Breaking the silence

I’m slowly working my way through my in-tray and I’ve come across the latest issue of Congregations, the magazine of the Alban Institute. This quarter’s edition (Fall 2005 … that’s ‘Autumn’ in British money) is entitled “Talking About Faith: How the words we use and the stories we tell shape our congregations, our denominations, and ourselves”.

The opening article is by the Rev Dr James P. Wind, president of the Alban Institute and interestingly focuses on a new book called Pastors in Transition: Why Clergy Leave Local Church Ministry (ISBN 0802829082; £10.56 at Amazon UK). This struck me as a significant find as I contemplate leaving local church ministry, and in the same week that I heard from another clergy friend of mine, from another denomination, who is considering that too. Drawing on the research from the book, Wind writes:

There are two main reasons why clergy become “parish leavers”: preference for a specialized ministry and conflict. Another is that there are four main intervention points where a real impact can be made on the situation: the recruitment, seminary training, and eveluation processes that certify candidates as qualified for congregational ministry; the placement process that matches graduates and congregations; the ongoing support system for clergy (of lack thereof); and the provision of targeted help when clergy find themselves in trouble. These findings point to the areas where real change must occur if the situation is to improve. These matters require serious conversation and new plans of action by local congregations, denominations, and seminaries. (p.5)

What I was impressed with in Wind’s article, and I guess which is also emphasised in the book he summarizes, is his call to remind us that “behind the trend lines, the statistics, and the conclusions of the authors’ research are the lives of real people.”

Wind again:

As I read the individual stories of these clergy, I felt that these stories of leaving must be reckoned with. They need to be heard, and deep questions need to be asked about what led to these narratives. I also kept reminding myself that there are other stories that pastors are telling, stories full of the grace notes and surprise of pastoral ministry — and we need more of them. Sadly, neither kind of story is being told often enough. Our clergy are not given the opportunities to tell their real pastoral stories both the epiphanies and the tragedies. Many congregations do not know their pastors’ stories. In fact, congregations frequently are not safe places where the real drama of pastoral ministry can be encountered. The result, all too often, is silence. Stories go untold. Opportunities to become a community of faith are missed. The real power of the ministry remains invisible, inarticulate, and unperceived by clergy, the congregation, and denominational officials alike. The consequences of both kinds of untold stories are loneliness and breakdown. We must break the silence. (p.5)

At St Salvador’s each member of the team is preaching on the topic “The Church I’d like to belong to…”. During the sermon this morning, Brenda, our deacon, said that she felt that this was all wrong. This was a one-way exercise when it should really be a two way conversation between clergy and congregation, between Christian and Christian worshipping in the same community. I wonder how we can building this kind of interactive conversation into services, and into the lives of our congregations.

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Gareth Saunders

I’m Gareth J M Saunders, 52 years old, 6′ 4″, father of 3 boys (including twins). Enneagram type FOUR and introvert (INFP), I am a non-stipendiary priest in the Scottish Episcopal Church, I sing with the NYCGB alumni choir, play guitar, play mahjong, write, draw and laugh… Scrum master at Safeguard Global; latterly at Sky and Vision/Cegedim. Former web architect and agile project manager at the University of St Andrews and previously warden at Agnes Blackadder Hall.

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