Monday, 26 March 2012

Disposable Laity

Someone very close to me wrote a blog post recently about the fact that she is, after six years, laying down her role as Churchwarden. If you want an interesting perspective on life in church, please read Doorkeeper's post here. It is a simple post, expressed well and offers a side to parish life that many experience. 

The nice thing about being "the Vicar" is that (Common Tenure allowing) we can hover around in a parish like a bad smell for decades. Because we feel called to? No; because we enjoy it and it works for us or our families to stay. Let there be no illusion there. We stay for us most of the time.

In a well run parish, this is broadly where it ends, unless the small matter of a wage or salary is brought to bear - but again, very often those people stay not because of calling, but because of economic reasons. It is our wonderful laity who step forward to do jobs around church who are called to it. They are there through that calling, with any luck take some pleasure from it, but in all cases do it in the context of their freely given spare time. This is the case for the lovely person who might polish a brass every month, who serves at the Altar on a rota-approved basis, or the kindly person who simply prays for the parish and her life. It is the same for Churchwardens too. 

Churchwardens, in most parishes I think, have a tenure. That is to say that they can hold office for a given period of time, having then to relinquish it and give to the next person. This is a good thing on many levels as we all know of Wardens who were in post six or seven years after they were clinically dead. Accounts of Warden who gripped steadfast to their staffs for decades are not uncommon, and rarely accounts filled with glee and happiness. 

So, dear reader, we have members of our wonderful laity who give their time freely, as a result of their sense of God's calling who - in the end - have to stop that work and give it away. Many have no choice at all in that, including Wardens. 

Reading Doorkeeper's account is helpful because it reminds people like me that such transitions are not painless. When you give your all to something, it is difficult to stop if those years have been good (as they were in Doorkeeper's case). What do they do afterwards? How do they re-integrate back into parish life in a revised way after a period of holding much authority? How do they fill the many hours that they previously gave, not to the parish in question, but to God? Vicar's (myself included) preside over these moments, and I will do so this session with a Warden of my own who ran her own Interregnum. Doorkeeper's post is a timely reminder that it isn't just puffed-up priests who hurt when the job stops or has to change. We forget that to our peril and to the pain and cost to our vital lay volunteers. 


  1. When I stop doing my lay volunteering it will be really painful because I like what I do. I don't even do 5% of the things I've seen some lay volunteers do. Many give and give and give.

    I'm glad you've picked up on the issue of handling changes in position. I've recently stopped doing one thing but am still very much associated with it in people's minds. How we volunteer affects how others in the congregation see us, particularly during times of change.

  2. Thank you Rev. Acular. Your appreciation is appreciated.

    (....and whilst I have a little left-over weight to throw around, I shall come to inspect your palm crosses this Sunday and, of course, in the true spirit of all that is parochial, draw any shortcomings to your attention - cos it will make a change from hearing about mine!)

  3. A timely reminder, yes, and The Doorkeeper's post is a lovely and poignant piece. But I noticed the one thing she doesn't do is complain about having to hang up the staff. She even mentions in passing the difficult individuals she has known, who had to be encouraged to go, because they couldn't recognise for themselves that the time had come.

    Doorkeeper is gracious in departure, and wise enough to know that there's a time for everything under the sun, and in the church too. Let's hope we all have the same grace and wisdom when our time is up, including you and me, father!

  4. Thank you for the link to this moving post - a much needed reminder

    I do wonder however at the healthiness of the clerical propensity to bash themselves and each other. Yes there are those who stay on for the wrong reasons - but of those I know, they are in a small minority. In an age obsessed with the short term, there is a lot to be said for the stability a long incumbency can bring and I am privileged to know several vicars who stay long term in parishes that have nothing outwardly to commend them.

    Having left theological college some 14 years ago now, I note more with dismay the number who are on their third and in one case fourth incumbency. I don't think outstaying one's appointed term is potentially as damaging as flitting from parish to parish.

    Good and bad examples can be found amongst clerics and laity. Doorkeeper notes that some folk have had to be encouraged to resign.

    Wheat and weeds everywhere we look :)

  5. Thank you all for your comments.

    Eric, I take your point completely about the opposite extreme that you describe. Four incumbencies in that many years speaks poorly of an authentic sense of calling to parochial ministry. When interviewing for headteachers recently, the process had already long weeded out those candidates whose CV looked like the result of machine-gun fire.

    We all know those who need to be crow-barred from their roles - but that is a whole other story!

  6. The practice of churchwardens handing their staff to another is all very well, as long as there's someone to take it from them. In my small rural parishes I already have one parish that has been without a warden for 5 years, and with no prospect of the post being filled. One person came forward and offered to be either churchwarden or treasurer ... I chose treasurer. We can manage without a churchwarden (the Diocese don't like it as it doesn't fit any of their administrative boxes) but not without a treasurer. The long-standing churchwardens are a vital part of these rural churches, and all are valued.



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