An Operating Manual for Ministers (at least this one)

A wee while back I posted a piece on Facebook by American Pastor Gary Brinn, purporting to be a list of "Secrets that your Pastor Can't Share in a Sermon". It's a variation on a theme that has been doing the rounds of the internet for years (and probably existed in print form before that). I suggested, and then rapidly retracted the suggestion, that maybe I would publish my own list... Well, after sober reflection (?) here are a few things that, were I an electronic device, would be printed in 6 languages on a large piece of paper; no-one ever reads them but most users work them out eventually. By the same token, most of my congregation have worked most of these out with me, whether or not I have explicitly stated them... however many of them probably apply to others, and might help anyone unfortunate enough to end up with me as their cleric in the future:

1) Your jokes about me only working one day a week are not funny... not even the first time round... and that was a long time ago. But I'll probably laugh all the same. I usually counter by saying something along the lines of "Yeah, that's why I came into ministry, but I didn't read the small print on the contract." You probably only think I work one day because that's the only day you see me, conducting a service, or maybe two, (although as this week, 3 isn't unusual). But each of those services take hours of preparation... choosing Bible readings, studying the passages in question, picking hymns, preparing sermon and prayers, coordinating with anyone else involved... But that's not all... there are Bible studies and administrative meetings to prepare and attend, pastoral visits to make, civic functions to represent the church at, picking up whatever others have left undone, acting as unofficial caretaker, church secretary and/or computer technician. And that's without taking into account stuff in the wider church that doesn't even appear on the radar of local church members, but is just expected by the church hierarchy... I try to keep it below 60 hours per week, but if I don't laugh at your witticism concerning my working week, perhaps it's been a little bit more than that for a while...
2) And as for saying, in the run up to Christmas or Easter "So is this your busy season?" don't expect a truthful answer. If truth be told it is often no more busy than the rest of the year, thankfully, because the rest of the year is already busy... and there is a limit to how much you can actually do in a week. It's just a different sort of busy. Routine events like Bible studies usually stop for a week or two and all the other seasonal specials start... That said, by the time Christmas Day or Easter comes I am totally and utterly exhausted... So don't expect to see me for at least 3-4 days afterwards...
3) But getting back to Sunday worship being the only time you see me, three things: First, please, please, please don't come to me 2 minutes before I go in to pray with the choir to tell me something important (unless you want to warn me that the sanctuary is on fire or the like)... This is especially true  if it is something critical about me or someone else in worship. It is not that I am averse to criticism entirely (more of that later) but there is a place and a time and the vestry 2 minutes before going into worship is neither... At that moment, on the best of days I will be prayerfully trying to focus on what lies ahead, or on bad days I will be running around like a scalded cat trying to sort out some last minute hitch. Either way I will not be at my most receptive and it will not be conducive to positive preparation for worship.
4) Second, if you have anything important to tell me, then please don't simply tell me at the door as you are shaking hands with me on the way out... It's remarkable how many do... There are others who look at the queue building up at the main door and disappear out the back, or what they describe as the "Nothing to Declare Channel". If you do tell me something on the way out the door, I may nod and smile, or shake my head, bite my lip and furrow my brow in concern, but really, the likelihood of me remembering what you have told me for longer than a retarded goldfish is remote. By that stage on a Sunday my brain is completely and utterly frazzled... My blood sugars will be low, my adrenalin depleted, and, unless some kind soul has pressed a coffee into my hands, I won't even be able to draw on the effects of caffeine to keep me alert. The thing you want to tell me may be important to you, but the other eight things that other people told me at the door are also important to them. And I think they are all important... too important to entrust them to me in a verbal message at the door when I am clinically brain dead. If it really is important then please write it down and give me a note, send it in an email, or phone later to arrange to meet me during the week to talk. 
5) Third, don't moan to others about not seeing me during the week. If you need to see me, either because of the complaints I would rather you didn't bring to me immediately before worship, or because of something important in your life that I would prefer you didn't entrust to me at the door of the church, or for any other reason, then please call me, and we can arrange an appropriate time to meet. Or come to see me at the "pastoral surgery" I run. Pastoral conversations are important, they help me to know what are the live issues with you as individuals and as a congregation, but also because part of my role is to help you deal with difficult issues in your life. However, whilst I think that "routine" pastoral visiting is important, the important invariably plays second fiddle to the vital, with time taken up by emergencies and priority visits to the sick, elderly and infirm. So unless you phone me and arrange to meet then you may well need to be in a bad way before you find me on your doorstep or by your bedside.
6) Also, whilst you may see me on a Sunday, I may not see you... and more to the point I may not NOT see you on those Sundays when you are not in attendance, and a significant period of time may have elapsed before I actually notice your absence. So there are two points at play here... first, don't sit at home stewing, saying "When is that useless minister going to visit me?" Again, phone or email me... And if I do finally notice (or am told by someone else that you have been missing for 6 weeks) and come to your home, then be honest with me about your reasons for absence... if you have a problem (especially with me) then I can't help unless I know what it is. And if you aren't in then, when I drop a card through your door, again, phone me using the number on the card... Otherwise I'll presume you really don't want me to call at all...
7) If anyone is going to notice who isn't there Sunday by Sunday, it should be those sitting next to them normally (because everyone has their "seat")... If someone is unexpectedly missing next to you either tell me (though not at the door) or, better still, follow up with them first, and see how they are... That's the sign of a healthy caring congregation, not having a professional pastor who does the whole congregation's caring for them on a surrogate basis because he's paid to...
8) And if anyone ends up in hospital, suffers a bereavement or other calamity, then please, please, please phone me and let me know... when I was ordained I did not get a crystal ball along with a Bible, so letting me know about such things is important if I am going to do my job... don't even worry about being the 14th person to let me know some piece of information... better 14 times than not at all... This is especially the case when someone goes into hospital... I'm chaplain to the local hospital and even then I have had church members be admitted to hospital, die and be buried before I knew they were ill. This is partly due to administrative incompetence in the hospital and wariness about embarrassing people in asking about their faith (despite the fact they will happily ask about sexual activity and bowel movements... which strike me as infinitely more personal than whether someone is a Methodist), but could easily be subverted if patients or their families would simply tell me themselves.
9) You will not like some aspect of the way I do things, be it my "lack" of pastoral visits (to you), my conduct of worship, my theology, my politics, my clothes... Whatever. If the things that irk you about me approach any sort of a critical threshold, do not moan about me to all who will listen, particularly not outside of the congregation, at least not until you have come and moaned to me. But not before worship (or any other meeting for that matter). I am not perfect. I need to learn from other people's perspectives, and I really do value honest and open engagement with people about my thinking and work.
10) However, do hold in mind that I work for God... not you or the Church Council, or the Circuit Superintendent. or the Methodist Conference. That may seem a little over the top, but that's the way it is. Every other level of authority is just middle management. The standard line trotted out at many ministers' introduction to a new congregation (installation, induction, call it what you will) is "The Rev. Soandso is your servant, but you are not his master." But even as a servant, don't think you can treat me as a lacky because you think "I pay his stipend." You, and the rest of the congregation together pay my stipend... but it is a stipend, not a salary... It allows me to carry out my ministry without financial worries (just)... I don't get paid according to results... and certainly not on an hourly rate (otherwise I might be on minimum wage or below). I didn't become a minister to make money. I did so because I sensed a call from God that I could not resist any longer... and let me tell you, I did resist. That means I'm not always going to preach what you want to hear. Sometimes I'm going to challenge you, in fact, sometimes I'm going to really, really annoy you. I won't go out of my way to do it and I don't do it for fun. I do it because that is what God's word does to all of us at some time or other on some issue or another.
11) Whilst you and the rest of the congregation pay my stipend that does not mean I will spend more time attending to those who pay more in... in fact, I steadfastly avoid ANY knowledge of who pays what in terms of church finances. Also, my pastoral concern does not stop if you have not been "paying in". Just because you have been giving regularly for 60 years or attending worship for even more it does not mean that I will be spending more time on your concerns than the concerns of a single mum who has never crossed the threshold of the church, never mind "paid in", but has asked for my help. I firmly believe in the saying of William Temple that the church is the only organisation that exists for the benefit of those who are not its members. Now, if everyone took that to heart then I could spend more of my time looking after the congregation, while the congregation then cares for the wider community, but we're not quite there yet.

