Wednesday, 24 July 2013


To Robe Or Not To Robe, That Is The Question?
Apostleship made Judas no more a saint, than my robes, well-worded prayers or religious title make me reverend.  Should I hang up my clergy robes in favour of jeans and an open necked shirt then?

I was in conversation with a Lay Reader of an Anglo-Catholic church recently who was defending the tradition of wearing his black cassock whilst going about his daily church visiting. There are many fewer such ministers still wearing their traditional clergy robes outside Sunday services; indeed my Training Vicar/Incumbent would rarely be seen wearing robes or even a dog-collar at all!

Religious regalia such as clergy robes are dismissed by many as form of outdated irrelevant "power dressing" that do more to spread class division than spread the gospel. Theologian Rev Andrew Atherstone a tutor at Wycliffe Hall, Oxford University writes "The existing law, which makes robes obligatory for all, belongs to a bygone world. In the 21st century Anglican ministers must at last be given the freedom to decide their own clothing, in consultation with their congregations, based on their local setting."

The wearing of robes, which we have the Romans to thank for, is part of church law in which we find the half century old Canon B8 itself based on earlier rules from 1604. The Church of England interprets that "the requirements of the Church of England's Canons are not onerous. They simply state that at celebrations of Holy Communion, Occasional Offices (such as weddings) and, on Sundays, the statutory services of Morning and Evening Prayer, the presiding minister should normally wear a surplice or alb (essentially a single simple robe) with scarf or stole."

But Rev Jeffrey J. Meyer builds on the case for robes. He believes that robes help to hide the personality of the minister whilst encouraging others to place recognition and professional confidence in their special calling; just as you would a uniformed and qualified professional such as a policeman or nurse.  A 'freelance' funeral minister with no professional theological training can legally dupe the general public simply by wearing robes - their professional credibility is assumed.

Meyer would continue that it's far easier to receive ministry from a younger minister who has become our friend if instead of taking a loved ones funeral in jeans and a t-shirt, they are robed as God’s appointed minister, leading us into God’s presence and speaking God’s word to us. It becomes less about the personality of the minister and more about the robe of office which they happen to be filling whilst adding dignity and reverence to the service. A further point is that a minister is acting not for herself but for Jesus, representing Him under His authority.

It would be mistaken to conclude that avoiding the pomp and ceremony reflects the virtues of a simple faith and humility. C. S. Lewis has said, “The modern habit of doing ceremonial things unceremoniously is no proof of humility; rather it proves the worshiper’s inability to forget himself in the rite, and his readiness to spoil for everyone else the proper place of ritual.”

And what of our motive? In our attempt to move with the times and be relevant to those we service are we in danger of allowing the world to be our paymaster rather than The Lord? How long before my title is changed to Executive Director of Worship and Pastoral Care in our attempt to fit in with what the world recognises?

But through this I am still left unconvinced on the case for robes. Ultimately we should be shaped by scripture more than tradition. In scripture I see no clear word on any church leader wearing special robes. Did Jesus robe? He might have worn them but only in donning the cultural norm. If people struggle to associate with me as an unrobed leader; surely that should challenge me about my Christian integrity, not force me to wear robes to disguise my failed unsuitable personality. Jesus and his disciples never wore fancy regalia, surely because it would just place them on a higher pedestal than others; which isn't the message of the gospel.  Today we are all a chosen priesthood, God shows no partiality.  Indeed look at the attitude of Jesus to those who though they deserved partiality such as the robed up Pharisees.

I concede that there are inner-city Anglo Catholic churches growing because for some folk seeking God there is a draw towards the awe, reverence and mystery that can be found in the ceremony of a Eucharistic Mass. Perhaps it works better for those who would prefer to relate to a transcendent God than one more immanent. Too strong a generalisation maybe as it is true too that both transcendence and immanence can be experienced as we relate to God regardless of high or low tradition.

But in my experience and context I don't believe today that I would have courted so many community friendships with ordinary folk had I rode up and I went about doing parish business wearing a black cassock. Indeed when I first arrived, even wearing a dog-collar would prompt many to cross over to the otherside of the road. It's about genuine relationships without unhelpful barriers. Facebook has enabled people to see me for who I am; a common sinner, seeking the common good, for a common people for an Almighty God with an almighty plan and purpose for your life as part of His Almighty Kingdom.

Friday, 18 January 2013

Rev Bleating Again

Today I heard some shocking bleating from a teacher ungraciously defending school snow closures on Radio 2's Jeremy Vine programme. There were others who presented the case more graciously but he had already struck a fatal blow to his cause.  It got me thinking of whether clergy should by allowed to moan about their professional struggles.  

