I CAN’T GO ON I’LL GO ON
What happens when we hit a brick wall in ministry?
Lovers of high camp seventies pop will remember well the perms, platforms and falsetto voices of the Gibb brothers as they sang: when the feeling’s gone and you can’t go on it’s tragedy. The tone of the song belied any notion of tragedy, but it can feel like a personal tragedy when you lose your way in life.
Let’s put this in a wider context first, because it helps us to gain perspective. All professional people with innate gifts and honed skills reach a moment when they can’t go on. Marathon runners have the concept of ‘the wall’, a moment in this gruelling race when the body rebels against running any further. The depletion of the liver and muscles produce a sudden feeling of impossible fatigue. The body says ‘enough’, but the athlete keeps running. The wall manifests itself in different ways. The seasoned actor gets stage fright; the talented cricketer can’t score another run; the author gets writer’s block; the soldier is crippled by traumatic stress; the pilot discovers a fear of flying.
The remedies for sudden crises of role differ too. Some are easy: the out of form batsman or the wordless author will discover rhythm in time – as the saying goes: class is permanent, form is temporary. Some need therapy, especially if you have uncovered a dormant phobia, like flying, which is a known phenomenon among experienced cabin crew. Some need more than therapy, because deep, psychological damage has been caused, like the soldier with PTSD.
You could offer many more examples of professional people who, walking the tightrope of public life, suddenly look down and realise how far they could fall with just a waver. Placing our ministry for God in this wider context shows us we are not alone, that there is something deeply human about the loss of function; it is part of our condition. Experiencing it locates us among others, helping us to understand the feelings of others. But every profession has its particularities, and Christian ministry is no exception. In fact, as usual with issues of faith, there is a strange quality to it.
I would like to address five particular sensations. I am aware there are many others, but each of these will be recognisable to those who minister for God. These are: personal failing, personal trauma, personal conflict, personal disappointment and personal bewilderment. I use the word ‘personal’ advisedly. The experiences are raw, intimate and frequently concealed, but it is a mistake to think the weight of personal responsibility or culpability should attach so easily. Sometimes we do bring things on ourselves in life and more self-awareness and the presence of critical friends may help us to see this. However, the curse of the era of radical individualism is the assumption that if something has gone wrong with you, both the fault and the solution lie with you.
We need to be much smarter in seeing the profound, intractable ways that environment shapes our experience and limits our choices. If we are in a mess, it is probably because our environment has messed us up. This is not to deny personal responsibility, but to locate it properly in a social matrix.
Given the culture of individualism, it is likely that a sense of personal failing lies heavily on many people. So, here’s some good news to begin with: if we have a sense of not being the person we are called to be, we are on the right path. It shows, in modern idiom, that we have self-awareness; that we are pretty good at seeing ourselves the way others see us and of how we fit with others in a room at any one point. In the Christian life, this is understanding our relationships – with God and with others – in the light of the Holy Spirit. A discipline of personal examination and reflection that questions without condemning. It is people who lack self-awareness or any interest in how others might view them who pose the greater threat in Christian ministry.
The problem with failing in Christian ministry is that the surrounding culture, in which the Church participates, is unsympathetic to moral failure in others, especially those who aspire to high values or standards. Though the Church is often thought to be judgmental, wider society is drenched in this trait. This means we live more by law than by grace. We believe in the fall, but not in redemption. Or if there is redemption, you must earn it by eating bugs in the Australian outback under the gaze of Ant and Dec. The idea that grace may be conferred on the undeserving, to restore them to strength; the notion that after sinning, confessing and receiving absolution, we could be stronger than before, like the healing of a broken bone, feels like it is beyond society’s reach.
It is right that the Church and the culture’s expectations of Christian ministers are high, but it should be realistic and gracious too. The ordinal pretty much says to those being ordained: OK, now go out and be like Jesus. When we fail to do this, it can be made to feel like hypocrisy. ‘How can you call yourself a Christian / minister / vicar….’ You can fill in the missing dots. Hypocrisy seems to be the worst vice of the modern era, but in fact we can make a good case for needing it in a healthy society. Hypocrisy comes when we fail to live up to the values we believe in. So, the only way to avoid hypocrisy is to express no values and have no standards to aim for. This is a short cut to an amoral world. Far better to have a creed to live by and fail it from time to time, in the hope of succeeding, than not. But to risk this, we need grace, not the unsparing judgment of others.
If the Church follows society in living by law, not grace, its ministers will feel the tension. In fact, one way the Church may cope with the pressure to live by law is to water down the standards it expects of its ministers so they can more readily achieve them. Grace tells a different story. Aim high, and know that the everlasting arms are underneath you when you fall.
Ministry may also stop when personal trauma hits us. Something serious happens, or a series of events assail us until we feel overwhelmed and we feel our needs outweigh those around us. Yet we feel the urge or the expectation to carry on. Sometimes people are simply ignorant of our circumstances; occasionally they know but still expect us to deliver. I cannot be alone in having had the sense from time to time, that I want to shout in someone’s face: you have no idea how much deeper my problems are than yours right now. But in that quintessential English way, I simply um and nod my head sympathetically. In particularly tasteless circumstances, an instrumental view of the minister is taken, that they are paid to care and should no more withhold this than a waitress would her service in Café Nero after splitting up with her boyfriend.
