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Freedom from the need to achieve

05 April 2019

Ian Cowley argues for rest, play, and reprieve from the numbers game

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Man Reading the Newspaper by Fernando Davila (b.1953)

Man Reading the Newspaper by Fernando Davila (b.1953)

I RECENTLY spent a couple of days in the diocese of Sheffield. I led a training day on contemplative ministry at Whirlow Grange, and visited the parish where I spent two years in the 1980s, soon after I was ordained.

In a number of conversations, I was made aware of the extreme financial pressure on the diocese — in part, because of the introduction of a new model for funding ministry (News, 21 October 2016). In his address to the diocese last year, the Bishop of Sheffield, Dr Pete Wilcox, reported that this model, which came into effect in 2015, had reduced the grant from the Church Commissioners by about £300,000.

Meanwhile, one of the “frustrations” about the Strategic Development Funding was that it could not be used to find ordinary, routine stipendiary posts.

The parish where I now worship has recently been awarded a substantial sum of money from the Strategic Development Fund. Measurable outcomes are a central tenet of this new way of funding ministry, and this money has been granted on the understanding that specific targets will be met.

Among these are: “30 new fresh expressions of Church developed, with total of 600 participants; 35 per cent of participants unchurched; 25 per cent of participants under 30; 70 per cent lay led”. The deadline is 2020.

Another diocese is planning eight church-plants by 2023, and its list of outcomes includes to “engage with the elderly and lonely through five home visits and two church community events each week in each church plant”.

All this raises the question what the Church now understands to constitute success. “We need to do more” is a mantra that is often heard when there are difficulties in some areas of our society. But throwing money and targets at areas of perceived weakness or need in the life of the Church is not necessarily going to solve our problems.

Growth is important, of course. But growth is about more than numbers and targets. Growth is about transformation and the Kingdom of God; and counting numbers is an inadequate way of discerning the presence of the Kingdom.

BACK in 2002, I was asked to preach at a church in London on “Being counter-cultural Christians: freedom from achievementism”. In my sermon, I defined “achievementism” as the preoccupation with success and achievement which is now so much part of society.

There is nothing wrong with achievements. It is good and, indeed, important to be able to look back at one’s achievements, and to feel a sense of satisfaction at a job well done. The problem arises when we are constantly preoccupied and driven by the need to be achieving something, ticking some box on a list, to the point when this begins to rule our lives.

I talked about the realisation that, when I try to stop and just do nothing, I find that it is not easy. I feel that I am “wasting time”. It is as though time is a scarce resource, and every minute has somehow to be accounted for to the great accountant in the sky. I have no doubt that God intends that we use well the gifts that he has given us, including time. But God is not a manager. His purposes are not likely to be accomplished by means of incentivising people to work harder and do more.

PUBLIC DOMAINThe Siesta, by Van Gogh

Much of the pressure behind achievementism comes from the culture that we inhabit: a world of constant change, rush, noise, and busyness. We always seem to be trying to do more. In a world of ever-increasing acceleration, we can attempt to do three times as much in one day as our grandparents might have even thought possible. We can attend meetings in different cities, or even video-link across continents. We can respond to hundreds of emails and access vast quantities of information.

And, yet, I often have to ask myself: what am I really achieving with much of what I do? I have been very busy, but when I reflect on the life and teaching of Jesus, and on those things that contribute to the Kingdom of God, I suspect that much of my time could have been better spent.

MANY years ago, when I was at university studying business administration, I was taught a course on time-and-motion study — a business-efficiency technique first developed by Frederick Taylor in the United States in the early 20th century.

Taylor worked as a shop foreman in a steelmaking factory in Philadelphia, and wanted to address inefficiencies and poor productivity, which he attributed to shirking and poorly motivated workers. He broke down each task into its component parts, and devised a highly efficient means of analysing and controlling every aspect of the production process.

This led to the introduction of time cards, which recorded every minute spent working and on tea and lunch breaks. There was much resistance from unions, but, gradually, Taylor’s ideas became integral to management theory and practice. We live today with the effect of this in almost every workplace and organisation.