As much as I would never change my job for anything else (unless God tells me to move on), and I see ministry as the ultimate privilege, none the less, not talking about clergy stress is dangerous. So (hopefully graciously) now, I bleat on behalf of my own privileged profession.

According to the New York Times (August 1, 2010) "Members of the clergy now suffer from obesity, hypertension and depression at rates higher than most Americans. In the last decade, their use of antidepressants has risen, while their life expectancy has fallen. Many would change jobs if they could." Here some more facts from over the pond:
  • 13% of active clergy are divorced.
  • 25% don't know where to turn when they have a family or personal conflict or issue.
  • 33% felt burned out within their first five years of ministry.
  • 33% say that being in ministry is an outright hazard to their family.
  • 40% of clergy and 47% of spouses are suffering from burnout, frantic schedules, and/or unrealistic expectations.
  • 45% of clergy say that they've experienced depression or burnout to the extent that they needed to take a leave of absence from ministry.
  • 50% feel unable to meet the needs of the job.
  • 52% of clergy say they and their spouses believe that being in pastoral ministry is hazardous to their family's well-being and health.
  • 70% don't have any close friends.
  • 75% report severe stress causing anguish, worry, bewilderment, anger, depression, fear, and alienation.
  • 80% of clergy say they have insufficient time with their spouse.
  • 80% believe that pastoral ministry affects their families negatively.
  • 90% feel unqualified or poorly prepared for ministry.
  • 90% work more than 50 hours a week.
  • 94% feel under pressure to have a perfect family.
It's frightening to learn that in the USA 1,500 clergy leave their ministries each month due to burnout, conflict, or moral failure. Doctors, lawyers and clergy have the most problems with drug abuse, alcoholism and suicide.

I love being an Anglican Vicar, but back home I'm conscious that there are far many more people ready to criticise and expect more from their clergy than there are to encourage and support. I've seen clergy leaving the ministry and it's often far from graceful an exit.  I never understand why clergy are expected to brush off the huge deficit of criticism to praise; they aren't super human, they carry feelings too.

And then the 24/7 accessibility to clergy. It may not sound significant, but whenever a small knock comes the way of the clergy they are often under so much pressure that they are swept aside by an avalanche.  Each snowflake appears innocent enough but then the subtle accumulation can have hazardous consequences. 

I've heard it said that one of my predecessors would go and sit in their parked up caravan in their garden to avoid parochial interruptions on his day off.  I know how that can feel.  Funeral arrangements always come in on a my day off (Monday).  We live in a situation where being next door to the church, people think you are the caretaker for the hall: "The vicar won't mind showing us where the bin is." Or "I know it's the Vicar's day off but I'm sure he won't mind if I contact him." Or "I'm drunk, can't hassle the police, Doctor's Surgery is closed as is the Children's Centre...I know I'll go and pound on the Vicar's door!" Our children can't answer their own front door for fear of who to expect and in what state, they get left terrorised in their beds whilst the bells and door knocker declares the presence of a caller that remembers that 'Priests are never off call.'  We are now having to install CCTV to protect them and enable them to confidently open the door to friends.

Looking at the wider picture, these figures should provoke us toward serious thought about how we pastor the Pastor. It's not something many vicar's expect - surprise them!  But please give your vicar ample attention to their human needs before you consider to complain about something in the church, believing them able to be all things to all people. 

Counsellor Frank Minirth gave this job description for clergy: “A church leader is expected to make house calls as willingly as yesterday’s country doctor; to shake hands and smile like a politician on the campaign trail; to entertain like a stand-up comedian; to teach the Scriptures like a theology professor, and to counsel like a psychologist with the wisdom of Solomon. He/she should run the church like a top-level business executive; handle finances like a career accountant, and deal with the public like an expert diplomat at the United Nations.”

We can't be all these things to all people. That's why our burnout rates are so high...some clergy believe it's indeed possible...until it's too late.  And that's another problem, some clergy actively court more work as they seek to fill the need to be needed; filling the gap left by low self confidence and the sense of falling far short of the job specification.

Another survey from the States in 2000 discovered that 61% of pastors would spend less time in meetings if they could, 37% would spend less time mediating conflict, and 34% would spend less time counseling. If they could gain that time, they would spend it in evangelism (58%); personal devotions (66%); sermon preparation (73%) and prayer (75%).

Yes we need to pay plenty of attention to our pastoral duties, but we also need to remember that part of our pastoral duty is to our family. Too many of them feel cheated:  cheated meals, cheated days out, cheated promises... just cheated... by us trying not to cheat the parish.

