I DON’T know how long I expected to spend designing, drawing, and colouring a metre-high pirate face, but I certainly underestimated the job. As the evening ticked on, and Pirate Jack’s ginger beard remained unfinished, I started to calculate what that time could have been worth had I been using it differently.
The old proverb “Time is money” (famously used, although probably not coined, by Benjamin Franklin) implores us to see time as our most valuable asset. As part of his work to establish the values of toil and thrift within the fabric of what would become the United States of America, Franklin encouraged hard work by demonstrating the monetary cost of idleness.
In today’s business world, efficiency has become so important that it has been, consciously or otherwise, elevated to the status of a moral virtue. Whatever the industry, getting the greatest output from the hours worked is key to success.
Just a few months ago, in what feels like a previous life, I could literally count the monetary value of each hour in my working day. As an editor in a busy communications team for a large charity, my time was divided up to serve the needs of other teams, who had to factor their use of me into their budgets. The likely impact of a piece of work would be a main factor in working out if it was value for money: a poster that took a few hours might inspire small donations, but weeks of work on a hard-hitting report could have a real impact on government policy.
Of course, in many other jobs, the value of time is much more clear-cut. All sorts of people, from freelance designers to takeaway delivery drivers, work for an hourly rate; the rise of zero-hours contracts and the “gig economy” are only increasing the numbers of us who rely on this pattern of work.
IT IS, perhaps, inevitable then that such a way of thinking infiltrates the Church, and especially our expectations of those whose ministry is paid or stipendiary. Clichéd jokes about clergy working only one day a week often have more serious repercussions for ministers afraid of appearing idle — even on a day off.
As many parish priests take on responsibility for multiple congregations, maintain more buildings, and add whole communities to their pastoral remit, it becomes hard to avoid weighing up the best “value” use of time. Sermon-preparation time is squeezed. New mission opportunities get filed under “I wish I could”. Stressed-out clergy up and down the country must surely find themselves gazing down the to-do list, wondering whether they can afford to answer the phone the next time it rings.
Some of the pressure, no doubt ,comes from ecclesial hierarchies, great and small. But, as I added the final feathers to the parrot on Pirate Jack’s shoulder, I found that my discomfort at how much time it had taken, or wasted, came from my own expectations.
As a ministry assistant exploring vocation, I am, thankfully, free from many of the diary pressures of my clergy colleagues, and often able to arrange my own timetable. Yet I had imported from my old world of time sheets and deadlines a mentality that measured value by cost against output. And the figures did not add up.
MY SWASHBUCKLING shipmate was destined to be used for a Pin the Patch on the Pirate game at a church fun day organised for children and families on our estate. The amount of extra fun he brought to the day was probably minimal, and I perhaps could have prepared three or four other games to have a greater impact, if I had planned more strategically and worked efficiently.
But there was much value in the slow evening: the kind of value that those of us starting out in ministry must learn to treasure.
First, the amount of work that went into that cardboard masterpiece said something about the worth of the children who would play with it. Ministry is surely about the intrinsic value of each human being whom we come across, not what measurable output we see from our work with him or her.
Second, the time spent on it gave me the opportunity, as I worked, to pray for the activities ahead. Ministry is surely about prioritising prayer all the more as we get busier, seeing it as our primary task rather than something to bookend the real work.
Finally, to pour my time into something at which I am distinctly unskilled, simply because mine was the pair of hands available to do it, was humbling, and through it God taught me something about willingness to do what he asks rather than what we feel qualified for. Ministry is surely about being formed and transformed by God as we work with others rather than simply performing tasks for others.
Franklin had much wisdom when it came to shaping a society around a work ethic, but, for Christians devoting time to ministry as God calls each one, there is value to be found that is far greater than profit. An evening’s colouring-in could make sure we realised it.
Claire Jones works in three parishes in Sunderland as part of the Church of England’s ministry-experience scheme in the north-east.