    I also have observed what Jonathan says - the one-upmanship that happens. People who are always going out of gatherings to take "urgent" calls (at every meeting! they are so important!) or "too busy" to be in a colleague group, etc. I often feel that their insecurities are at the heart of the matter. Particularly in this economic climate - priests (and other staff) feel the need to show that they are earning their salaries.

    But I think there is a way to be who you are and not let yourself be fodder for those who advocate the grindstone as a necessary evil in our calling. There is a difference between desperate activity and living off your high energy.

    Still and all, it would be good, David, for you to find some sort of small practice of silence or downtime. And do have some boundaries - if the phone rings during lunch with a friend, let it go to voicemail.

    Do you really have a parish population of thousands?




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