Our church for part of last year had limited or no Administrative limited and by no fault of our wonderful Church Warden, limited or no shared leadership through that role. Often in such circumstances, the assumed responsibility gets shifted to the Vicar. Church leaders shouldn’t have to carry all the responsibilities for running their church. If they do, they have no opportunity to do the things they need to do to help their church or themselves grow.

If you are on your church leadership team or PCC, take a look at how your church is structured and try to see if your own vicar or pastor is overburdened. 

More importantly, please make sure your church leader has their boundaries respected. Respect their day off. They may be on Facebook or stood in their kitchen, but that doesn't mean they are available.  Remember that what you might believe to be a personal affair, will be experienced by your Priest as 'work' because as lovely as you are, you are still 'work'.  That may just be the time that they have promised to their family...and whether it is or not family time, that time is theirs to call, not yours, so please leave them to it. 

What must be said is that this is not a hard and fast rule.  Particular to the role of Priest is that emergency pastoral support offered 'outside office hours'. But it is important that just as 999 Accident and Emergency Services are being misused as a non-emergency out of hours doctors surgery haemorrhaging the system and causing it to be redefined from 'Casualty,' so too must clergy be given the right to define a genuine emergency from lesser crises. For that reason, mine isn't the only answer machine message that invites calls on Monday's for emergencies and bereavement funeral matters. I believe the experience of the vast majority of parishioners up and down the land is one where the level of 'out of hours' availability is honoured.

One thing I need to make clear. As is so often misinterpreted in the blogosphere and Facebook, this is not a personal slight against any one individual in my parish at this moment. Nor is it a negative criticism of St Peter's. It is a general problem many clergy and their families silently endure; because of the great privilege and honour that comes of serving the Lord Jesus in full-time ministry, this subject remains taboo. But we need to be open and honest about this.  In this relationship of ours, we need your prayers just as you deserve ours.

I dared to share such feelings early on in my ministry when the contrast between my 'proper job' and Priesthood was still so fresh in my mind.  I think the unsympathetic response can be summarised by these words "If you don't like it, jog on!"

I've worked hard to get this balance right in my own ministry which will inevitably lead to many feeling I fall far short of expectations.  Well I'm okay about that if God is.

Monday, 14 January 2013

Strivers and skivers in the pursuit of Christian excellence?

Strivers and skivers in the pursuit of Christian excellence? 

There's a lot of right wing spin flying around at the moment stirring the public perception that of those many who are on benefits a third are making fraudulent claims.

Though the Government's own statistics reveal the figure to be closer to 0.7% the mere mention in church circles of the word 'skiver' puts many a Christian into a tailspin as they rush to distance themselves from what is an 'elitist' insult.

But the reality is that many of us see the church as prime territory for half-baked commitment in the pursuit of excellence.  There are plenty of churches with strivers, plenty more with skivers.  "Ouch, that hurt...after all, us over worked members have to balance busy jobs with leisure, family and friends...that you get us to volunteer anything at all should make you grateful."  So many church leaders struggle to inspire their members to achieve anything looking excellent.  Just as our Youth Clubs have second-hand-me-down donations of Table Tennis tables and dump-diverted-sofas, so too it is true of the allocation of gifts and time to the church.  There's an attitude in so many of our churches that because it's our voluntary contribution, it can fall far short of the excellence and commitment we would strive in the workplace.  I notice that people are far more likely to volunteer when the church rottweiler is recruiting than when we try to persuade people gently, begging the question as to how many members volunteer out of fear than through having a genuine passion to serve?  And therefore are we cherry picking just those ministries and activities that give us the easiest gratification and other's we endure to avoid the rottweilers gnashing of teeth?  Where is God in all of this?  Are we serving the rottweiler, the church leader, or God?

I don't want my church to be actively striving towards excellence so that I can boast 'my church's' excellence' I want God's church to be serving God in response to the mercy and grace he has shown us through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. That deserves our complete commitment.  It demands the priority of everything we can give through an existence of sustainable work-life balance that places God at the centre. That's the driver for the striver or else it's the diver of the skiver. That should raise a passion within us that pursues ministries that strive for excellence.  Indeed, we should therefore strive for excellence in everything we commit ourselves towards.

From a Biblical perspective, excellence is a virtue and we should pursue it at all times. Whether we’re washing coffee cups after the church service, running a business or running to get fit, we’re called to please God through our efforts. “Whatever you do,” the Apostle Paul tells us, “do it all for the glory of God” (1 Corinthians 10:31, also Colossians 3:23-25, Matthew 25:14-30).
Sadly this pursuit has much been eclipsed by more celebrated virtues like love and joy and forgiveness.
My training incumbent was always banging on about aspiring to excellence—our very best. At the time I felt it was leaning towards protestant elitism but the more I minister in church leadership the more I realise it was simply trying to enable people the greatest sense of fulfilment by achieving the fullest potential God has for our lives...all of us paid and unpaid, clergy and laity...and what motive? Not because of my nagging at people to give of more more of themselves but because GOD has given us the privilege to do those things and who are we to offer Him any less than our true best?

