Sunday, November 7, 2010

Days Off

One of the critical skills in pastoral ministry is figuring out how to deal with unlimited expectations, unmeasurable outcomes, and finite resources. The demands of ministry are simply bottomless, and the job will take as many hours and as much energy as you are willing to give it. Indeed, I have met plenty of martyrs to parish ministry that burned themselves out doing what they thought they were expected to do.

This is as big a problem for paid, ordained ministry as it is for unpaid volunteers. One of my parishioners is fond of saying that the nicely lettered wall listing past Wardens is a record of burnout. I would say that the list is is a stark rebuke to the whole parish--a sign of our failure as a community to nourish leadership. Harsh, I know, but I don't how else to interpret the pattern of leaders leaving. Of course, none of my former wardens have left the parish, but it is telling that the NCD survey revealed a low score on the question labeled "Our leaders are a spiritual example to me." We have work to do.

Mondays are my day off. Saturdays are a half-day, and every other day is basically a full-day. But lately (the past several days) I have spent a significant amount of time on Mondays doing church work. Usually it's doing the kind of projects and errands on behalf of the church that might be considered extra credit. The problem, though, is that it's on the margins of "extra-credit" where excellence lies. In other words, the difference between putting in four hours of bonus hours on a Monday and not putting into those four hours could very well be a tipping point for the parish. It means having a well-organized maintenance closet or sending people birthday and anniversary cards or reviewing a grant application written by one of my staff.

I find the work I do incredibly rewarding and invigorating. The other day I was meeting with someone who knows little of church culture. He asked me what I enjoy about my work and I told him about the sheer diversity of it. One minute I'm doing one-on-one pastoral care with someone in serious emotional distress. The next I'm rewiring a light switch or cleaning out a closet that hasn't been emptied in ten years. Sometimes I'm writing my column for "The Anglican" and other times I'm teaching a student how to walk in liturgy. Yeah, I spent fifteen or twenty minutes the other day teaching someone how to walk. I write sermons. I pick up trash. I pray the Office and practice chanting psalms. I make coffee (always adding a pinch of salt) and talk to the restaurant owner across the street about vandalism in the neighbourhood. I coach my staff on how to work with volunteers and I plan complex liturgies. It's a fascinating job that requires constantly mastering new skills.

Therein lies the problem--a seductive vocation promises personal fulfillment. It promises increased self-worth and the satisfaction of building something with superior craft. But like all idols, the "uber-pastor" idol demands sacrifice. Time spent in the evenings and mornings checking email or (yes) blogging often means leaving Betsy to feed or take care of Henry.

Work is important, sure, but how important is it? Hard to gauge. It's always a judgment call. For example, imagine it's 7 pm and I'm feeding Henry and my phone rings. It's a parishioner. Do I answer, or do I let it go to voice mail? Honestly, often when I answer it turns out to be less than an emergency, other times, it is! But I can't tell the difference by the caller-ID. So, in truth my willingness to answer the phone at night is an intuitive, snap-decision based mostly on my own sense of exhaustion. Honestly, if I'm tired and I've had a drink or two and it's late I'm far less likely to answer that late-night call. Can that be okay? I know people that think that you should be ready to be a priest at all times. You should be ready to take that call and "be there" for your people no matter what. But as I mature in ministry I have come to question that uber-pastor myth.

When I was young in ministry I fantasized about having a "go-bag" with prayer book, stole, and anointing oil by the door and another in my car. Nine months of being a hospital chaplain cured me of that particular fantasy right-quick! Sure, you can be prepared for your first emergency, and maybe your second. But when your beeper goes off the third or fifth or seventh time in an on-call period, you quickly realize that God's grace isn't about you and your pitiful attempts to "be ready." If you are going to be an effective conduit of God's grace, it ain't gonna be because you had a pretty kit. Either you are the sort of person that can help someone cry at 3 a.m. with their dead mother, or you can learn to be, or you can't: those are your three choices. However, nothing you can imagine will prepare you for the challenges of pastoral ministry. Trust me. You cannot anticipate the stuff that is going to come at you.

