A letter to a young priest, on his appointment to a new living
Thank you for your letter. I am delighted to hear that you are to be the new parish priest of St John’s and I’m very touched that you have asked my advice. It is a very long time since I took up my first incumbency but, if my recollections of do’s and don’ts, usually learned the hard way, can be of any help then I will gladly share them with you.
You have prayed long and hard about the task and have, wisely, surrounded yourself with faithful friends praying for discernment. You have a very clear sense today that this is where God wants you. Remember that always in the years ahead. You will have triumphs and disasters (not too many of the latter, I hope) and everything in between. There will be days when you could happily stay for ever and there will be days when you could cheerfully pack it in. Both of these feelings are impostors. Your task will remain the same, that is to remain at your post and remember that it is not your work but God’s. ‘He who calls you is faithful and He will do it’. (1 Thess.5.v24).
You ask how long you should think of staying. My answer is simple…until death or retirement. Of course, you are not likely to stay that long. I know that. But wherever you take up a post, always view it as the last job you will do. This does several important things for you and for your people. The parish becomes your life and not a project and it will deepen everything you do together. The acceptance of here as home will give a stability and reassurance to the people of God. You will not be skimming through The Church Times on bad days lusting after “better” or “more important”? parishes or “promotion”.
There are no better parishes than yours, no souls more important than the ones in your care and, as any godly bishop will tell you, everything after parish priest is a demotion. Do not get ensnared in the deadly culture of ambition and career which is rotting so much of our church. The days of the thirty-five year incumbency may be at an end but our task is to dwell with our people as God dwelt with man in Christ.
In general terms, a man who habitually only stays five or six years with his people will have achieved little of lasting worth and never learnt to live with his mistakes.
Remember always that you have been called there to serve – servant of the servants of God. That is the Christian authority.
The church has been there for a long time before you and, please God, however long your incumbency, it will be there a long time after you. It is the church of that place, that parish, those people. Respect that and learn from it.
Two opposite and equally pernicious tendencies seem to afflict too many parish churches. There is the catholic zealot who regards the church as his doll’s house and sets about reordering everything the way he likes it. At the end of five years, he may have bankrupted the parish to build this shrine and the liturgical choreography and ecclesiastical millinery may be ‘sans pareil’? but the congregation, Prayer Book Communion and Evensong, will have voted with their feet.
Similarly, on the evangelical wing, there are the junior Cromwells who hate what they do not understand, destroy the sanctuaries, disband the choir, serve Mother’s Pride from a tea trolley in the nave to the background beat of this year’s incarnation of Kum Bayah and are deeply intolerant of those for whom this does not speak of the eternal verities.
Both of these patterns of ministry are deeply destructive of the parish church. Both may appear temporarily successful – sometimes spectacularly so. The reality is that the old congregation is largely replaced by an eclectic group of people who “like that sort of thing”. When the clergyman innovator departs, most of those churches fall into the doldrums for years and years as the next poor man has to cope with the loss of both congregations and deep seated local resentments.
That is not to say that you cannot be an innovator or a restorer but do not be a bully and do not rush. In most things, gradualism is what lasts and what helps people grow. If you are preaching, teaching, praying and living aright, your people will be encouraged to do the same and the initiative will often come from them. Because they understand why something is important not only are they much more likely to want it but they will, in the modern jargon, own it and defend it long after you are gone.
Before you do anything new to your plot, be a wise gardener and see a season round. Don’t go digging up everything before you know what’s what. The bare earth may hide spring bulbs, the barren stick may be a glorious summer tree, the suspicious weed a beautiful flower. Of course, you may simply have got earth, weeds and sticks but, by waiting, you will know. Patience is a virtue not just because it is so difficult but because it brings unexpected results.
Of course, if you recognise an insidious creeper like bindweed or ground elder, then you can’t start too early in removing it. But do be careful of the rest. It is sin we want out, not the sinner.
Before you do any new planting, you may well have to tend the old stock, feeding the roots, encouraging the flowers, and preaching and living the virtues of penitential pruning. It is well worth it, believe me. My first ‘plot’ was in a wintry season with a modest congregation – not at all promising. Yet my predecessor had carried out a faithful biblical ministry and most of my “?success” was achieved by the people he had prepared. He planted, I watered. Cherish what you’ve been given.
