New beginnings?

Ok. So I thought it was time to give this a go again… and yes, I hear the groans of ‘another clergy blog?’ So why now and why this particular title for a blog?

Next year, it’ll be 20 years since I was first ordained. To celebrate that, I’m going on sabbatical (hopefully, if the powers that be agree to my proposal). If all goes to plan, one year from today, that period for rest, recreation and reflection will be about to begin – or rather, one year from today this will be the last day I’ll be working in my own parish before I go on leave.

So before anyone says “ah three months off….” there is some serious work and reflection at the heart of what I intend to do. The world has changed since the summer of 1996. Then my mobile phone did only one thing: it made and received calls. I had no internet connection (that was very new and very expensive). My diary was a strange book in which, by date-to-a-page, I wrote things down with something called a ‘pen’. My first stipend was about £600 a month. It was all new. It was very exciting. I loved it.

I still love what I do – don’t get me wrong. Lots of water has passed under the bridge. My friends comment on the grey hair, and if I’m honest, reading small print has now started to be a struggle. 20 years on, as Team Rector of a large parish with a stunning, impressive, beautiful (and very very expensive to maintain) church there are huge differences between what I did as a brand new Deacon, and how I now spend my days.

Busy. Yes, we’re all busy. I’m not the busiest priest in the world, I’m sure. I am astonishingly fortunate to live and work where I do, with the people I do, as as always been the case. But, my days seem now to fill with endless ‘stuff’ that needs to be done, and has to be done that often seem a million miles away from either the halcyon days of my curacy, or the romantic ideals of priestly ministry I was formed for at theological college.

Now, its contracts, staff handbooks, rotas, staff, safeguarding, health and safety, committees, reports, more reports, more meetings, emails – lots and lots of emails, social media, planning, PCC matters, policies, finance, statistics, Quota payments, Grant funders, HLF, budgets, training… The list goes on…

I wonder, and worry that the ‘proper vicaring’ gets lost in the administrative see and (try as I might, and I can be very trying) the life and vocation I have isn’t dealing with what might better and more rightly absorb my time and energy. Have I now become the antithesis of what I had always hoped to be – am I just another busy priest?

I have great lay people, office staff and a fantastic Team Vicar – but I see in them often what I know to be true in myself – more and more demands being made, with less and less time to deal with them. There has to be a better way?

Take a look again (those of you who are ordained) at that list above. Yes, the boring one. Just how many of those did we deal with, or were taught about at theological college? Or POT, CME, IME4-7 or whatever you might have called the ‘training’ given as curates? For many clergy today, there is a patchy sequence of training and support – and suddenly faced with job description writing, or a myriad of other things, there is often a sense of ‘where on earth do I go to find out about…’

So that’s what I’m going to be spending my sabbatical thinking about. How do we better support parish clergy – particularly when it comes to the less glamorous aspects of what we do? Are there lessons we can learn from larger churches and cathedrals? What resources are available when the part time parish administrator announces retirement is about to happen and you suddenly wonder what recruitment needs will have to be thought about (or as we call it now, what automatic pension enrollment scheme shall we use)? How do we share “good practice” (i.e. get it right and not get sued)?

For it strikes me that what makes life busy is I have two jobs now. I’m the priest who works in a parish with the “priestly” things we associate with all of that. And I’m the leader of a business, a parochial CEO and chairman of the board, who’s ultimately responsible for keeping the show on the road ( or ‘flourishing’ as we call it). Are those two aspects compatible, or exclusive? Does one inform or control the other – and to what extent?

When I was at college, we often used in stressful moments (and being young and flippant) to pretend it was 1953, the Queen had not long come to the throne, and the sun was only just setting on the empire – peace seemed settled, rationing was coming to an end, and all was well. Of course, that might have just been a romantic idea – a longing for an easier time in a simpler world (or so we perceived).

It isn’t that the world is bad today – but it is different. Whether for good or ill, well that’s a different question. As one of my wonderful and wise retired colleagues says, he wouldn’t want my job now, with the plate spinning it requires.for all the tea in China. How then can we sing the Lord’s song in what feels like a strange land? How can we make that difference that we’d convinced ourselves as shiny new curates we would one day make? What are the new beginnings we need to make, and the old habits that we need to  let go of?

That’s a question that between now and the start of my time away, I want to start to think about.