10P Juggling with chickens

How many live chickens do you think a talented juggler could keep in the air at one time? I ask because it seems to me being a Christian minister, a vicar or pastor, is remarkably like juggling with live chickens. When I say live chickens I am not thinking about Deacons or church members, however much clucking and flapping and squawking they may do. I am talking instead about all the different responsibilities Ministers have to juggle with day by day. Preaching. Teaching. Visiting. Counselling. Worship. Weddings. Funerals. Giving a lead. Steering the ship. Evangelism. Training. Enabling. Administration. Union. Association. Ecumenical activities. Prayer. Study. Spouse. Family. Friends. All of these activities demand and deserve the time and energy of a minister, but each are as slippery and hard to juggle as a live chicken.
Doctor Martyn Lloyd Jones once said, “A man should only enter the Christian ministry if he cannot stay out of it.” And he was right. Gone are the days when the calling was simply to be a minister of word and sacrament.” In those times a pattern of study in the morning, visiting in the afternoon and meetings in the evening would be a sufficient description of the minister’s activities. The post-modern, post-Christendom world which God calls us to reach demands new patterns of Christian ministry.
While he was Head of the Ministry Department of the Baptist Union, Paul Goodliff wrote in Care in a confused climate that the role of minister should not be that of chaplain but of spiritual director, guiding people on their spiritual journey and equipping people for service. The focus should not be on healing but on growth, not on firefighting but on making disciples. So the minister must be herald, servant, priest, parish theologian, educator, evangelist and peacemaker.
A major task for most ministers is teaching and preaching. Every week most ministers need to prepare and deliver one or often two sermons which are biblical, engaging and relevant. Often, they will lead the corporate worship of the church. Ministers may also be expected to produce children’s talks or all-age worship incorporating drama or craft activities to satisfy every age from toddlers to pensioners. Many ministers additionally lead a midweek Bible Study, or write leaders’ notes for Home Groups, as well as speaking at other occasions, from weddings and funerals to school assemblies.
Then in the area of pastoral care, the minister has so many responsibilities. Baptisms, weddings and funerals. Building a caring Christian community. Creating healthy relationships. Healing wounded souls. Praying for people and with people. Welcoming and integrating newcomers and new Christians. Encouraging the struggling and wandering. Then there are special ministry situations such as supporting people with mental health issues, or those struggling with substance abuse, or needing deliverance ministry. Beyond caring there is the challenge proactively to build disciples. Nurturing and sustaining faith. Guiding folk on their spiritual journey. Identifying and releasing gifts and ministries. Training and equipping for service and witness.
There are so many other aspects of ministry as well. A recent exercise in appraisal asks the minister to rank in order from best to worst how gifted he or she is in fourteen key skills: preaching; working ecumenically; information technology skills; training others; written communication; research; evangelism; church planting; developing plans and policies; working alone; leading a team; working as a team member; pastoral care; mediation. And all of this must be worked out in the brave new world of charity law, health and safety legislation, child protection and equality regulations. No wonder ministers in many denominations are required to engage enthusiastically in all kinds of Continuing Ministerial Development activities, involving accountability to others, collegiality in relationships with groups of ministers, ongoing study and learning, developing spirituality and periodic reviews of ministry, just to stay up to date.
Just as some ministers might have thought they were beginning to get a handle on all of these things, in March 2020 the world was gripped by the Covid19 pandemic. Overnight ministers were expected to become proficient in Zoom, YouTube, livestreaming to Facebook or prerecording and editing videos for YouTube and giving their churches a presence on social media. Ministers needed to invent new ways for their church to be a community and for them to offer pastoral care when lockdown regulations prevented gathering in person or visiting homes. We had a completely new array of chickens to learn to juggle. Since then we have had to lead our churches on into the post-Covid “new normal”, while many ministers have not yet fully recovered from all these additional demands and stresses of Covid.
Ministry requires so many and such varied skills. So many different and demanding activities are expected. The challenge is always to be doing not our own works but the works of our Father in Heaven, doing God’s work, in God’s way, for His sole glory. Ministers all recognise that nothing they do comes from themselves. “Not that we are competent in ourselves to claim anything for ourselves, but our competence comes from God” (2 Cor 3:5). “There is nothing in us that allows us to claim that we are capable of doing this work. The capacity we have comes from God” (Good New Translation). There are no other jobs where skills, training and experience count for so little and character counts for everything. Robert Murray McCheyne wrote to a new minister, “In great measure, according to the purity and perfections of the instrument, will be the success. It is not great talents God blesses so much as great likeness to Jesus. A holy minister is an awful weapon in the hand of God.”
