I met with the DDO for the third time last week. Previously I had time to collect my thoughts as I drove and waited for the meeting to start, this time it was very different!
I was in the midst of a frantic and pressurised week at work. It followed me as I left to start travelling to see the DDO. My colleagues were on soon the phone to me asking for help in sorting out some problems. Arriving home to pick up the car there were failed parcel deliveries to sort out, a phone call to my son to celebrate his success at school, and a quick change before heading into the autumnal wind and rain, albeit cosseted in a dry and cosy car. Busy, busy, busy. It was hardly the ingredients for a peaceful preparation for the meeting.
Arriving at my destination, I was at least able to grab a moment to stare in wonder at the cathedral and appreciate the loving way in which a verger swept a footpath, lit by the lights flooding out from the cathedral porch. It was the moment of peace I needed because as I entered the building to meet the DDO she was there waiting for me.
Our conversation was focused around my thoughts on Gerard Hughes book (see last week’s post The God of Surprises is calling) and, as a result, on prayer within my life. My delight in the book was clear, I referenced it often in my answers . The DDO took kindly to my reaction, she later gave the book to keep. Yet, the book wasn’t the only thing that threw up some surprises that day.
Into our conversation came fear. Fear of man. Fear of failure. One surprised me, the other was all too familiar.
We are built to love and to be loved. God offers that love in an abundance but we still seek love from people too, and naturally so – it’s much nicer being loved than hated. Maybe I’m too sensitive but it hurts when something I do leads to that love being rejected or withdrawn; too often I have let the fear of that happening stop me from making certain decisions or taking certain actions.
Within a society seemingly increasingly turning away from God, being a mouthpiece for God in the world is a vulnerable position to be in. It has been like that from the start and the more I travel towards ordination the more I am in awe of the Old Testament prophets like Jeremiah who was a lone voice amongst people rebelling against God. He obeyed God and we recognise them for it today but in doing so offended and punished for it.
As the DDO and I discussed, leaders will offend and they will have people letting them know just how offended they are. Not that it is just those outside the fellowship of believers that we will offend, a church congregation can be all so easy to offend and they certainly let it be known when they are! Word spreads too and gone is the time when that is limited to the local community or press, social media carries a message, good or bad, across a nation and the world in minutes.
I have seen the fear of the church family prevent leaders from doing what they felt God was unequivocally asking them to do. It was frustrating when I saw that happen but, now that I am finding God challenge me in this area, all too understandable. God is preparing me for leadership and is encouraging me to not let fear of people from obeying Him (see No sex please, we’re Christians!) but I’m finding developing a thick skin hard and wished I didn’t have to. Perhaps I don’t.
Fear of failure can be a form or paralysis too.
I was asked if I had ever been on a retreat. I haven’t, though the idea of one appeals tremendously and the more I explore ordination the more I can see the need for Christian leaders to go on them. What I said next surprised me somewhat because it didn’t surprise me, instead it was the revealing of a truth I knew even though I hadn’t thought about it before.
I fear going on a retreat because I fear failing to hear from God.
Finding some peace, ensuring the line to God is clear, that the spiritual compass is true and then hearing Him speak some wisdom into our lives, that feels like the purpose of a retreat. Coming to the end of a retreat feeling lost, disconnected, or deaf to His voice feels scary. It feels like it would be a failure.
I have learnt from Gerard Hughes that ending a retreat in such a state would be anything but a failure. It would be the sign of something God was trying to work on with me, the start of unpealing my subconsciousness to something bigger than could be handled in a single retreat. Now that feels really scary!
I will go on a retreat but the timing will be important, practically speaking at the very least. Time is precious and days away from work are a finite resource, most of which are needed to look after my children. A retreat before a major decision or event seems appropriate and a BAP would be just such an event. I’m confident that a BAP will be coming my way sometime next year, until then going on a retreat is ‘on hold’.
For now though I have plenty to address, the DDO has gave me a glimpse at what is ahead for me and it includes forms to fill in. I hate filling in forms!
