In Praise of Method and Application

A propos the priesthood, Giles Fraser writes in praise of Incompetence in his latest Unherd blog. He talks movingly and rightly of the dangers of any priest ever pretending that they are “successful”. And of how the grace and love of God uses the unlikely, the odd, the incompetent to advance the cause of God’s love and justice. The Bible and our faith’s history are littered with fine examples of how great things have been done on a large and (perhaps much, much more importantly) a very small-scale by those you would least expect to do so. All of this keeps us humble and reminds us of the truth of Paul’s telling us that we have this treasure in jars of clay.

I want, however, to raise a flag for hard work and organisation. I have been a priest since I was twenty-five. I never had a career before I was ordained. I was lucky to be a fairly naturally hard-working person, and had a dutiful sense that I was under an obligation to do my best. But over a long ministry as vicar, rural dean and chaplain I have noticed many colleagues who did not naturally have this drive.

The trouble with being a clergyperson is that you are paid a stipend. This is an allowance sufficient to allow you to live and to perform the duties of your office. But you are not paid a wage or a salary. Your work is not tied to time. You work when you want to and need to in order to fulfil your responsibilities. This is a tricky business to manage.

The naturally lazy can spend a long time doing very little indeed. Or taking an inordinate amount of time to do relatively simple tasks because they were poorly organised. But provided they turn up at church and take the services they must and don’t do things so badly that the archdeacon is complained to, then they can drift on for years unguided and unmanaged and unimproved. I have known clergy exactly like that – who did a few services a week, visited the one or two parishioners they liked for a bit of gossip, and pottered about reading or in the garden.

Conversely there are the clergy, who, because of the unbounded nature of the role, work themselves to a standstill because they can never do enough, and the jobs are never finished and the to do list remains ever full. There are many clergy marriages that have foundered on overwork and burn out. Thankfully, places like the Society of Martha and Mary exist to support and help the clergy who do work hard discover some balance.

I want to suggest, however, that hard work is not always well-directed, or well-organised work. In the 1990s and 2000s I was rector first of five parishes and then of a team of thirteen parishes in Cambridgeshire. I worked hard, very hard, to manage and to grow the spiritual life of the villages I ministered to. But two people helped more than I can say, and I have never properly acknowledged what they gave me. I won’t name them, but they will recognise themselves. They were both colleagues in the Team Ministry I led.

One was my curate. I had the fortune to be asked to train a man who had worked for Parcel Force before he trained for the ministry. What that meant he brought to his ordained life was a real ability to organise methodically pieces of work that needed doing. The classic case was working out how we were to have all the meetings that we needed in a benefice of thirteen parishes without clashes and confusion. The answer, which my colleague provided, was to devise a spreadsheet which booked all meetings eighteen months in advance, so everyone knew in very good time, when and where everything of that kind was happening. It was a big piece of work – but once done could be easily updated.

I was initially a bit resistant to this. It seemed rather unministerial to me. But I was soon converted – there was in his method a truly liberating truth – getting organised frees you to do other things and stops you wasting time sorting out messes.   That spreadsheet made for hours more pastoral contact time with all kinds of people. He completely converted me to forward planning and organisation in one spreadsheet. I am forever grateful.

Another colleague had been a senior HR manager in IBM and now farmed. He offered to take me through an appraisal process. I agreed and he very gently told me of some of my greatest failings. They were mostly about prompt responses to communications. He helped me find a system that made sure I responded fast to people who wanted to get hold of me without letting their needs overtake me. I learnt how to do my job better. I improved. I will always be hugely grateful to him for what he gave me in that process.

The lessons they taught me have never left me. I used them extensively in Chaplaincy. Now I run my own business in celebrancy. I rely on my reputation to earn my living. My bookings come almost entirely from Funeral Directors recommending me to families and then booking my services. I have to be both hard-working and organised as well as pastorally sensitive, or I would get no work. If I messed up it would reflect on the Funeral Director and I would never be asked to take a funeral again by that company. And word soon gets around.

The benefits of applying oneself with method and organisation are not primarily for myself. I think that what makes them really important things to hold on to as we labour is that they are both, in ministry, ways of showing that we truly care for other people. If I want to love my neighbour as myself, then the dreary virtues of being well-organised, punctual, and prepared show that I value the people I am going to see. Working from a snowstorm of paper on my desk will impact on how I take care of people or not. Easy for the naturally well-organised, not so much for some of us. But these are things that can be learnt, can be bothered with. And in so doing we bother about other people, and we show them that we do.

Of course, it is God who is at work in us however we work, however lazy or shambolic we are, when something extraordinary and gracious and life-transforming takes place. Graham Greene’s whiskey priest in the Power and the Glory taught us that. But that is no reason not to try our hardest or seek to be as well-organised as we can. The same Paul who tells us so often that the initiative is God’s in working in us and through us also says. “leaving what is behind, and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on towards the goal”.