When busy juggling all these different chickens there are three further pressures upon ministers which most folk do not face in life. There is the pressure of being permanently on call. The doorbell may sound at any time and you have to be ready to respond. Nowadays the phone may ring and the minister is expected to answer any time, any place, anywhere. I once had to arrange a funeral from the poolside while on holiday in a different country. Another time I was called to deal with a bereavement on my way home from the airport. In order to stay sane with the never-ending demands of pastoral responsibility, ministers (and their churches) need to learn to accept the fact that when they have done everything they were intending to do in a day or a week, there will still be many things which haven’t got done. Sometimes a minister can add some of those things to the pile of tasks to do tomorrow. Very often, some things will never get done. Sometimes there will be the predictable complaints about the things which haven’t been done. Psychologists tell us that how well people cope with leaving tasks unfinished often depends on their personality type. Those inclined towards perfectionism will find this aspect of ministry intrinsically frustrating. I certainly have.
The challenge for any minister is to be able to go sleep at night, or spend a little time with the family, or just unwind doing something they enjoy, without feeling guilty that they aren’t doing church work. It can be very difficult for ministers to be able to put aside some of those important things that will consequently never get done and to take time for themselves without feeling selfish, without feeling that they are failing other people, failing the church and failing God. It can be very hard to leave all the chickens hanging in the air for a while without worrying that they are all about to crash down on your head.
The second pressure is the requirement always to be right: never to make a mistake, because if you say something wrong or do something wrong the results could be eternally disastrous. Doctors and nurses and fire-fighters and soldiers in battle face similar pressures. Most jobs don’t. For a minister, if you give wrong pastoral advice you can wreck somebody’s life. Wrong ethical advice and you lead somebody to sin. Choose the wrong way forward for the church and the church will lose out. Preach a poor sermon, or lead worship badly, and the faith of many people will be diminished. Mess up in a major way just the once and you lose your job, and your friends, and your home, and potentially your family. And far worse than all those things – you bring shame on the church and on the Lord you serve.
The third pressure comes from the truth that even when a minister (or a church, or any Christian) does makes all the right choices and does do all the right things, success however one seeks to define it is not guaranteed. As Jean-Luc Picard in the television drama Star Trek: The Next Generation once remarked, “It is possible to make no mistakes and still lose. That is not a weakness; that is life.” Sometimes things go wrong because we mess up, and sometimes things do succeed when we do the right thing. But we must never assume that when things do not turn out right it is because we have done something wrong. That is the fallacy of the excluded middle. The reality is things can and do go less than perfectly even when we do everything right, sometimes because of satanic opposition, sometimes because we live in a fallen world, sometimes because the church is made up of fallible human beings, but mostly because we follow the Servant King whose victory and glory came through submission and suffering and sacrifice and powerlessness. When it comes to juggling with chickens, relying on levels of success as a measure of whether we are doing the right thing or not is inevitably a recipe for discouragement, depression and disaster. Again, people with certain personality types struggle with this reality much more than others.
With all these pressures, ministers need to resist the tyranny of the urgent and to make sure the important things are not squeezed out by the immediate. At the same time, we need to expect the unexpected, to make sure there is spare capacity for all the crises and surprises which are at the heart of pastoral ministry. Our family once spent a very happy hour watching one of the street entertainers in Covent Garden. He juggled with balls and skittles, and then climbed up on a unicycle and cycled around six feet above the ground. Then he asked for a volunteer from the audience and to our delight he chose our eldest daughter Lizzie to help with the act. While he cycled juggling two skittles, her job was to throw a third skittle up to him. Since she was only eight her aim was not very good and unfortunately the juggler dropped the skittle once and then fell off his unicycle trying to catch it the second time. On the third attempt was successful and he carried on juggling all three skittles to wild applause while still unicycling around the stage.
The hardest part of the minister’s juggling act is not keeping all his or her different responsibilities in the air at once. The greatest challenge comes when you feel you are almost succeeding with all the balls and skittles and flaming torches and live chickens. At that very moment, at the most awkward time, somebody else will throw something extra at you. “Say, Pastor, give me a hand will you? I just can’t cope with my ostrich any more. Catch!”
And of course, all the time everybody expects their minister, like any juggler, just to keep on smiling.

You may also like...

Comments are closed.