I’m staring at the cliff face.
After 13 years as a priest, I’m preparing to step out of parish ministry. I’m not resigning my orders and will remain a priest, but I’m leaving this parish and not looking for another role as a minister.
Why this change?
In short: I’m tired. I’m worn out and exhausted by the ministry that I’ve loved over the years. With no hope of a much needed sabbatical because of a peculiar quirk of the rules on such things in my current diocese, I simply have nothing more to give and no chance to spend any serious restorative time with God.
I feel broken and damaged by ministry and that is now infecting all areas of my life. I’m not being the Dad I should be or the husband I should be and it’s damaging my relationship with God. I’m neglecting personal relationships and I’m down and grumpy most of the time. I am no longer robust enough to make it work and remain in my role.
It didn’t used to be this way. I used to love what I’m called to do. I felt the honour and privilege of leading worship and presiding at communion keenly. I loved the pastoral ministry, the visiting and honour of walking with those in times of celebration, grief and loss. But now all I feel is numbness and tiredness.
Because for me ministry has changed.
May be it’s my particular role that has evolved or perhaps the very nature of ministry in the Church of England has changed. But these days I rarely get to leave my desk, and when I do the net result is a huge backlog of pointless paperwork. The administrative load of being a parish priest from the diocesan and national church structures has increased three-fold since I was first ordained, in most parishes this burden fall almost entirely on the shoulders of the incumbent. In my context I’m blessed with a small admin team, who take much of it from me, yet the burden of what’s left is still utterly overwhelming.
The drive from those in authority has become more and more focused on money and numbers. Success is no longer (if it ever really was) based on the people we’re reaching with the gospel, but on whether or not those people have money to give, a successful Church is deemed to be one that is large, whether or not it is growing or disciple-ing it’s members. I want to serve a Church that is interested in ‘the one’, a church that rejoices with earth and heaven when a single person turns to Christ.
Recently I was sent a document detailing that in order to consider a big missional project a success the powers that be expected to see 120 new, giving Christians within three years.
Perhaps it’s just my own lack of faith but this feels like an impossible task, perhaps revival is coming and I can’t see it, but this sort of target driven mission seems doomed to failure, not least because in the face of such expectations I know that I feel a failure. In all of that runs a thread of disquiet of this linking of mission with financial giving. Sure one might be able to see financial giving as a marker of a discipled life, but as a sign of commitment to Christ? NO, I think that is way off.
But it’s not just disquiet with these edicts that concern me, it the very existence of a structure that feels able to make them. Many dioceses and certainly the Church of England as an institution has changed the way it thinks about priest and parish. Many dioceses now see themselves as the boss of the local parish priest, a concerted effort has been made by the CofE to erode the status of priest as an office holder and to make them in all but name more akin to employees of CofE Plc. Ten years ago the phrase ‘The Central Church’ would have meant nothing to anyone in the Church of England. Now there is an entire industry at the centre of the CofE that sees itself as the HQ of a pseudo-corporate entity. From what materials we use to advertise our services at Christmas & Easter, to web platforms, and more this new entity is turning what used to be tools to aid us into sticks to beat us.
Perhaps I’m looking back to a golden age that never existed but I don’t belief it used to be like this. A parish priest, sharing in ministry with colleagues and the officers of the Church used to be vicariously responsible for the ministry on the context in which he or she served. We weren’t told how to do it, but understood that we would get on with it, contextually. It was recognised that the priest would understand the locality in which they served and within the accepted doctrine of the Church and the rules that come with being a legal body would get on with proclaiming the gospel in a contextually sensitive way. Without the burden of targets, the intrusion of a hierarchy or the overbearing of a corporate boss.
Are anyone of these things the reason I’m stepping down? No, they’re not, but taken together along with the pressures of day-today ministry, I simply no longer have the capacity to continue.