The preoccupation with measuring and control has become a dominant feature of modern organisational management. Many companies and organisations use key performance indicators (KPIs) and other similar tools to measure every aspect of their employees’ work.

The Church has been drawn into this model of measuring productivity and value for money. “How can we put money into something if we cannot measure what the outcomes or results will be?” I was asked by a church leader when I raised questions about this. But much ministry does not respond easily or well to these models of management theory.

It is difficult to see how a day spent in pastoral ministry, prayer, and sermon preparation could be measured numerically. How do I log and measure the value of time spent in visiting elderly parishioners, or pondering during my afternoon walk what God is saying to the Church through next Sunday’s lectionary readings?

Since 2002, when I preached in London, I have become even more aware of how difficult it can be to break free of the compulsion to achieve, to always be doing something that seems to be important or valuable. Returning to a life of play, of simply enjoying ourselves without any goals or achievements, is difficult, if not impossible, for many of us.

SUPERSTOCK (866-19906)The Beach by Andrew Lhote (1885-1962)

I am a keen birdwatcher, and I keep a list each year of the bird species that I have seen during that year. This motivates me to travel to different nature reserves, lakes, and islands to see birds that I won’t easily find anywhere else. But the downside for list-obsessed twitchers is that we can become primarily interested in the numbers on our personal lists. We may be sitting in a bird hide, looking across a vast wetland with a spectacular sky and all the colours and sounds of birds wheeling and landing and diving; but, if we are not seeing any new species, we are disappointed. Is it the list that counts, or is it simply being in the hide and taking in the beauty that surrounds me?

Numbers are a great way to reassure us that what we are doing is somehow significant, and that we are in control. Of course, this often is an illusion. But numbers are a great way to feed the illusion.

THE danger for the Church and for individual Christians is that we are conformed inwardly and outwardly to the prevailing culture of micro-management and control: Taylorism becomes embedded in our souls. We measure what we are doing, we evaluate, and we demand more of ourselves and those around us. The Church neglects or even forsakes the values of the Kingdom of God: love, joy, peace, patience, gentleness and kindness, justice and truthfulness.

We collude, instead, with a driven secular culture that constantly compares, competes, and seeks to maximise profit and efficiency. When we go too far in accepting the practices and values of secular management culture, we weaken our own ability to hold before the world a different way of seeing and knowing what is important. Surely, human beings are more important than outcomes and profits. We are not robots. We are made for greater things than this.

If we are driven by achievementism, we are always competing and comparing. How am I doing? What am I hoping that others will notice? So we damage our relationships with our colleagues and friends, and we poison our own hearts with the relentless and often unrealistic demands that we place on ourselves. I know, because I have tasted this bitter fruit. When this is how we live, we can never truly rest. There is always something more to be done; so we never fully let ourselves off the hook.

Last year, I attended a clergy conference in a diocese where many parishes were struggling and many communities were finding life hard. The leadership in the diocese were saying clearly to the clergy: “We know that many of you are working long hours in difficult situations, and many are not seeing much growth. We want you to know how much we appreciate the work you are doing. We are here to support you in any way that we can.

“There are many good things happening in this diocese. They may seem small and insignificant to some, but we can see that God is at work. Our hope for the future lies in the knowledge that God is with us, and he holds the future of the Church.”

In the midst of all this pressure and anxiety, it is essential that we keep our eyes on the servant nature of our calling. To take the place of the servant in society is to opt for weakness, and to be willing to be misunderstood for the sake of Jesus. Our hope is in the Lord, who is alone the head of the body, the Church.

The contemplative response is the response of Jesus to his disciples, when they asked him which of them was the greatest. Jesus said: “Whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be a slave of all. For the Son of Man also came not be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Mark 10.43-45).

The Revd Ian Cowley is a retired priest in the diocese of Ely and former Vocations and Spirituality Co-ordinator for the diocese of Salisbury.

Part of this article is an excerpt from The Contemplative Response: Leadership and ministry in a distracted culture, published by BRF at £8.99 (CT Bookshop £8.10).

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