You say you’re worried about a “church plant” in your parish. If it is a genuine attempt to be helpful in building the kingdom, then there is little to worry about. If it is another symptom of Protestantism’s besetting sin of schism with the usual collection of autocrats, enthusiasts and the disaffected, simply steer clear and it will collapse very shortly. Please remember that your church St John’s is a church plant (c.1860) that succeeded. I know it is tempting sometimes to envy those who simply rent a hall on a Sunday morning and have no overheads. But you just watch them. Give them five years and they are looking for their own church building, hall, “plant”?, etc.
As for competition … let me remind you. There are 80 in your congregation, 30 in theirs and 25 in the Methodists. Your parish has 15,000 souls. It should be a while before you’re fighting over the last few unconverted souls!
On a more serious note … planting. Prepare the ground! Too often the church seems impenetrable. Make some people know your doors are open to them. Be vulgar! Advertise, leaflet the schools, encourage the local organisations in. Make sure funerals are in church – it’s their church. Make it important to them.
Use big events, celebrations etc. Use the Alpha Course. Let’s be frank; it’s a basic catechism course, but no-one would come if you advertised it like that.
In my first curacy, I followed a man who was not particularly good at anything. Not a great preacher, not a great sense of liturgy, not especially gifted at youth work or teaching etc. etc.
The parish loved him above all the curates they’d ever had. Why? “Because”?, as the churchwarden’s wife told me, “he loved us in a way that taught us more than words.”?
Your people will know if you love them. If you trust them, if you share your life with them, if your door and your heart are always open, if you believe that each one of them is precious, even the most difficult, a soul for whom Christ died.
You can’t fake that and you can’t do that in your own strength. Daily waiting on God to be filled by Him to overflow into their lives. There is no substitute.
TWO LITTLE WORDS
…that will make all the difference. They have a primary place in the Communion service and they should in our lives as priests. They are ‘SORRY’ and ‘THANK YOU’. We may be first class at sacramental expressions of this to God but if it is not reflected in our lives with our fellow men, it is not only God who may suspect our plausibility.
There will be times when you make mistakes. There will be times when you are short tempered, mistaken, upset. We, above all people, need to be able to say bravely and swiftly, “I’m sorry”.
Too many clergy seem to feel that such an action would show weakness and make a rod for their own backs. On the contrary, it says you are serious about the Gospel, discord is healed and your authority is actually enhanced.
And ‘Thank You’. If, like St Paul, we do thank God daily for our people, then we ought to say so to them too. A simple word of appreciation or a brief, personalised note after a big event has an effect out of all proportion. You will discover, sadly, that many of your people have never been thanked, encouraged or appreciated. Once they are – watch them grow!
Here I’m going to be controversial. Of course, in one sense, we can’t measure success. I’m aware too that everything is relative. Your 80 strong congregation would be Christmas in many tough, inner city parishes, or under-populated rural areas and speaks of fantastic hard work by the priest.
But, too often, clergy are complacent and even downright lazy. You have already said to me that your parish, cared for properly, ought to have two hundred in church and a roll 50% higher. You are right.
At the moment, your people may see this as an impossible dream but your confidence in them will be the first step.
Set them tasks and challenges in the faith that, with a bit of effort and teamwork, they can achieve. As they do so, their confidence will grow. Let them learn that everything must be under girded by faithful prayer and that God honours that faithfulness.
At first, they will think of you as a “lucky general”, but they will grow out of that as you point them always to Jesus. In due course, you will find that some of those who thought they could never speak to their neighbour about Christ will be merrily volunteering to help in visiting, prayer groups, parish missions.
What you will have done is not simply to boost the roll but to set the holy people of God free to fulfil their ministries and few things in a priest’s life are more exciting than when that happens.
I have said enough. To paraphrase St John, I suppose that if all the pastoral advice were written down, there would not be enough books to contain them. You will have to do with these simple thoughts and you have my prayers.
Thank God every day for your calling – there is no other task to compare with it.
Your brother in Christ