I pulled the bin liner, tight, up to my elbow, closed my eyes, and plunged my hand into the toilet. After a couple of grasps, the blue paper towels were out and the U-bend was clear.
That’s the last thing I did last night before leaving the church building. I had been doing a Covid clean of the often-touched surfaces. And just when I thought it was finished, I saw the blocked loo.
I’m neither boasting or complaining; this is just the reality of parish ministry. I’m certain that colleagues across the country regularly clean loos, fix light switches, sweep halls and hoover offices.
I don’t mind that stuff. What I find most difficult is failing to live up to the expectations of others. And in particular failing to meet the expectations of the authors of ministry books.
A friend and I are re-reading the superlative ‘Working the Angles’ by Eugene Peterson. This book deeply affected me when I read it as a probationary minister. Reading it fifteen years later, I’m struck by how much more it resonates.
Peterson makes a compelling case for a ministry focussed only on Prayer, Scripture and Spiritual Direction. He talks of being sent home from church finance meetings because he was not to waste time on such distractions. Combine this with the advice from older ministers that we should spend the morning in the study, afternoons visiting and arrange meetings for the evening. Then there’s the mantra that there should be an hour of prep for each minute of your sermon. Or the example of scholarly pastors that manage to publish, in their spare time, entire translations of scripture or multiple books.
Now, I love sitting in my study, but I have no idea how these ministers have managed to stay true to such convictions. And as I absorb their advice I find the initial admiration soon this turns to self-loathing. Why don’t I work like that?
But, on reflection, I’m not certain this is entirely biblical advice. I think of Jesus’ ministry. He certainly prioritised prayer and scripture. He sought quiet places for reflection and solitude. But his compassion regularly compelled him to disrupt his plans in order to meet the needs of the people. I also think of his example of feet washing, which of course had spiritual significance. But it was also a regular practical act of service to others.
And I think of the setting apart of Deacons in the New Testament church in order to release the Apostles from table service. We are taught this as a good model for ministry but I can’t help but think it was not Jesus’ model. I suspect he would have willingly waited on tables and expected church leaders to join him. I find it significant that the two main Acts stories about Deacons have them preaching and evangelising, not making lunch. Is it possible that the church was not supposed to separate preaching and practical service?
Ultimately, I do think ministers are supposed to try and jealously guard time for engaging with God through prayer and Bible study. And I do think, also, that we should value highly times of spiritual direction. Jesus tried hard to protect these activities. But like him, perhaps we should not be ashamed of engaging in more practical activities and demonstrations of compassion through service.
And perhaps we should give ourselves a break from self-recrimination when we fail to live up to the expectations of others or even our own. Perhaps, also, this will redress any pressure that my last post loaded on hard pressed clergy-folks to achieve spiritual greatness!