The art of Parish Priesting and Negotiation. How to care, but not that much.

My first year of full time work in a parish was 1979. During that time my Vicar said to me ‘You know Paul, you can’t make every post a winner’. What did he mean? He must have seen my earnestness and desire to do my best as going ‘too far’ In some way. From where I am sitting, I can imagine young David talking to King Saul. David says ‘Who is this uncircumcised Philistine who dares to challenge of the armies of the Living God?” Saul says “Well, David, you have to be realistic. You can’t make every post a winner you know!’ So we know how that story turned out.

I am also reminded of a parish Church where I worshiped for a year. The common refrain in that Church, which did the liturgy in an ‘ok’ sort of a way, was ‘Well does it matter???!!! Does God really care?’

Sometimes it is the enthusiasm and clear sighted-ness of youth which shames the jadedness of older heads. As they say. “If you want to liven up the will to live of an old dog…Get a puppy!!’

A lot of my ministerial life has been spent trying to convince people that giving God the second best, or that  worship is an option, only when everything else has been put into place is not the most satisfying way to live the Christian life. Instead, when I think about life with God, and doing Church I think about Andrew Marvell’s poem ‘To his Coy Mistress’. At one point in the poem he says… ‘let us roll all our strength and all our sweetness into one ball’. That is how I think of preparing for Church. Maybe that is my poetic version of what it means to ‘…love God with all my heart, mind soul and strength.’

So as a priest, approaching Easter I am a bit anxious. Because at Easter there is a lot of Church. It is brilliant to be a part of it. I do my best to enthuse people about what it means to ‘roll all our strength and all our sweetness into one ball’ for Easter, but underneath is the anxiety that no one is listening. I have to own this, mind you. It is my anxiety. I want to offer a great Easter. I can’t do it on my own. (As you see in the Church today, there are provisional rosters out for lots of ministries to be performed over the Easter week and weekend). I would love it if you joined with me in enthusiasm for keeping Easter. Can we make this post a winner? The danger in all movements is that the power that is let loose in them at the beginning is slowly attenuated and domesticated over the years so that, as I’ve said before, worship becomes more like a comforting bed time story (although it is that) than a football match, where something is at stake. (I wish it were more like that!)

When I first was parish priest people used to say ‘Well, I won’t be there for Easter…we are going away.’ By the time I had finished there after ten years, people would say ‘What? You’re going away for Easter? You’re crazy!’ I make you this promise: If you give yourself to Easter, then you will be enriched in your faith, and not disappointed.

But the other side of this earnestness is a kind of inflexibility that perhaps  my vicar saw in me. If every post has to be a winner, then there is no room for negotiation. Excitement about how a thing could be leads quickly to a determination that ‘This is how it is going to be.’ And ‘It’s my way or the highway.’ In every new ministry there comes a time when ‘This is how we have always done it’ runs out and a serious engagement and negotiation with the new ministry needs to happen. The same is true for the new chaplain. After the ‘honeymoon period’ comes the period of serious negotiation. Then a certain amount of distance from ‘making every post a winner’ is needed all round because negotiation, back and fill, give and take becomes the skill that is needed.

This is why I said at the beginning of my time here that building relationships is so important. I am so grateful for the present Chaplaincy Council, because with them I have been able to share what is in my soul. The decisions we have made about the directions we are taking have been done on the basis of these relationships where openness and negotiation are possible. This is a great benefit, and something I value highly about being your priest. The ability to speak the contents of one’s soul in a manner that makes it heard comes on the basis of feeling respected as a person. (This is in opposition to feeling as though one has to be ‘manipulated’ or ‘got round’ or avoided in some way).

Even where it is not possible for relationships of genuine love to develop with everyone, a kind of ‘trading’ (I’ll do “x” for you if you do “y” for me) is possible if there is respect for another person.

 The down side of this way of approaching life however is that is can lead to being slovenly and slap-dash. As a bishop was once heard to say to his clergy “I don’t want any of you ‘coasting to retirement’ ”. He was trying to reinvigorate the people in his care because he was aware of the fact that the other side of the coin to making every post a winner, is not caring about whether a post is a winner or not…Its just a post! As I have become older, I have found myself saying more often, like the people in the parish where I was for that year “Well does it really matter? This is my last job. I can ‘coast to retirement’ “ I envisage that this certainly leads to a quieter life.

But in the end,I can’t respond in this way. It’s against my nature. It represents for me a kind of ‘bad faith’. If I really ‘coasted to retirement’ I would have to confess the sin of sloth each Sunday. But the truth is that I do say more often ‘Well what does really matter?’ I hope that with increasing age comes some more security of person, and with it a greater capacity to negotiate, a greater capacity to discern what really matters (which posts have to be winners) and which posts can simply be ‘posts’


About frpaulsblog

Paul Dalzell is now a semi-retired priest living in Alexandra, Australia
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