Someone I know socially and who has no connection with or experience of the Church asked me this week about what my objectives were and how my success was measured, as an employee of the Church. This is a question I have thought about quite a bit and in answering I set out these basic starting points:
- I do not regard myself as an employee of the church. The money I receive is a stipend, not a salary. It does not reward me for work done but rather frees me from the necessity of supporting myself and my family by working. It allows me to live a particular way of life rather than paying me to do certain things.
- I was not recruited by the church to fill a role. I was called by God into this way of life and the church recognised and supported that call. I did not choose this way of life out of a range of options having considered the pros and cons of each. Rather I was chosen for it,
- The way of life of a minister of word and sacraments is a continuation and special case of the way of life of any Christian disciple, We are “set apart” to some degree, as recognised by our ordination, but this is a matter of degree not of absolute difference. All Christians are set apart by their call into the Church, a setting apart recognised in the sacrament of baptism.
- The relationship between being a Christian and being in and serving the Church is a difficult one to fully grasp. I do believe that there can be no real discipleship apart from the Church, the body of Christ, but I also recognise the validity of, for example, the hermetic life, or of new communities of discipleship answerable, initially at least, to no earthly ecclesiastical authority. Whether the Church exists to enable individual discipleship or vice versa is not a resolvable question, in my view.
This set of starting points implies, for me, that some of the measures of success in ministry cannot be really adequate:
- Growing the church numerically: while this is a good thing in most cases it cannot be a real test of whether a minister or church is faithfully responding to their call. Some churches grow without, in my view, showing forth the gospel in a fully realised way. Without wanting to join in the knee-jerk condemnation of the “prosperity gospel” I do have reservations about it. Sometimes and in some places it is easy to grow a church by following a tried and tested formula. There’s nothing necessarily wrong with this but neither it is either the only or an infallible test of ministerial integrity (there’s a first clue to what I think is at stake in the question)
- “Making a difference”: some would contend that the first responsibility of the Church and of its ministers is to improve the lot of those who suffer, “pastoral” care in the sense of looking after people. This might express itself in things like soup kitchens, food banks, bereavement counselling or various kinds of advice, support and social provision. Again these are undeniably good things but I can imagine ministries that include these kinds of thing but leave me feeling that some core elements are missing (Word and Sacraments, roughly) while others that have little of this but seem to me to be faithful and complete.
- Proclaiming the Gospel: this comes nearest to being a completely adequate account but has some difficulties. It could be argued that if one faithfully and consistently proclaims the gospel to the best of one’s ability, in terms of understanding and of exposition, then that’s enough. However this can’t be all there is to it. Loving particular people is clearly demanded and more central than this would allow.
It may be that one is unable either to grow the Church, or to make much difference. One’s opportunities meaningfully to proclaim may be limited by there being nobody willing to hear, None of this prevents a ministry that is faithful and successful.
The key is in the idea of vocation, in my view, and in the vocation as a particular one. Each is called as the person they are and called to a particular place and a particular life. The only measure of success that makes any sense to me, theologically, is against the call. Has the person called discerned what they are being directed to and have they striven as best they can to answer, to obey? Anything else must be a secondary matter that supports this core.
Discernment is a difficult discipline. It requires a struggle against the self and against temptation. But if we are at all serious about our language of vocation and of call it is the only kind of assessment of the ministry of individuals and of churches that makes sense. There is no “objective” yardstick that can enable us to short circuit the prayerful listening for the Spirit that enables discernment.
My training in this has been primarily in the Ignatian tradition, through the Spiritual Exercises, and I remain committed to the principles of this way of prayer. In it the Christian is encouraged to trust in the promptings of the Spirit in what gives life and hope. One pays attention, in oneself, to what feels right and what feels wrong. The truth is sought in the way the Spirit moves one in quietness and contemplation.
The only true test of success in ministry, on this basis, is the way in which the prayer and spiritual life of the minister develops. Do I experience the love of God more fully, day by day? Do I love those among whom I am placed more, day by day? Am I more confident and faithful in respect to God’s promises? If so, then I am probably responding as best I can. If not, if I do not grow in love for my community, if I am dissatisfied and distrustful in respect of God, if I am unhappy, guilty, angry, bored, then something is wrong.