Wednesday, July 15, 2015

Balance in Ministry


When they return from their first missionary journey, presumably having healed the sick and cast out demons, the disciples surrounded Jesus and reported to him all that they had done. That's how Sunday's gospel lesson begins (see Mark 6:30-34, 53-56). As if to acknowledge their work, Jesus invites them to "Come away to a deserted place all by yourselves and rest for a while." What a nice invitation! For a while now in Mark's gospel account, Jesus has been so popular that he can't get any rest, and it seems that the demand on his time and attention has now spread to his disciples, who likewise can't get any rest. Jesus, recognizing the importance of recovery time, makes provision for the disciples to sneak away to a lonely spot and be refreshed.

Only, it doesn't work.

The crowd saw Jesus and the disciples slipping away in the boat, and they followed on foot and were waiting for them when their boat landed. No rest for the weary, it seems.

As I wrote about on Monday, this lectionary selection leaves out what comes next--the feeding of the 5,000. As my colleague Seth Olson pointed out yesterday in staff meeting, the feeding is Jesus' answer to the fatigue. He nourishes the crowd AND the disciples in their place of need by feeding them not only with multiplied bread and fish but also with himself. Since we don't have that in our lesson, we're left with exhausted disciples who never get to rest. And there's something to be said for that, too.

I'm not good at achieving that mystical work/family balance that so many people advocate. I don't even know that such a thing exists. Don't get me wrong: I'm not complaining. I hate preachers who whine about how hard they work and how neglected their families feel. I don't want to hear about that. Just do something about it--something other than whine to me.

This isn't a blog post to encourage people to take more time for themselves, to spend more time with their families, or to step away from their busy jobs to be refreshed. Actually, it's the opposite. I read Sunday's gospel lesson as it is presented to us and think, "You know, sometimes there just isn't time to step away to a deserted place by yourself."

In my experience, clergy who advocate for their own downtime--sabbath rest, comp time, sabbaticals, vacation, continuing education trips--often get into trouble. As the old comic strip featuring the kid coming out of church and asking the pastor what he does every other day of the week (I think it was Dennis the Menace) implies, most people don't know what clergy do Monday through Saturday. Some of our work is visible, but much of it is not. Part of my job is to pray. Part of my job is to be on call--all the time. Part of my job is to meet with people in coffee shops. Part of my job is to visit people in their homes...after work...late into the evening. Few of those things are seen by the rest of the congregation. So, if I stand up and say, "I'm working too hard and need a break," it sounds like I'm just lazy. And, when that happens during someone else's crisis, it seems unabashedly negligent. "I'm sorry, Mrs. Jones, that your goldfish died, but I'm on vacation." Sound crazy? It happens.

I'll suggest that parish clergy need to spend time educating a few lay leaders in the parish about the nature of clergy work. Perhaps a diocesan consultant can come and meet with the clergy and vestry and guide them through a reflection on what sort of expectations for clergy exist. Then, those lay leaders of the congregation can advocate on behalf of the clergy person for his or her downtime. It needs to be a clear and consistent reminder to the congregation that we must all take care of our clergy just as they take care of us.

Clergy, however, need to have the opposite voice. Clergy need to work too hard. Clergy need to be present too much. Clergy need to have bad boundaries. Jesus and the disciples didn't get to rest. They wanted to. They needed to. They planned to. But then things changed. The crowd found them, and the crowd needed their help, and so Jesus and the disciples ministered to them. When a random Tuesday afternoon is empty on the calendar, the clergyperson should slip out the door and go home to be with her family. But she should keep her cell phone on and be ready to head to the hospital if needed. Yes, of course we need rest and recovery, but other things come first. If that is the focus of the clergy and the lay leaders are pushing for more downtime and the pastor is pushing for less, a good balance is possible.

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