I’ve been told to be preparing to tell more people my journey of faith (I was warned about this – see my post Hazardous interpretations), to improve my ability to articulate my understanding of ordination and my need to be ordained (see Nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition!), and then there’s the simple thing of my vision for the church!
It doesn’t stop there! I’ve been encouraged to follow the Northumbia Community’s Office of Prayer, to ensure that I am familiar with the more Anglo-catholic side of the Church of England and am able to articulate what communion means to me.
None of this even includes what the DDO and I will be working on together. She’s coming to visit me and my wife next month, and has said that we will be covering leadership (can I rehash my piece for Vocations Chaplain, Take me to your leader?), character and more theology.
It’s all a bit overwhelming!
3 thoughts on “The Fear Factor”
Great post! All felt very familiar, reading your thoughts and fears.
One thing I will tell you is, retreats are very special times and much needed space to move into quiet and/or silence. Don’t worry about not hearing from God during a retreat; you WILL hear from God, but often not in the way you want or expect to. You may leave feeling you haven’t heard that time, but during your post retreat reflection and prayer, you’ll realise you did. That’s when you have to work out how and why and process that into your everyday Christian life. If you can’t do the full retreat, I’d at least suggest you try to make some quiet/silent days. I took time out for a few during my discernment process and they were much needed because it’s a really confusing and scary time and a time when you really DO need to hear from God. It can feel selfish, I know I did, leaving work and family commitments to one side while you ‘indulge’ but it’s more than that. Ministry is demanding spiritually and if you don’t keep that spirituality strong and healthy, it can lead to pain. QT with God is very important indeed.
Sorry if it feels like a rant, but I’ve been there so recently I still feel raw about it all. Looking forward to keeping up with you!
I’ll pray for you.
We started bouncing these tweets around this morning. I am quite concerned about the number of clergy tweeting concerns negative congregational relations and I’m praying for them. Clearly such interactions aren’t helpful or healthy for any concerned. You identified that leaders may offend. I responded:
pilgrimexplorer:: It wasn’t leaders offending (which questions the definition of ‘leader’) but the thick skinned bit #woundedhealer
@giles_morrison does Henri Nouwen’s Wounded Healer deal with these issues?
@pilgrimexplorer not exactly, but it give some insight into why people might be feeling lost. Hughes touches on it. Will get page number.
@giles_morrison I agree! I saw the worst side of church/Christians when I worked for one & the challenges the vicar had in handling it.
@pilgrimexplorer that’s why I wanted to think a bit more. I would want to try and see behind the criticism to the person.
@giles_morrison How do u think should vicars deal with criticism, esp that which borders on abusive? Jesus offended some but led. Thoughts?!
@pilgrimexplorer Jesus wasn’t offended by other reactions to him, though. He loved them. he challenged by his righteousness. Harder for us.
@giles_morrison You’re right. I probably didn’t articulate my thoughts properly, I was thinking about how people cope with criticism.
@pilgrimexplorer Probably a standard DDO question about personal resilience. Need to separate role criticism from personal.
@pilgrimexplorer But equally, such criticism may be saying more about the person giving it. This then becomes a leadership challenge.
Try to expand on my thoughts a bit:
Hughes offers a simple model of transactional analysis for churches using Von Hugel’s work(Hughes, 1992:11-18) looking at infancy, adolescence and adulthood, and goes on to identify some of the pitfalls (Hughes, 1992:19-24) . In particular he states ‘Undue emphasis on the institutional element today is likely to produce a church of dwindling numbers, loyal, obedient, docile, uninspired and passive, God’s frozen people.'(Hughes, 1992:23). This presents a real challenge to the priest who identifies the need for change and tries to promote it, if the congregation isn’t suitably prepared. ‘The infantile attitude is not infrequently to be found in people who are not at all infantile in the ways of the world and who may be very prominent in public life. Their religion is sealed off so that it doesn’t interfere with their career and the way they pursue it, and they are often loudest in opposing any change in the Church. They want religion to be exactly as it was when they were children.'(Hughes, 1997:20)
Nouwen offers a similar perspective:
‘Many churches decorated with words announcing salvation and new life are often little more than parlors for those who feel quite comfortable in the old life, and who are not likely to let the minister’s words changes their stone hearts into furnaces where swords can be cast into ploughshares, and spears into pruning hooks.’ (Nouwen 2005:86).
