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!