Friday, July 03, 2009

Risks of the job

Last night's BBC Radio 4's discussion programme 'Off the Page' treated the matter of 'Falling on your sword' - seen in terms of resignations on grounds of principle, or before being disgraced and sacked. Somehow the conversation got on to clergy resignations, for whatever reason good or ill, and how problematic this was when it meant automatic homelessness for clergy families living in accommodation tied to the job, when they didn't own property. There was an interesting exchange about what happened if clergy lost their faith, and could no longer preach with integrity what they were commissioned to preach. How hard if they had a family to provide for, should they compromise, when resigning had such impact?

Stories were told about clergy in remaining post yet openly declaring disbelief in key Christian doctines, and the shock of a chaplain for retired clergy, at discovering that fifty percent of those in his charge openly disavowed the faith that had afforded them a living, once they'd left office and were secure in retirement accommodation. One can also tell stories of pastors who left the straight and narrow and had to resign or else be dismissed, because what was private to them, became public. Or those whose teaching, as opposed to behaviour, caused such mayhem that their license for ministry had to be withdrawn.

Yet, one can just as easily tell stories of faithful pastors resigning on principle, even changing their church allegiance, not because they have lost faith, but because their embrace of faith and commitment changed them, changed where they wanted to be, and with whom they wished to travel the journey of faith.

It's not hard to become disillusioned with churches, given their weaknesses and failures to live in the spirit of Christ's teaching. The anti-religious propaganda of this secularist era has made many believers anxious and put them on the defensive, unable to rise to the challenge of criticism, not least because they are all too aware of the horrendous evils done by religious people in the name of tribe, culture, or their particular brand of orthodoxy. As an ordained person representing the beleaguered band of believers, it's possible to get tired out, experience isolation and abandonment, turn inwardly against any kind of spiritual world view, and just mark time, survive until it's possible to leave public life and religion behind for good. The binding of a priest to a parish, with oaths and solemn undertakings in a quasi-sacramental ritual is in its way as exacting as a marriage. If it all becomes too demanding, retirement for some must feel like a divorce from church and maybe from God. I wonder how many clergy spouses feel their partner's work is a rival for affection as well as attention?

Modern professional-speak for such tensions is 'work-life balance', but in a way imbalance is nurtured by the kind of bonding ritual which initiates a new phase in a person's ministry, with all the ideals and expectations built into it. There's little to help a pastor cope with failure. At a human level, ministry can involve suffering - loneliness, disappointment, frustration, disillusionment within the job, because it's an occupation that involves openness, vulnerability, the risk of abuse and betrayal. The experience of failure can be shameful to speak of. Although preaching the Gospel and healing the wounded belong together, there are situations in which the healer's wounds get overlooked. The outcome is that people are lost from the journey of faith, not just lost on it. Is there a remedy for such tragedy?

I once resigned from a job when church leaders refused to trust me to mediate in an on-going conflict between them and the Diocese. It was clear I had to quit to ensure the matter was resolved properly. This left me wounded, workless, and feeling the shame of 'divorce'. Thanks to mother-in-law's legacy, we had a home in Cardiff to return to, and a welcome from another Diocese - the one that had ordained me - countering rejection experienced abroad. The spiritual formation I received when I was young made it clear that keeping faith involved such risks. It stood me in good stead. Are others as fortunate, I wonder? I'm so grateful for the loving welcome St John's gave me, letting me be myself, enabling me to return to action, sharing the faith.

The journey may well take you to hell on times, but it sure can bring you all the way back again.

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