12) If you offer your resignation from any position of responsibility within the church, I will not accept that resignation unless it is written down. Until that point I will discuss with you any reasons you might have for wanting or needing to resign, whether there is anything that we can do to change things around to make your resignation unnecessary, and whether you have identified a successor to your role. Leadership within the church should be based on a discipleship model of disciples making disciples and leaders making leaders. If you write a letter of resignation to me without discussing it first, particularly if it is in some fit of pique at some decision made by me or others, then I will simply accept the written resignation, and will not allow myself or other church leaders to be held to ransom. The same applies to resignation from membership of the congregation, or, as has happened in the past, the threat to stop "paying in" until a decision has been changed. The refusal to accept the financial responsibilities of membership of the church is not only blackmail, but effective resignation, and will be treated as such. 
13) In terms of your preferences as regards worship, I try, I really do try, to conduct worship in a way that helps the maximum number of people to praise God and hear what his word is saying... But the main audience for worship is not you, but God... and I am not some paid performer there to entertain you in worship, I am as Kierkegaard once famously suggested, merely the stage manager or prompter, trying to make it possible for the whole people of God to "perform" for that audience of one. Or if you prefer your analogies to come from more contemporary sources, I am, as Brian McLaren suggests like a gym instructor who leads you in a weekly workout so that your whole lives, corporately and individually throughout the week, are a fit sacrifice of worship to God. For obvious reasons I prefer the theatre analogy (who could ever take me seriously as a gym instructor) but whichever one you chose the ultimate question is the same, not how much you get out of worship how much you put into it... I prepare for about 5-10 hours for most services. How about you?

14) I don't conduct services of worship according to the clock. I try not to go over 1 hour 15 minutes in the morning, or 1 hour at night, and I try to not be too verbose in my sermons, but it is frequently the case, as someone once said about writing letters (I've heard it variously attributed to Pascal, Voltaire, Austen, Twain and Shaw) "I didn't have time to write a short one..." I have conducted some monumentally long services, and preached sermons that even I was bored by half way through... When I do so, I will generally apologise and try to learn from the experience... I've been at this game some time but am still learning and hope to continue doing so for some time yet.
15)  Again I am NOT perfect, nor do I think that I am... Indeed I am probably more critical of myself than anyone else could be. I am human. Honestly. Ministers are not a separate species. On the one hand, I try to be approachable... I'm not stuck on some higher spiritual plain... or in a pulpit, 6 feet above contradiction. But equally I hurt when I hear you've been complaining about me behind my back for 2 years and have never had the integrity to speak directly to me, or because of the continual "jokey" jibes that are made about whatever my failings are in your eyes, or the way that my family can get caught in the crossfire when people have a problem with me. It hurts. I try to forgive... but sometimes it is difficult...

16) Finally, the 6 Nations Rugby tournament is coming up... Please, never schedule a meeting, or try to contact me during an Ireland rugby match... or you may discover just how imperfect I am...



Popular posts from this blog

A Woman of no Distinction

A Psalm for Sunday: Praise to the Lord who Listens...

I am the True Vine