Last week I finally got to sorting out the years of theological books I have amassed through over 15 years of church ministry.
When I left the manse that we lived in, I got rid of some books, but I kept the rest in a tolerant friend’s shed….. and in the end, after a tumultuous year & so the tolerance was stretched no further I retrieved them and looked through them.
I love books; I value a house with piles of books and I struggle to let go of them, but there comes a point when you have to- if not by moving, downsizing, wanting more space etc, there is the final letting go when your family clear out the place where you once lived.
But I had to let go- I do not have the space anymore and I doubt that I ever will. Faced with this, I looked at the books which were once so valuable: some of them representing a BD, some an MA, some valued theological positions that I no longer fully subscribe to and some being unique to church leadership. Whilst one can never say ‘never’, it is unlikely that I will ever be back in full time church ministry.
Out they went/are going: sold to an online site, given second hand shops and to friends. The ones I am retaining (only a third or so) apart from a winnowed out commentary and worship resources section are the ones that are more reflective or contemplative. Ones with space between the words. Ones with words that are not angry or over prescriptive.
I thought I would have regrets, but I don’t. What I do have is thankfulness for what has been and hope for what will be.
We were talking together about someone we knew who was in ministry and their suitability for a particular role.
‘They are okay, but I worry about anyone caught up in their pastoral vortex’.
It is a tricky thing being alongside someone- on the surface it seems easy: to be present, but it takes time to acquire the skills and you can never say you have ‘made it’ or are an ‘expert’. In fact: even writing in that way makes me sound like I know it all: I don’t.
You have to be aware of ‘space’ for the other person, aware of your own ego and incipient ‘messiah complex’ and trust the person/God/time to do their work; learning that you are not in control (in fact, being comfortable with your own innate powerlessness).
When you lose that, you risk catching up the person you are working with in your own pastoral vortex: they become your fulfilment, you talk too much, you try and ‘fix’ things and you don’t step back. At worst, they become, in your stories just another illustration of how great and wonderful you are.
I hope we were wrong about that person, I hope we have missed something and I hope we have judged too harshly. And I hope that no one is ever sucked into that vortex.
I was talking to another minister-also a chaplain- a few days ago. We were talking through some of the issues that we are dealing with and seeking mutual support.
He told me of some advice that he had received from an old Baptist pastor:-
‘When you don’t know what to do, it is better to err too much on the side of Grace than to err too much on the side of Judgement’.
I already knew that, but the restatement of it hit me like a lightbulb coming on. Suddenly past issues and conflicts were highlighted:
-the ones where angry, spittle flecked faces are yelling ‘I am telling you this in love brother/sister”
-the situations where eager ministers, flush full of truth are eager to judge someone they don’t understand or label as ‘weak.’
– the times when I have heard words to the effect of ‘x congregation/ person’ has no idea- they need leadership (subtext: and only I can give it).
If you watch/listen carefully enough, and ost often when you are not expecting it, insight comes…
Last week someone tutted at me about the ‘priorities’ of those who did not go to a Maundy Thursday service. I think they were provoked by me saying I had forgotten as I was rehearsing for a play. A minister ‘forgetting’ something church wise is as close to a cardinal sin as, well, something very bad…erm…
I get the point, I do- Holy Week is important and if you don’t ride the journey between Palm Sunday and Easter Sunday, you miss the bad bits, the unresolved questions and the contradictions.
I don’t get the repressed anger, the ‘shoulds’ , the implied obligations or the feeling that ‘they’ should be like ‘us’ who are regular.
I did that- frequently- I guess it is a very human thing to do: anger at the one who hasn’t tried/suffered as we have. A better way, I guess, would be to fall in love with your amazing activity again & just do it, enjoy it & demonstrate it is something great to be part of….but then ‘bless’ those who never come.
I confess: I rarely managed it.
I wish I had.
I largely loved being a minister in pastoral charge of churches (although I began to have profound misgivings about denominational management) and there are things that I miss about it, without sensing that I should go back to doing it. I last preached on Feb 8th 2015, I will preach again towards the end of this month but I don’t when/if I will again.
