Saturday, 6 August 2011

What Do We Expect of Our Priests?

Evelyn Underhill, an Anglican mystic and spiritual director of the early twentieth century, once said something to the effect (I can't remember her exact words), 'One thing I require of a priest above all else is that he(sic) has time.'

Today I had one of the several-times-a-week conversations that I have with people who are concerned about falling numbers in the church. The conversation went something like this;
'I don't know what the clergy do all day but they are not bringing people into church.'
'Do you think that is responsibility of just the clergy?'
'Well all I know is that if you were in business, you wouldn't be getting paid unless you were producing results.'

 It's hard to know where to go with this other than to listen and try to learn. I would be the first to admit that I have witnessed situations where clergy seem to have operated in ways that clearly put people off the church and do not inspire faith. I wouldn't exempt myself at all from the charge of having made mistakes in my ministry in terms of drawing boundaries too tightly and making wrong assumptions. As an archdeacon I am dealing with one parish where a recent stewardship campaign revealed the fact that villagers were very supportive of the desire to have a thriving local church but massively sceptical about whether they were in fact welcome in their village church. The last priest but one had refused to allow people who were not confirmed access to the sacraments but failed to run any confirmation classes while the last priest had refused to baptise their children on the grounds that the parents did not practise the faith! Put all this together with the increasing secularism of society and the lack of Sunday availablity and it begins to seem a miracle that churches in villages like this still have reasonable congregations and are active alongside their current priest. Yes, sometimes we clergy need to be held to account and helped to understand the results of our actions so that we can change and improve our ways.

However, I am increasingly concerned about this 'results in terms of numbers' approach to appraising clergy. While it is understandable, it is also harmful as it creates a consumerist understanding of what faith, never mind ministry, is all about. The body of Christ is not called to productivity but to faithfulness. Now faithfulness does give rise to the need to get things done and to communicate effectively but the 'measurement' of the church's mission is faithfulness to God's ways and the visible fruit of this faithfulness in the lives of every member of the church. This is somewhat different from a business or resource-
management approach to growth and employee appraisal. 

Congregations today often put clergy (and many of our most active laity such as readers, wardens and youth leaders) under great pressure to be busy all the while, thus decreasing the time (Evelyn Underhill's criterion for a good priest) available for prayer, in particular, and for study, thought and preparation, of which true spiritual wisdom is born. Where people detect deep wisdom in priests, leaders and congregations, there is usually a committed following of disciples. Where people detect a lack of depth and spiritual insight, then however 'busy' that group of people might be, people tend to fall away, disillusioned, as time goes by. 

Clergy I speak to often profess themselves to be under-trained in practical matters such as administration (usually top of the list), project management, employment law, financial planning and team building, sometimes also in the skills required for good chairing of meetings. So, many clergy either spend time learning these things after they become incumbents or they never learn them and therefore expend a great deal of energy struggling with things they feel they do not do very well. Sometimes they bring these skills with them from careers outside the church but discover a bewildering lack of resources available to them once ordained.

My point is this; we cannot go on expecting clergy to do more and more and at the same time expect them to be able to maintain and deepen their spiritual life in ways that lead to and renew wisdom. Over the centuries, clergy have been seen as theologians, custodians of the sacraments, quasi legal clerks (mediaeval church), teachers (reformation church), social workers (nineteenth century), counsellors and managers (twentieth century). Down time, more and more roles have accrued to them without any of these roles being removed. Many clergy also lead teams who manage buildings or they manage buildings themselves because no teams exist. They are also expected to provide vision and leadership. It is little wonder, then, that most parish priests today feel and probably are, to some extent, jacks-of-all-trades. Quality is sacrificed to quantity. There may be some lazy clergy, but the overwhelming majority of clergy I know work very hard, often putting in a three-session day, six days a week, and they keep this up for the whole of their working lives.

Where is the time Evelyn Underhill spoke of to become and to be people of prayer and spiritual depth? To be steeped in the scriptures and in the traditions of Christianity? To  think about how the deep truths of the Christian tradition can best be communicated in the particular contexts where we minister and to practise doing this? To inspire faith and nuture it? Contrast other professions and vocations. Even when they are mature and experienced in their chosen area, musicians, sports people, artists, poets, scientists spend long hours practising their chosen discipline and learning how to communicate through it in order to be effective; we might expect the same of our priests. Then there is the question of availability. Clergy struggle constantly to weigh the need to be available to the person who calls round unexpectedly or gets talking with them about something very serious, against the need to do routine pastoral visiting, against the need to do the admin. they have no secretary to help them with, against the need to be properly steeped in the prayer and preparation that fits them to be worship leaders and teachers, usually in a number of very different contexts with a great range of ages. In cities they are ministering across much larger swathes of population than even their immediate predecessors were, and in rural areas they are ministering to many more communities. 

In order for clergy to be effective spiritual leaders we do not simply need to apply management techniques for producing growth; it is much more complex than that. I am not against proper reasearch and appraisal. These are useful tools. However, there is something about the way the Kingdom of God grows which is deeply antithetical towards a consumerist success ethic. Growth happens because of long-term depth of faith and depth of dependence on God. These are very unfashionable concepts, especially 'dependence' in our self-reliant society. God's kingdom grows from tiny, well-planted seeds, from the work of labourers who turn up for the last hour of the day, from the sacrificial giving of the poor, from the willingness of people who cannot normally be expected to get on with each other to work together, from early mornings and late nights spent in prayer on the mountain, from the frustratingly unpredictable work of the Holy Spirit producing change and metanoia and reconciliation in people's lives. 

All Christians and especially priests need to be people with a certain spaciousness of time; time to be present to God in prayer, in study, thought, devotion and service. If we have to start measuring things, these are the places to look, along with some questions about how the church can train priests in more of the skills they need so that they can be confident in areas they are currently anxious about. We need to free people up to give more energy to the core aspects of priesthood which produce spiritual fruit and attract people to God's kingdom and to the life of the church. If we simply make everyone busier and measure and assess more and more, the churches will get emptier. 

So I was grateful to my friend who wanted to apply more rigorous appraisal to the clergy for making me think, but I could not give him a quick, neat answer. Neither could I agree with his approach to church growth, though I could take away the point that clergy may lack some of the skills and resources needed to carry out their ministry effectively and that we should be doing something about that.     

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