However hard it may feel, we have to show our need and vulnerability from time to time. I am not suggesting this is done liberally with people who do not know us and who therefore may misinterpret it, but the ability of the minister to tell those they look after in the Lord that life has got on top of them is an integral component of authentic discipleship. Superman or Wonder Woman models of ministry are dishonest and have contributed to far too much dishonesty in the life of the Church, where people feel inhibited from telling the truth in case others think they aren’t much of a disciple. In Romans 5, the Apostle Paul observes:
We boast in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us.
Far from concealing his problems, it looks like Paul boasted about them, because he saw an unbroken line from suffering to hope. It is a fascinating inversion of how we understand the world, where we assume hope emerges from being in a good place, not a bad one.
There are risks, naturally. What we say is usually interpreted by the hearer. This hearer is likely to make a bad interpretation if they don’t like us and shape it in ways that suit them. But the power of the God is at work in those we listen sympathetically, and this is much greater. One unusual by-product of the suffering of the minister is, in the terms of the parable of the sower, to show where roots have not been put down. One vicar said to me his congregation declined in number when his child died. Not because the vicar did not have the capacity to offer pastoral care, but because some people saw God in superstitious, talismanic terms. And if he isn’t going to deliver for the vicar, why should I bother paying my heavenly insurance premium each Sunday?
When Jesus heard that John the Baptist had been decapitated, it must have sent a shudder through his spine; an early demonstration of the way State power would be manipulated to end his own life violently. It was also the death of a much loved relative. Jesus dealt with this not by throwing himself into ministry in a macho display of courage, but by withdrawing ‘to a deserted place by himself’. We need to create our own space, to deal with our own sadness. And when people find us again, looking for help, not be surprised by it. As soon as these crowds knew Jesus had found a deserted place, they decided to populate it with him. ‘Jesus saw the great crowd, and he had compassion on them’. We are all weary and lost, in our own way.
The third way in which ministry can be stopped in its tracks is through personal conflict. It is said that some people thrive in conflict, but I don’t know many who do and a vanishingly small number of them are in Christian ministry. When conflict erupts, we feel inhibited. There is a taste in our mouths and a sensation in the pit of our stomach that makes us queasy. And we want to hide. It is true that God is drawn towards conflict, not away from it – just look at the Gospels where Jesus endlessly heads into danger – but every instinct in us is for self-preservation. Reconciliation is the Gospel itself, so when we shy away from conflict, we are a step away from ministry halting in its tracks. Of course, there are times when it is wise to beat a tactical retreat from an area of conflict, but all too often the conflict controls us rather than the other way round.
When we are one party to a conflict, there are real challenges to our ministry. We feel the duty of forgiveness and reconciliation – in fact others may remind us of it – but it often does not come quickly. Process is one of the defining words of the modern era, the product of a sanitised, bureaucratic age where words are carefully denuded of meaning to render them safe. But in this case it is true. Peace is a process. It does not come cheaply and it rarely comes quickly. We do not have the luxury of suspending our ministry while it takes shape, but must continue sharing the Gospel of grace even while we cannot forgive or reconcile. Much ministry is conducted in this grey, gloomy and uncertain space where we feel unworthy of our calling. And sometimes there is no reconciliation.
No wonder ministry can stop in its tracks. It tests our conviction over loving our enemies and finds us wanting. But it is only in the crucible of this experience that we can forge a deeper walk with Christ. This is an unsettling ride for most. We spend most of our time in conflict rehearsing what has been said and what we would like to say. At one moment, we doubt ourselves, trying to work out how we could have gone so wrong to have produced such an effect in another person. The next moment, we shore up our self-esteem by admitting no failing, wondering how the other person could be so wrong. Each position, brittle, unconfident, over-confident, gnaws away at our sense of self like a rat at an electricity cable until the power is cut and ministry stops.
Conflict is a function of being human. We are often in conflict with others without realising it because we find satisfactory, peaceable ways of resolving it and so do not name it for what it is. The early Church – and the Church since – has been riddled with conflict. When people believe something fervently, they may well end up fighting over it. But I do not wish to sanctify every kind of conflict in the Church. The most dispiriting experience of being an Archdeacon is to see Christian people falling out with one another bitterly over matters that simply aren’t important, but fighting with the intensity of an armed insurgent.
A fourth inhibitor of ministry, which may cause it to stop, is personal disappointment. There is a particular risk to the minister. Jesus said, and the New Testament repeats to us time and again, that when we give to others we will receive more in return; that the act of ministry will reap its own inherent reward. There are plenty of ways we can see this happening. But what happens when you give out, and the return does not come? And you give out, and still it doesn’t come. And you give out, and start to despair when the return still doesn’t come?
