There is a general, if unspoken, sense that clergy in the Church of England (and often in other denominations too) are indispensable in the local church. And yet this actually sits at odds with the ministry of Jesus and of the early apostolic leadership. This surprising contrast is captured well by the Bishop of Chelmsford, Stephen Cottrell’s introduction to the latest Grove Leadership booklet, Refusing to be Indispensable:
One of the really remarkable things about the gospels is Jesus’ astonishing unavailability. It is not what we expect. He is always disappearing. Sometimes to pray. Sometimes, it seems, just to get away. I can only draw one conclusion: he was not an Anglican vicar! Because so many Anglican clergy—and I am sure it is the same for other denominations as well—have this idea that they should at all times and in all places be equally available to everyone. Well, not only is this impossible—as soon as I am with one person I am, by definition, unavailable to everyone else—it is also a recipe for personal and pastoral disaster, leading to burnout, hubris, exhaustion and tyranny.
The book’s author, Andy Griffiths, begins his exploration with a sobering introduction:
My daughter had an imaginary dad. Many children have imaginary friends. But during the period of my curacy (the first four years of her life) I was home so little that my daughter created an imaginary daddy—his name was Bubble Daddy—who would come and play with her. And it was my fault. I thought I was indispensable to my church. Or I hoped I was indispensable. Or, more likely, I feared not being indispensable. It was not good for me, it was not good for my family, and it was not good for the church I was serving.
So the day I preached my first sermon as incumbent of Galleywood in Essex, in July 2005, I made God two secret vows. One of them was: No one but Jesus will be the sun in this solar system. I think I meant two things: first, I would not make myself central to the life of St Michael’s, and secondly, I was aware that my curacy church had taken too central a place in my life, and I refused to make St Michael’s Church central to my discipleship or that of its other members. This did not mean I was unwilling to work hard, or that I was refusing to lead—but I was determined not to think I was indispensable.
Twelve years on, I have just left Galleywood, but this book is born out of my faltering attempts to refuse to be central to church life there. So I o er ve metaphors for incumbents to muse over, pray with and, if necessary, use in argument—images that helped me to be a di erent kind of incumbent. I make no claim to a coherent theory of leadership, but I link each metaphor with the New Testament or a church leader, and with a little of my own story. After I lay out the ve metaphors, my nal chapter suggests four next steps for any- one who is starting to nd the argument convincing—steps that have to do with our use of language, our lifestyle, our decision-making and our prayers.
I am no impartial witness, so you are not hearing the voice of those who got so frustrated with me that they left the church (there have been quite a number), nor of those who were driven to distraction by my lack of organization and failure to confront when it was needed. Nor are you hearing from my family, who would tell you that although I made some progress towards being a dispensable incumbent, there is a long, long way to go.
Andy then introduces his series of metaphors, linked to different examples in the New Testament description of the life of the early church. The first gives a good flavour of what is to come:
Metaphor 1: The Incumbent Vanishes
Pete Rollins (born 1973) is a philosopher, radical theologian and speaker. He only knows one magic trick. It has three parts:
First—the Pledge. A coin is shown to the audience and placed in Pete’s right hand.
Then—the Turn. It appears to disappear (actually it goes into his left hand, but the audience does not know that).
And finally—the Prestige. The coin is found, not where the audience was looking, but in the middle of the auditorium under an upturned beer glass near Row J. Applause.
And that, says Rollins, is just like God. What?
God, for Rollins, is constantly drawing our attention to God’s presence—in Scripture, in bread and wine, in the promised land, in the temple and, most of all, in the incarnate Jesus, especially the risen Jesus after his resurrection. And God is not fooling us in doing so—God really is present in these ways. But then comes the Turn, in which we discover that God is present by being absent. Like the disciples at Emmaus, just when we encounter the risen Jesus in the telling of the story and the breaking of bread, he vanishes—our experience of him was real, but we cannot hold on to it. Jesus did not have to disappear in this way—he could have stayed for supper at Emmaus, and he could have stayed in bodily form instead of ascending. But he knew it would not be good for the disciples to have their eyes focused on his physical presence—they needed to grow up. Their action, in the presence of his absence, by the power of the Spirit, would be ‘more advantageous’ than Jesus’ physical presence. There is a sense of loss that characterizes the Christian life when it is not propped up by objective mediators of the absolute, and it has a distinctive courage to it.
So much for the Pledge and the Turn. What is the Prestige? If, like Mary Magdalene at the tomb, we are forbidden to hang on to Jesus, where is the presence of God to be found for more than a fleeting moment? 1 John gives the answer: ‘No one has ever seen God, but if we love one another, God abides in us’ (1 John 4.12). By the power of the Spirit, the absent risen Christ is present in human love wherever such human love resembles his own love when he was here in body. We were looking at the stage, but the coin (the presence of God) was among us the whole time, and when we stopped looking at the bright lights we found it in the midst of us, on Row J. Rollins calls this ‘The return of the sacred’—and also points out that although human love is seen in many ways, the return of the sacred seems to be most found among the poor and the outsider.
It is no surprise that the last chapter of Rollins’ book is called ‘The Vanishing Priest.’ If the incumbent is in some sense a representative of the risen Jesus in a church, it is important to remember that disappearing is what the risen Jesus kept characteristically doing. Religious professionals face the temptation to take centre stage, and tell people that God is securely present—in our being, or our actions, or our words, or our leadership, and that if people are looking for God, church buildings are the main place they will find him. On the contrary, the glimpses of God that are genuinely offered in word and sacrament and musical worship need to be followed by a Turn in which God’s people know God’s presence in ordinary human love, especially among those seen as the least; God is more present during the befriending of a neighbour on Pyms Road as in the singing of 10,000 Reasons at St Michael’s Church. This sort of disappearing pastor ‘makes their own ongoing presence ultimately superfluous…Just like with Jesus and his two disciples on the road to Emmaus, the show ends with the disappearance of the one who helped perform the trick.’
In the words of Paula Gooder:
The great divine absence is a vital ingredient in our call to mission…If Jesus were still on earth in his risen existence, we would probably leave him to it. We might stand at the edge making admiring noises but it would be hard to join in…A [good] sermon illustration for Ascension Day would be for the preacher to walk out and leave the congregation alone.
Andy Griffiths goes on to explore leaders as apostolic team members, as team builders, as doorkeepers, and as a planet, with other planets orbiting the sun which is the indispensable presence of God. He ends with a challenge to practical action:
Refusing to make yourself central to church life is not easy. Liminality is probably not what you were trained for, and if you tell your chapter or min- isters’ fraternal that you are trying to help your church become a ministering community instead of a community centred on a minister, you may get some odd looks. (They might even call you eccentric, which is ironic in the present context.) You will need to stand up against your own inner voices (because sometimes it is quite nice to be indispensable), as well as against voices in the local church who want the gathered church to be central to their Christian lives and need you to be needed, or at least to chair one more committee, visit one more housebound person or preach one more sermon.
This is a fascinating and engaging reflection on a vital issue in ministry—for all those in leadership, whether lay or ordained.
You can order the booklet Refusing to be Indispensable from the Grove website for £3.95 post-free in the UK, or as an electronic PDF delivered by email.
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