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Sustaining Leadership: You are more important than your ministry, by Paul Swann

12 October 2018

Peter Selby faces the challenge from one of the clergy he appointed

SEE beyond the small size of this book to an offering of generosity and wide-ranging wisdom.

Its generosity lies in Paul Swann’s writing about his experience of illness without holding much back: he invites us into his experience of chronic fatigue. We are given a graphic, though not over-dramatised, account of the terrible toll that ME took on the author.

Even more significant is the particular distress that burnout brings to a person of great talent and deep commitment, when he reaches the point when he has to say, “I can’t do this any more.” Fragility — to put it mildly — was what he encountered as he “hit the buffers”; then fragility was what had gradually to be emerged from, and then, as its meaning became clear, to be embraced.

So, the first third of the book is about that experience, although even as we read it we have the sense that faith, though tested, never totally lost its ability to provide perspective and meaning in his suffering. That perspective is the foundation for the wisdom in the next hundred pages: the practical necessity as well as the spiritual importance of self-care, particularly for the most energetic, creative, and committed, who find self-care hardest.

In many sermons, the Pauline image of the clay pot — to which Swann refers a great deal — can remain a general comment about ministerial humility rather than pointing to specific vulnerabilities that need specific remedies and responses. It is because this author gets specific that this book is lifted above well-meaning exhortation to be both challenging and of practical use to those who find it hard in practice to accept the subtitle’s message that “You are more important than your ministry.” The many examples of vulnerability and practical self-care are supported by a wide selection of biblical citation and the wider reading that was, no doubt, part of the author’s self-care.

Alongside all that is worth while in the book, there remain some questions. Surely, a more artistic and nourishing front-cover design would have portrayed the book more accurately. And isn’t the subtitle rather than the title the real message of this book? It is for everyone, not just, or even mainly, “leaders”? The book is at least partly a critique of what the designation “leader” engenders.

Yet, if this is a book for everyone, it especially challenges those who have oversight of others’ ministry. I happen to have been the bishop involved in the author’s call to undertake the special challenge of growing and enlivening a church in the centre of Worcester. It is hardly a decision that I can regret, given all the good that has flowed from it. But, since the disintegration and the reintegration that this book describes are also what (in part) flowed from that decision, I found the book a particular challenge.

Looking at my former ministry, I ask myself, in gladly appointing some of our strongest people to the hardest tasks, are we as aware as we need to be of the particular support and resourcing needs that such colleagues have? Or do we just hope that the talented and the committed will find their own way of avoiding burnout? That goes along with a more searching question: how well are we ourselves modelling self-care?

But this gentle author also knows how to use examples that challenge lightly; so if you ever catch yourself not completing the two minutes that your electric toothbrush allows, remember it’s not just your teeth that you’re not caring for.

The Rt Revd Dr Peter Selby is a former Bishop of Worcester.

Sustaining Leadership: You are more important than your ministry
Paul Swann
BRF £8.99
Church Times Bookshop £8.10

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