Sunday, 15 September 2013

Demon discouragement

Discouragement in Christian ministry, as with most forms of 'work', can come in many guises. As can encouragement. Generally speaking I spend more time encouraged than discouraged. Is this because I've only been in the 'job' three years? Maybe. Is it because generally I'm a positive person? Perhaps. Or because I'm 'part time' and spend quite a lot of my life doing other things, apart from 'ministry'? Or because I came into it midway through life, having done other things before? Possibly.

Discouragement does sometimes loom though; with the state of Christianity in the West, it can feel like you are walking along a tightrope and as long as you look straight ahead at your destination, you are okay; but if for a moment you look down, at the steep gorge and the swirling rapids hundreds of feet below, you are certain to come a cropper.

In September 2006, during the time I was filling in initial forms for the Diocesan Director of Ordinands (itself a test of how easily you can get discouraged), an article was published in the Saturday Times which I wish I hadn't read. Entitled 'Juggling the impossible in a long stone building with pews and a steeple', it was a sad personal account of one Anglican priest's battle with discouragement, which led to him leaving the ministry after 13 years, along with, as he claimed, at least a quarter of his ordained colleagues. 

He describes their initial hopes and dreams and the deeply significant Ordination service, during which they were charged with going out into their communities in the name of Jesus himself 'to serve as part of the great and benevolent machinery of the English state' (his phrase). But it was all eroded by the reality of daily ministry, trying to keep ancient church buildings going in the face of dwindling congregations and resources,
whilst still being available to carry out occasional offices for people who 'mock the church' by expecting services (marriage, Christening) which in their mind are entirely unconnected with any ongoing expression of corporate church life.

It made for grim reading, and was overly harsh in places. Logically perhaps I should have given up there and then...But I didn't. I consoled myself thinking of all the reasons this particular person had allowed himself to fall into discouragement so badly there was no way back. There must be a name for the psychological phenomenon whereby you are fully conscious of huge potential pitfalls in a given situation, yet you remain convinced that in your particular case, everything will be okay. Blind optimism. Or self delusion, perhaps?

But think about this: if all women, able to use their vivid imaginations to the full, decided that, say, childbirth was too undignified/uncomfortable (not to mention painful) an experience ever to consider going through; that the various pitfalls and outcomes might eventually overwhelm them, therefore it would be best to avoid it altogether; if we all took this quite logical stance, the whole human race would literally, eventually, die out. So clearly, the phenomenon of knowing about the potential dangers/risks associated with a course of action and doing it anyway, is fundamental to human survival. 

So I got ordained. And here I am, still going. Generally encouraged. But aware that the most fundamental safeguard against discouragement is to keep going deeper into God, because if the Church in this country dwindles much more, it's going to be like the Dark Ages, where the monks and nuns kept the Christian faith alive in worship and contemplation for 600 years before something was reborn nationally and culturally. And keeping the faith alive with tiny groups of deeply committed people is quite a good description of how ministry feels in small semi-rural churches sometimes (though, I'm very happy to say, without the Black Death).

Having said that, there are admittedly certain things, even just words, I'd rather not hear too frequently. I'm only human. No matter how much you tell yourself that it doesn't matter too much and it's not likely to destabilise everything, not immediately anyway, there are some frequent, constant drips......No doubt you'll have some of your own...

We're away this weekend.
Oh, was it my turn?
We can't find the key.
The heating hasn't come on.
The milk's off.
The boiler's broken.
Please fill in the attached forms ASAP.
The projector won't talk to the laptop.
We weren't expecting you this morning.
We were expecting you yesterday morning.
You're supposed to sign twice on the certificate.
We tried that 6 years ago.
We tried that 26 years ago.
What do you mean, we can't have a kerbstone?
Car Boot Sale.
I never got that email.
Road closed due to Triathlon.
They've voted No.
Fire hazard.
Slipping tile.
Faculty application.
Share increase.

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