We know we should flourish in Christian ministry, but what happens when our health fails us and our sleep deserts us; when our anxiety grows and we stop enjoying life? The answer is usually that we carry on. There is a burden attached to leadership which most will recognise. The intractable problems come to you, the deepest needs land on your porch, the harshest criticisms wait in your in-box. We cannot avoid this, much as we would like to. But we often ignore the warning signs to our spiritual, emotional and physical health, like that Marathon runner smashing through the Wall. So, we preach a Gospel of well-being, but fail to see the shrivelled, desiccated state of our own soul.
The thing about disappointment is the subtle, incremental way it affects us, like the slow deflation of a helium balloon. We may still feel airborne, but not appreciate what others see when they look and listen to us. The thing I was most afraid of in ministry was becoming a hard-bitten, cynical, middle-aged hack; the type I noticed when I was first ordained in 1993. And now I wonder, in terror sometimes, what others think of me.
We need to name any disappointment we may feel in God. It may be entirely misplaced; we just need someone to show us. But if the conversation does not happen, disenchantment may set in. We need other people to tell us how good God is. In this era of church contraction, we need to be reminded that the kingdom of God continues to grow; is as impossible to stop as the garden in a warm, wet May. Sometimes we need to step back and be surprised again that it does not depend on us; that our disappointment is disproportionate. But first we need to name it.
The final cause of ministry malfunction I want to look at is personal bewilderment. Travelling on the road in foggy conditions is a disconcerting and uneasy experience. Deprived of familiar sights and spaces, there is little sense of enjoyment or progress; above all, there is the fear of what lies in the density of fog, just ahead, which you are unprepared for. It is, in many ways, a good metaphor for how we experience parts of our journey with God.
In Psalms 42 and 43 it says:
Why are you cast down, O my soul,
and why are you disquieted within me?
The words show a familiar self-awareness: the brain asks the brain why it feels the way it does, revealing the difficulty inherent in trying to argue ourselves out of sadness and depression. Those who have been here often ask for signs from God. Sometimes these are offered; occasionally they are missed; at other times, all that remains is the enveloping fog. I have no idea why this happens; perhaps it’s human nature. There is certainly a risk of over-analysing things.
While there is no simplistic blueprint for dealing with spiritual fog, there are some useful controls to adopt. Pilots of light aircraft are familiar with the risks of fog and are trained to respect the controls rather than their senses. Trusting in your wits rather than the console when flying can be treacherously deceptive; it feels as if the plane is on a safe and level path when the pilot may have put it into a lethal corkscrew downwards. There is no way of knowing; human senses must be resisted in favour of the control panel. In a similar way, Christians surrounded by spiritual fog should aim to keep habits of prayer, Bible reading and fellowship even when desire has evaporated. These habits may feel as tasteless as food does for someone who is ill, but without them, little nourishment goes into the body and the cold must be fed.
It’s a similar principle to the advice given to clinically depressed people: if at all possible, keep on living and doing the things you usually do and, eventually you may recover the enjoyment you found in them. The challenge for the minister is how you negotiate your work for God feeling bereft and listless. I would say this in passing. God uses us in spite of the mood we are in and he uses other, sometimes disaffected, people to minister to us when we need it. After all, how often do we know the state of mind of the person who blesses us? This is the nature of grace. And when we don’t feel like opening the front door, I would remind you of the most useful Hollywood quote I have ever come across. Woody Allen has said that 80% of success in life is just turning up. There is a lot of incarnational truth in that, I think.
In conclusion, I would say the following things. There are no simple answers for when ministry stops and we are not the answer to our own problem, either. I have tried to show that there are usually environmental factors involved which we are slow to recognise because our model of discipleship is overly individualistic. What it points to is the need for a radical review of honesty in the Church. It is sad that so many people feel unable to share their struggles with faith, but ministers may have contributed to this in their own reluctance to admit to difficulty. Honest conversation is called for and this is better achieved face to face than via social media. The latter may have its place, but trust is built up, and people are understood, most effectively when we can look one another in the eyes. In open dialogue, we find surer grounds for faith, which is why today is such a good idea.
The twentieth chapter of Jeremiah reds like an existential blog, where the prophet shares his misery with countless others. Even as he speaks the truth in God’s name, he cries: why did I come forth from the womb to see toil and sorrow, and spend my days in shame (verse 18). He has a dark sense of being duped by God: O Lord, you have enticed me (verse 7) yet he is unable to resist the divine calling: If I say ‘I will not mention him, or speak any more in his name’, then within me there is something like a burning fire (verse 9).
Jeremiah’s canvass may be panoramic, but we are given these insights for a reason. Much ministry is done from confused motives, conflicted emotions and by people who feel right on the edge. We may dislike ourselves and feel useless, but this does not mean we are fruitless in what we do. A lot of our work for God is done in the shade between darkness and light, where we aspire to the latter but are haunted by the former. The modern focus on personal human emotion means the way we feel can assume the greatest importance and obscure our view of what God has done through us and in us.
We may feel ambiguous about God himself. Jonah can testify to how much work is done for God by people who are tetchy, disillusioned and would rather be somewhere else. Jeremiah was distressingly ill at ease in his relationship with God during the most powerful phase of his ministry, but the grace of God continued to flow through him. A similar impulse may be found in us. We’d rather God left us alone, but he never does. That’s the nature of grace, working through the pain of Calvary to the hope of the empty tomb
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