Someone challenged me on this recently, and I found it a helpful way to really make me think hard about the patterns of life and ministry that are – whether I like it or not – becoming engrained into the way I conceive of what my working week looks like.
Last week I had the joy of spending two-days with some guys I trained with at theological college. We’ve committed to try and do this twice-a-year, to give time to ‘debriefing’ on our lives and looking out for each other. So on the train down to see them in London I tried to ponder this question of trajectories. I ended up grabbing a serviette and plotted out my ministry & life practices as if they were setting a course for my future.
And as I scribbled I realised that often I fail to think of my patterns in the present as a trajectory to the future, because I rationalise them instead. I explain them away (even if just to myself) as a unique ‘season’ that will soon change.
Picture the scene: you bump into a ministry friend at some conference you’re both attending. You know each other from way back and so you do the standard exchanging of formalities, and then they ask what sometimes feels like the dreaded question:
“So how’s it going anyway?”
First-off, your brain freezes. Good question – how even is it going? Ministry life feels like an endless to-do list and you’re not sure when you actually last did a pit-stop and got some perspective on it all.
But second, your memory slowly begins to remind you of all the things that aren’t so good about life and ministry right now. They come floating back up the surface of your consciousness like memories of a bad dream. Ok, there’s some things that are pretty much out of your hands, but then there’s all the others staring you right in the face with a fixed smirk that says, “Yep, you still haven’t dealt with me, have you?”
And so, thirdly – if you’re anything like me, that is – you then start to rationalise. Or to put it another way, you list the excuses:
* “There’s good reason why things are the way they are right now…”
* “We’re just in a particular season at the moment – it’ll slow down as soon as X is over…”
* “I know that’s not ideal, but sometimes you have to compromise…”
I don’t know what it is you’re tempted to excuse, but I know what it’s been for me…
…my devotional life … my sermon prep … my prayer time for ministry … spending less time with people and more time in my office … quality time with my spouse or close friends … letting admin run riot over word ministry … trading off my theological convictions for convenience …
And in all these things I’m quick to reason the ‘season away’, rather than asking the much more illuminating and galvanising question of what trajectory I’m setting.
If things carried on the way they are, where would I be in 3 years time? 5? 10?
Or to put it more specifically: What would be the shape of my ministry? How healthy would my marriage be? How much will I have shifted from my convictions? What would be the state of my physical health? What kind of church am I involved in building?
And it’s not just that “what’s the trajectory?” is a ‘scarier’ question (and so more likely to produce change by showing you the end results). It’s also a fair question.
My patterns in the present do become my default way of operating. Habits are hard to break. That’s just the way it is. Like the stream that gradually wears down the stones, carving out a new pathway for itself and becoming near-impossible to re-route, so the habits we build up in the present become the course we take for the future. ‘Seasons’ become years, years become…
Of course, in all this we need to remember grace. The point of asking ourselves such questions isn’t to beat ourselves up. And there will be seasons. Genuine periods of transition or adjustment. A new role; taking on new staff; a new baby… But where unhealthy practices are building into unhealthy habits, it’s healthy to want to change – and I need God to help me do that. And what struck me in that train carriage last week is that the solution can’t be to always ‘reason the season’.
The Revd Robin Ham serves at Grace Church, Barrow.