I had met/have met some who ‘need’ to be a minister in a way that can be unhealthy: their identity cannot be separated from what they do & they feel a desire to always be in the centre.
I realise that I don’t ‘need’ to be a minister in that way any more; over this year that has been something that has really suprised me: I get to see my immediate family more, I see friends more and I hang about more. I have discovered the delicious pleasure of a ‘hardening of the oughteries.’
I don’t know if this is permanent, but just at the moment it feels lovely and wonderful. It feels healing to not be in the centre any more.
Some days, before I officially start work I have been visiting someone facing some difficulties to listen, reflect and pray with them.
Apart from that, there has been no agenda.
In hindsight, this was getting squeezed out of ordinary ministry when I was a full time minister. However, when I had space/made space it was one of the most fulfilling things I did, even though I didn’t really ‘do’ anything.
Yet: If you asked me what I most missed from ordinary ministry, it would be this- something that could not be categorised, evaluated or reported on.
Years ago, when I was being assessed for training for the ministry, I had to conduct a ‘trial service’. One of the retired ministers who interviewed me said that retirement was great as he experienced a ‘hardening of the oughteries’: he suddenly realised that he didn’t ‘have’ to do things, or rather he lost the word ‘ought’ from his vocabulary.
I suddenly realised that that has happened to me. I think I was learning to say ‘no’ as a minister, but always there was some anxiety: ‘should’ I have been there? I ‘ought’ to have done that. And even when I decided that 3 weekday evenings plus Sundays was enough time out, there was always a voice: ”ought’ you to do that?’
Now it has come home to me: I don’t need to feel the ‘ought’ any more. I can say ‘no’ without feeling guilt. Jesus did say ‘Love your neighbour as yourself’….. maybe it is harsh but a heck of a lot of ministers seem to punish themselves and their health so much by being beholden to ‘ought’ that they can’t really love anyone since they don’t love themselves …
Whatever: for a while I am enjoying being the ‘rebel’.. I don’t ‘have’ to do anything any more.
I was speaking to a minister; the kind that sometimes causes envy in me- mostly on top of things, yet not boastful or arrogant or rude and able to model vulnerability. They reflected on what they did and after listing the many facets of their unique role said:-
‘The best bit often gets squeezed out: the bit where you get to ‘loiter with intent’.
We spoke a bit longer and I said:
‘I get to do that most of the time: ‘loiter with intent”.
I suddenly realised how fortunate I am: in a past life that was often the bit I enjoyed the most and now I get paid to do that for the majority of my time.
I reckon I reached the last box of unpacking at the weekend (the house is still not sorted out though): the box of dread- all the household papers/tax returns and miscellaneous filed ephemera.
They had to be sorted out; they couldn’t just be dumped in the Jurassic layer in my study: I don’t have one anymore and everything needs to fit- there is no extra space.
In the files I found a pile of ‘thank you’ letters. Someone told me it would be a good idea to keep letters like this when I was in ministry: something to read when times got tough and you questioned. For a while I did just that: read them (I have always questioned: it is both my strength and my weakness) and then I just filed them.
It is strange reading them now as I prepare to bin them: names I don’t recognise, events that have escaped me and heart felt stories. Quite a few said that I was a ‘breath of fresh air’: something that I have never understood.
I did toy with keeping them, but I have to move on and let go. It was. however, a curiously affirming experience in the light of the year that has just gone- maybe I did ok. And maybe it is not pride to say that I did.
Maybe, I could say ‘thank you’ more for people and things that have moved me…
This holiday has fallen rather neatly: start new job on 2nd March, move house in June, youngest son finishes Primary school in July and now I am almost up to 6 months in.
In a big sense, the future begins now: the probationary period is over,we are settled in a new home and both sons are at senior school imminently.
Tomorrow I go back to work- it will be unlike the August restart when I was in church ministry: a slow lumbering jog, ready for the September ‘insane sprint’. When I start tomorrow, it will be a rapid stepping up of the gears and full on: but with no September slog. This will be the real marking of my new life.
The future begins now: best pray and give thanks…