So, when in response to your question about how a priest should react to criticism, well, we cannot exclude the simply unkind, but otherwise I’d start with considering from the perspective of pastoral care. If a congregation hasn’t been lead to a point where change is an option, there is an increased likelihood of a negative reaction. But how to respond? For Nouwen this is a question of hospitality, of focusing on the guest. ‘This is very difficult, since we are pre-occupied with our own needs, worries and tensions, which prevent us from taking distance from ourselves in order to pay attention to others (Nouwen, 2005:89). Given the intense pressure Priests (and everyone else) are under, it is perhaps no surprise, then, if we are not always as hospitable to each other as we could be. Facing bruising criticism directed at us personally, especially when one has a role to fulfil, is deeply wounding. For Nouwen the recognition of our shared woundedness is key, where ‘Hospitality becomes community as it creates a unity based on the shared confession of our brokenness and on a sheared hope.’ (Nouwen, 2005:93).
It is this need to share our woundedness, rather than becoming thick skinned that I questioned in your blog. Clearly that doesn’t mean glorying in our woundedness, but recognising that ‘no-one can help anyone without becoming involved, without entering his whole person into the painful situation, without taking the risk if becoming hurt, wounded or even destroyed in the process. The beginning and the end of all Christian leadership is to give your life for others.(Nouwen, 2005:72). The problem with ‘God’s frozen people’ is that they may be too cold to feel their wounds. Criticism may be the evidence of these unknown wounds. The role of the leader is to warm their hearts (paraphrasing John Wesley) so that they become aware of their wounds so healing can begin. That healing will include a recognition of the wounds in the world around us, and should drive congregations out into their communities as agents of healing themselves.
Hope that’s of some interest. I’m afraid it’s still not as clear as I would like. I’m still working this out for myself as well. I’m going to blog a few further thoughts about congregational dynamics and criticism shortly.
Hughes, G W 1992 God of Surprises London: Darton, Longman and Todd
Nouwen H J M 2005 Wounded Healer London: Darton, Longman and Todd
Thank you so much for that Giles. It is good to be reminded of the reason we search and follow as we seek to, to have our perspective realigned and refocused.
So much of this process of exploring ordination is about me, and looking inwards, but ultimately it is about God and His love for humanity. Sometimes we, sometimes I, need reminding about that in order to not get lost in introspection.
Mulling over the God of Surprises, and what you have written, brings to mind that our reactions point to what wounds are within us and what God wants to do with us as a result. And as you say, the same is true of those doing the ‘wounding’, that they are wounded too and God wants to work with them. Leaders are called to sacrifice their pride in order to reach out to the wounded, to help them to break down the barriers they have erected and to help them find healing in God.
Focusing on others and on the reasons for any criticism given, or negative reaction to something said, not only helps identify the ways forward for them as individuals and the wider group, including the leader, but also also takes the sting out of the criticism.
Of course to find healing, to more forwards, to serve as God intends, the person who spoke or wrote the words that hurt also needs to meditate on the cause and the effect of those words. It may be that they could have handled it better from the outset and that they may need to seek forgiveness. Or it could be that, like the prophets of old, they were called by God to speak some truths. It could be that the lesson God is trying to teach them is that they need to pray and work more with God to soften the hearts that found such truths unpalatable.
This isn’t to lessen how tough the life of a leader can be, but it is good to ensure a healthy and helpful perspective on it.
I will continue to mull over this too, and lots more besides – there’s a lot of mulling going on in my house, the mulling of wine being one I have yet to savour this season! Clarity will continue to come as I continue to seek it, and your continued tweets of wisdom and support will certainly help. Thank you!