Thursday 28 February 2013

The Gardener and the Broken Ministry

 I think that the model of ministry that many ordained people operate within is broken.

I would go as far as to say, that the model of ministry that many ordained people end up working within, is not only broken, but damaging.

And I’d like to go even further, to say that the model of ministry that many ordained people find themselves working within is not only broken and damaging, but it’s not even God honouring.

Too many clergy are too busy, too encumbered by their incumbency status, too tied down, by tired expectations. Too trapped by practices and ways of being that not only repeat the mistakes of the past, but encourage them.

The model of ministry is broken because it expects too much, it reflects too little, and it lays the blame all at the feet of the ordained minister themselves.

When things go wrong, it can never be the model of ministry’s fault. No way, if it was good enough for George Herbert....

I’ve never read the book “If you see George Herbert on the road... kill him” (or something), but I think perhaps I should.

Now, as is my want and way at the moment, I’m offering up a rant, based on months of reflection and churning, and I don’t intend this to become an academic exercise, rather instead, hopefully a spark, to ignite some further reflection on the subject.

Clergy busyness and clergy stress.

Clergy working expectations - “house for duty is never just house for duty”.

Clergy working hours - “it’ll be busy”.

Clergy legal expectations.





Too often I’ve heard the same old splurge of suggestions: “what is important is time management” - and never have I heard the reflection, “perhaps the way we do things is wrong?”

If only clergy would lay their different tasks into the segments that make up a 48 hour week, there would be opportunity to do that annual retreat, to read that theological text clergy are always encouraged (and in some cases told) to read, and also, maybe to do some creative mission, rather than merely repeating the mistakes of the past, for a whole new generation to encounter and say, “mmmah”.

This might just be vitriolic rambling nonsense, or maybe there is something to it.

Maybe there are more tasks than fit in the 48 “hour” blocks.

Maybe, the sandbox is already full, and deciding what to put in or take out, makes no sense because the sandbox is already full: no matter what is urgent or essential”.

This might all be sounding unfamiliar, or you may well have encountered these metaphors:

- “Imagine a sandbox filled with tasks, make sure there aren’t too many tasks in the sandbox.”

- “split the working week into 48, hour-long segments, make sure that the tasks are spread evenly over the 48 hour-long chunks.”

- “work out what is urgent, or essential, and non-urgent, and non-essential, and work on those things that are urgent and essential first. Only undertake non-urgent and non-essential tasks, once the non-urgent but essential tasks are complete. Try to prioritise an essential but non-urgent task when planning ahead in the diary. Needless to say, the urgent but non-essential tasks must take precedence over the non-urgent and non-essential tasks, that themselves are less urgent than the non-urgent but essential tasks that fit within the frame work of a 48 hour sandbox.”

It’s all just wrong!

And it’s not only the “time” issue that breaks the model of ministry. There are many other factors.

One such factor might be that many of the tasks an ordained person is expected to do, do not actually build the kingdom of God. Perhaps clergy find themselves trapped, “servicing” a programme of services that do not build the kingdom of God.

Perhaps the clergy person has become a “service provider”, rather than a minister of services.

Too often the clergy person may find themselves filling their energy maintaining an obsolete system that is only there because it is expected.

And this “service provision” model, much like a hotel room cleaner, or garage mechanic, ends up with a minister of the gospel “servicing” a pattern of worship (much like a cleaner services a hotel room or mechanic services a car regularly) and mopping up the problems (much like a cleaner might mop up vomit, or a mechanic might fix the leaky brake-fluid-thingy).

Another factor might be that actually, the focus of too much thought and too many policy documents is on clergy proficiency (and yes that’s important, child protection, health and safety, safeguarding, finance, listed buildings, acting registrar, etc, etc) and not on clergy faith.

Quite frankly, the model of ministry I work within, and have been trained to work within can operate quite nicely without God and the idea of a living faith. In fact, the model of ministry I’ve been trained into actually finds faith a bit of a nuisance, because prayer takes time, and retreats take a lot of time, and actually, if God speaks to a clergy person and they feel inclined to listen to that voice, that may ultimately get in the way of “servicing” what goes on).

Of course the sad thing is, that actually, I think what people in the pews would want most from their ministers, is a vibrant faith, a minister excited by Spirit led worship and filled with the continuing revelation of God being made known to the clergy person through the Holy Spirit.


Currently, I’m having some hypnotherapy for a long-standing stomach condition. My hypnotherapist is lovely, he has many books on psychology, on mediation, on eastern methods of whatever, on western methods of whatever. He’s a thoroughly interesting bloke and a really thoughtful and challenging person.

We recently spoke about the pace of life. We’ve undertaken some hypnotherapy that actually, is incredibly similar to guided meditation, Margaret Silf, Ignatian spirituality stuff.

And recently he said to me, “part of life is learning to enjoy the garden.”

And that clicked with me. It resonated, it was a way of expressing something that had been pecking at me for ages. “Enjoy the garden.”


The idea of:

Walking amongst the flowers, smelling the roses, watching the seasons pass by, sharing the journey of the leaves from green to yellow to brown to grey to nothing.

Watching the cycle of life unfold, hearing the birds sing in different seasons, watching the bees at work. Tasting the fruits of their labour. Touching the smooth petals that grow and shrivel.


If anyone is to enjoy the garden and recognise the importance of enjoying the garden it should be the ministers of God’s word and sacraments.


I suggested to my hypnotherapist that  the job of the minister is surely to be the gardener. To observe the garden, to experience the garden, to encourage others to work within the garden, teach others to plant and to sow.

Teach others to enjoy the fruits of the garden and to see value in the ideal of pausing and doing nothing. Sitting on the park bench with a visitor to the garden and watching the garden with them.

Sometimes pointing out the different flowers, sometimes walking with them in silence as they take in all that the garden has to offer.

Ready to hear their questions, and perhaps give answers, or perhaps asks further questions back (thanks @nedlunn).

But in reality, the model of ministry turns the gardener into the tour guide: hastily rushing tour after tour around the garden, getting the regular visitors in and out through the gates (if they even notice the garden and if the gardener even shows them the garden), and showing new visitors around the garden, before locking up for the night, without the gardener ever actually spending any time enjoying the garden for themselves.


I think it’s easy for the model of ministry to professionalise and rush the gardener into being a service provider with no interest in the garden or the fruits that come from it. No interest in the garden for the sheer love of the garden itself.

Maybe it’s time to re-read the Song of Solomon with a lovers hat on, but also with a gardeners hat.

It’s all like that bit in the 60’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory film:

“We are the music makers and we are the dreamer of dreams.”

But are we?

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