I noticed that our Moderator Andrew Norton made a few comments in his recent White Paper about ministers being more “professional”. I agree with his lament that our systems are somewhat hit-and-miss when it comes ministers growing and developing in their roles.
One thing I’ve been trying to understand is what is going on with the people who don’t get what I’m on about. Is their issue with the message I am conveying, or is their issue with me and my style?
I have been accused of a number of things in my years of ministry… arrogance, flippancy, laziness, lack of focus, lack of stickability, inconsistency, holding back, not holding back, not listening, impatience… and much more.
In the moments of criticism I recognise that my reflex is to be quite defensive. In my vulnerability, when I don’t like something that is said about me, I have become rather skilled at deflecting. I have become an expert in justifying myself. But I don’t want to be that kind of expert. It is one of the traits I detest the most in others, and I don’t like it in myself.
Maybe it is a stage in life, but I have become tired of investing in being liked. I am confident enough in who I am and what I am about to not need to act in ways that cultivate the praise of others. So I have less need for the shields of deflection and self-justification that once were very important tools in my ministerial survival kit. Coming out from behind these shields, I am increasingly interested to hear about what I’m really like, and try to handle myself and the truth about myself constructively. What I am really about is a fascinating and potentially dangerous frontier to explore!
These are some of the things that I have begun thinking about recently:
- When I am in conflict with someone, what ways do I reflex unhelpfully back to past hurts? I recognise that there are certain confrontational people whose behaviour reminds me of past authority figures I have felt undermined by. When someone behaves like them it is as if all of those people have turned up in the room! I wonder how much my unprocessed feelings about those past confrontations still continues to affect my work. I wonder how much I am getting in the way of useful and healthy things because of these reflexes.
- In what ways does my need to be liked shape my preaching? Most of us put a lot of ourselves into our sermons and all of us welcome encouraging feedback. But if we preach for praise is the gospel diminished? I have observed some bold and fearless preachers – they seem to have a fairly tortuous existence. There is a promise ministers make that we will work for the peace and unity of the church, and I am a strong believer in that dimension of our work, so winding up the congregation unnecessarily isn’t appropriate. Nor is it necessary to preach every sermon as if it is our last – we can pace ourselves and be care-ful of the people we serve. But, I wonder how much I bend to being appreciated, and how much that bending is to a people who like their gospel soft and cosy, and their lifestyles beyond critique.
- I am not a fan of our current Ministry Development Reviews. While the intent of these is to encourage reflection and growth, they can be fluffy – especially as the people the minister might ask to take part can be hand-picked to be “nice”. In my last review I made sure I picked a naysayer or two to spark things up – I didn’t want a rubber stamp! I wanted to learn and be challenged! It resulted in some truly awkward moments, but that was OK. I am wondering about setting up a performance appraisal to help me attend to the areas in my work that are less than they could be. I want to be accountable to these people who so generously provide me with the resources for living. I wonder, if by my being open to such scrutiny, whether the leaders in the church in which I serve will also practice some form of accountability. I think the partnership between ministers and elders will be fostered if we can be truthful. But I admit that I will probably have to attend again to my familiar shields of deflection and self-justification… there is still some growing up to do!
Rev Martin Stewart
Martin is currently a minister in The Village Presbyterian Church. He has served the church in various capacities at local, presbytery and national levels and is one of our regular Candour blog columnists.