Consider this scenario... a priest I knew was called at 8.20 P.M. because one of his parishioners died. It was one of his Wardens that called him and asked him to visit the widow. The man that died (and his wife) were pillars of the church. The priest said he couldn't go. Why? Because, he said, he had been drinking. Harsh. Imagine having to tell someone that. "I can't take care of this person because I've been drinking." Yet many professions have exactly that danger. I'm sure most doctors and lawyers, for example, could tell a story like that. When I heard this story, before I knew what the ministry was really about, I had a hard time not being judgmental. I think I said something like, "Well, put on a pot of coffee and tell them you'll be there in an hour!" Now I'm wiser. I see that sometimes "no" is a good answer. Harsh. But if you don't bend you are gonna break.

Self-giving in ministry (and I do mean "ministry" broadly) is more complex than the extremes of enthusiasm would suggest. Give everything of yourself away and the demons will eat you for breakfast. Give nothing and you are like the walking dead, floating along and changing nothing. And most of us Christians answer in the ambiguous middle.

I know, this all seems pretty obvious. But this razor thin margin--between working a couple of hours on Monday or not--is where transformation happens. Something about that decision is a fractal that describes your relationship with God, the world, and yourself. It's a microcosm. And it's not an obvious choice. Sometimes, it's Godly to put in those extra hours. Sometimes it's not!

And that's what I'm thinking about as I think about what I'm going to do tomorrow.

Footnote--I've noticed that my parishioners are stepping up their commitment to the church to match mine. The head of my chancel guild snatched my alb away with a zeal for washing it that made me realize that something quite important had happened. Sweet!



Daniel said...

Hmmm. that is very interesting.
I've noticed this even in Divinity School. There needs to be a balance between academic work, and nurturing one's own spirit.

COTM has been a place where I've been nurtured, not that I haven't contributed, but I've certainly felt nourished there.

If ever you need a light bulb changed! Give me a call! :)

Felicity Pickup said...


David said...

Wow, awesome piece of thinking, dude.
I'm actually at a loss for words.

revted said...

Tay, great blog. This should be required reading for new clergy in their first parish. And a reminder to older clergy like myself.

This would make a great article in the Anglican. Maybe let some people in on what we struggle with.

BTW, I find that people don't abuse the 3am call. Just knowing that I can be there is somehow more reassuring than testing whether I am or not.


Hillary said...

Sherpa Tay,

Perhaps your leaders are not leaving because they are assured of your support. You are leading from behind, carrying our oxygen, climbing with us. he fire does not burn out with enough fuel.

When we answered the question "Our leaders are a spiritual example to me," we may have been looking at the wrong people; our leaders. Perhaps we should have been looking at ourselves and assessing whether we have grown spiritually since being joined by our leaders. As for me, I think I 'wrote' a hymn yesterday, and I have the Lord and our leaders to thank for it (I qualify 'wrote' because the Lord and others write the hymns for us, we just order the words, but the surprise and uncertainty inherent in the phrase "I think I wrote a hymn" appeals to me). If you had asked me last week if this would ever happen, I would have doubted it. It is even more surprising because it happened at a very busy time. But it happened because of a combination of things going on in and around the church lately, including the NCD survey, a sermon, and some discussion. So, if appropriate, let this hymn be dedicated to the current leaders at COTM. Its simplicity comforts me because if it is close to being theologically correct, it means I have been listening.

Thief On A Cross

I'm a woeful sinner
My everything's gone wrong
But I'll end up a winner
I know that I belong
For Jesus is my Saviour
I've known it all along
I've been promised paradise
The saints I'll be among

I've been promised paradise
Not what I can afford
Not something I deserve
But this is our accord
Paid for with His suffering
Promised by His Word
I've been promised paradise
Promised by the Lord

He taught us to pray for
Our Father for our bread
To ask for our forgiveness
From evil to be led
They put Him on a cross
For us His blood was bled
We asked Him to remember
He gave us life instead

Love God with your whole heart
Love your neighbour true
As you do to yourselves
Unto others do
Let this be your vocation
To keep God's promise new
Reach out to every nation
The Lord will be with you

So become like a thief
And take up your own cross
And seek ye first the kingdom
Of God and righteouseness
Ask Him to remember
Accept Him as your own
And you'll be given heaven
And never be alone

Peace Tay, and pass the oxygen Brother.

Tay Moss said...

The real peak of the exodus of leadership occurred just before I arrived. I think the issue goes deeper than my leadership style, or even my predecessors, right to the core of COTM's culture. For instance, I find it telling that I get dueling messages about what you all want from your Incumbent. Some people say they want a Sherpa-like guide, others want a captain-of-the-ship. People sometimes ask me to do a particular type of programme, but then they don't participate when I do it. It's quite complex.