Strive is the word I want to claim back from accusing Tories against skivers and put it back in it's rightful place in our role to strive consistently toward our potential, toward the goal of doing things as well as we can, no matter what we’re being paid and no matter what anyone else is doing (or isn’t doing). 


The results of the summer's Olympian gold medal performance achievements bear good testimony of what can happen when a bunch of strivers get together and believe in their potential for excellence. And boy when we’re in the presence of such excellence, it can be an emotional experience.  I went with friends for a meal recently at restaurant in Taunton...but the excellence of the food and service was so amazing we were just lost for words. We could only muster the occasional “Wow!”. Imagine what it would be like if our church visitors, church regulars, our friends and family, our work colleagues and customers felt that way about our efforts!  The legacy hoped of the Olympics was that excellence would inspire the next generation of athletes, that they would be 'wowed!' realising their potential... pushed to go beyond themselves in the pursuit for excellence and realising their God-given potential.

But let's be aware of the elephant in the room of 'Striving in the Pursuit of Excellence': 'Pride'. Sometimes the pursuit of excellence among Christians is not borne of St Paul's teaching on boast-less, Christ-modelled and centred, humble service and a genuine love for God, but out of self-elevation in the pursuit of social respect and gain. Some people will use the right words – “my church (school, business, product, band, choir…you name it) belongs to God and is striving for excellence, so don't knock it” – but the real motive is their concern about their reputation. A warning for all of us in church leadership is our willingness to browbeat people in the name of “Christian excellence” not for the gain of the Kingdom, but for one's own reputation. Pride should never be the driver of our pursuit to strive for excellence. 


Pride is one downside of excellence. At the end of the day, what is our motivation? Is it really about God, or is it about you?

Burnout is a second downside, albeit not necessarily a sinful one. Habitual striving can be exhausting, whether we’re personally striving to achieve our potential, or striving for our organisation to excel, or even striving to have the best possible marriage. There comes a point where the pursuit of quality over-stretches us and perhaps those around us. At that point, excellence again morphs from virtue to vice.


Many of us have felt overworked and we understand full well how harmful that is to our health, to our relationships and, critically to our spiritual lives. I very quickly learnt that lesson here in Priorswood. I made up for what I considered to be the shortfalls of my gifting as a leader... the 'how did I get away with bluffing it this far' thought... by overworking to fill the gap. This grueling, joyless and often prayerless existence, along with all of the accompanying repercussions, nearly finished me and convinced me that I needed to make significant changes. Excellence needed to be bounded by simplicity, a focus on doing just a few things and doing them as well as I could.

I focused more on the areas where I truly felt called, even if that meant I constantly heard 'well the last Vicar always visited...did this...achieved that....' Indeed, we ought to pursue excellence, but that requires discernment and sometimes, tough choices. Better to do a handful of things at 100 percent than many more things at 70 percent. Trying to do the latter at 100 percent quality (as I was trying to do) is not a healthy existence. Neither is it the life God invites us to live.

What excellence constitutes for you is not really for me to say. It's between you and God, but in matters concerning church, it should be the church leadership that helps you to not only discern the destination of your pursuits in ministry but then also to help you and follow the right direction of them. Just to shoot off on your own Christian pursuits is a sign of both Christian immaturity and probably the doomed pursuit of self-elevation. In the pursuit to strive for excellence it's important to focus more on the process than the product.


It’s wrong to think of excellence as merely a destination. When we do, we risk complacency and stagnation once we’ve allegedly reached a point we consider “good enough.” I'm finding that with my diet. The commitment and excellence of achievement (of a sort) has been in the journey not in the destination. It’s wiser to think of excellence as a direction, a disposition, a striving toward something better, toward the next level of quality, toward continuous improvement. In that way, the focus is not on the product of our efforts but on the process of pleasing God by stewarding the talents and resources He’s entrusted to us. The endeavour remains about Him, rather than about us, so the striving can naturally remain an ongoing, faithful process. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.
In other words, excellence is more about becoming than being. It’s a direction more than a destination—a way of life and one that we Christians need to reclaim as our way of life.


I attribute much of this blog to Michael Zigarelli, 'Reclaiming Excellence as a Christian Virtue.'