In the week after Easter one person said that talking with me made her feel healthy and whole. One person said that I was inspirational. One person helped to keep me rooted and told me that when I was preaching she could not always follow my line of thought. According to St Francis it is the last critical comment that I should value most highly because it is from this that I will learn the most. St Francis, says Moorman (1977), was terrified of praise and was delighted when people spoke of him with contempt because therein he was able to follow more closely in the footsteps of Christ.
My barometer for a healthy parish ministry is honesty, simplicity and joy. Honesty means prayer before the day begins, preparation before preaching and listening before talking: you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free (John 8:32). Being told that my preaching needs to be simplified made me relieved rather than disappointed – it meant that there was something that I could do about it. Scripture is fascinating and intriguing before it instructive and informative and to have reason to go back to source and to relearn how to wonder at the words that are written will be a delight. Sermon preparation time is the northern star for my week. It keeps me from becoming a social care worker, religious service organizer or general nice guy in the community. A minute of preaching takes me 20 minutes to prepare and so a 15 minutes sermon takes me 5 hours to prepare.
The simplicity of my role, as a parish priest, comes into sharp relief with the happy-sad task of being with people as they die. Padding round a hospital at midnight and sitting with a congregation member, now with only morphine to ease their pain, as they live out their last hours of their life, is both poignant and a privilege. A priest is paid a stipend rather than a wage so that he has the time to give to his ministry and the opportunity to do this and I am lucky to be trusted by the church to do so.
Simplicity means that I become like a little child to enter the kingdom of heaven (Mk 10:15). I think well of people with whom I disagree or who do so with me; both of which are a feature of parish life. My sternest critic is my closest friend. St Frances is unsentimental about difficult times that we may have to face. He wrote that we can never tell how patient or humble a person is when everything is going well with him. But when those who should cooperate with him do the exact opposite, then we can tell. A man has as much patience and humility as he has then, and no more.
When I get to Monday evening and find that I have worked two 15-hour days it is a time for me to be honest with myself. It is an unsustainable pace and it is bad theology to do so. If I try to maintain the same pace I will become a part of the statistics produced by St Luke’s Healthcare for the Clergy (2013) who found that 12% of clergy are “struggling or barely coping” with the pressure. 15-hour days is bad theology because the work done, through the church, is God’s responsibility and not my own. Revival in the church will come through faith, prayer and the finger of God. It won’t come through my hard work.
In terms of living joyfully, I have the advantage of being a trail runner. This takes me on some beautiful races in beautiful places: most recently a half marathon along the Sussex coast. At the end of April I will run the same distance in Pembrokeshire. Joy means that I accept God’s gift of grace as mine by right and not something that I have to work to justify. In the Bible ‘joy’ is not a suggestion or advice. It is a command. The genius of God’s grace is that no experience is ever lost but all becomes a part of our growth in Christ. Consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of many kinds because you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance (James 1:2). Everything is done within the love of God and so everything is learning about God.