Incarnational ministry is desk-based, for now

by
09 April 2020

It requires imagination to work out how to provide pastoral care remotely — but it’s worth the effort, says Philip Lockley

A FEW weeks ago, I made a double mistake in a pastoral exchange on WhatsApp. A close friend in France had messaged me the night their lockdown was announced. Living alone, they were facing the prospect of weeks without seeing anyone. Tired after a day of parish work and family, I misread their tone and responded: “Sounds great!”

My first mistake is obvious: I forgot my pastoral imagination. I neglected to recognise the impact such restrictions would have on an extrovert like them. My second mistake has become clear in my working life since the UK followed France. This is that lockdown isn’t great for introverts like me, either.

In common with many organisations, within days, almost our entire church life has moved on to digital platforms: worship on Facebook; prayer meetings on Zoom; planning groups and committees in Microsoft Teams. Pastoral interactions with any parishioners less comfortable with such technology have transferred to the phone in toto.

As a result, my desk feels like a dramatically different place. It is no longer a location reserved for bounded, secluded time on emails, the phone, or sermon writing. Rather, my desk is now a meeting-room, a supervision site, the coffee queue at the back of church, and a worship space.

This change seems less challenging for my extrovert colleagues. They have lapped up the hours of screen-based contact that we’ve had since lockdown, translating the energising effects of other people into our shared digital workspace. But I’ve been left reeling by the effect that this had on my carefully calibrated ways of balancing desk time and parish presence — all those rhythms that I’d been encouraged to develop to sustain an effective and fruitful public ministry.

 

THE full effects of this sweeping (and, as we all hope, temporary) change to the nature of ministry will probably emerge only in months to come. Given the anticipated health and emotional impact of Covid-19 on our communities, such effects might seem trivial. The priority is surely to remain a functioning Church — the body of Christ that cares for itself and the world in this time — by whatever digital means necessary.

And yet, this sudden, precipitous consolidation of parish ministry to the clergy desk invites us to face up to a pre-existing tension in this area for many a parish priest. Even before this crisis, I suspect that most clergy would admit to feeling that they spend too long at their desks. I have lost count of the number of conversations that have turned up this root frustration or lament.

Tellingly, I recognise these feelings cut across personality types. It’s not just the extrovert clergy champing at the bit to be out and about with people, rather than wading through admin. Introverts can also feel guilty when they’ve been at their desks too much. The Anglican ideal of incarnational ministry sniffs and scratches at the closed study door, pining to be let out.

Depending on a parish’s history, most vicars have a legendary predecessor remembered for embodying this incarnational ideal: the dedicated priest who was always dropping by, rarely detained by their desk. As a curate, you would think I’d be free of this kind of pressurising precedent. Only, in my case, you can read the diaries of my 1820s predecessor, John Henry Newman, and trace him visiting every household in the parish, keeping meticulous notes on the physical and spiritual health of the occupants. So, I’m measuring myself against a saint here (though I comfort myself that Newman never had any IME-2 paperwork).

 

SUCH institutional memories can complicate attempts to achieve a pragmatic balance between the diverse demands of modern ministry. The tension that many clergy feel is between a calling to emulate Christ-like presence “out there” among God’s people, and all that ties them down “in here” — at their desk and computer screen.

Only, the coronavirus is forcing clergy, regardless of whether they are introverts or extraverts, to reinterpret the incarnational tradition for desk-based ministry. Ensuring that we’re “being with”, as Sam Wells has so usefully re-conceptualised this model of ministry and mission, is no longer measurable by how often and how long we’re away from our desks. Instead, the clergy desk must be reimagined for all such ministry — with more phone calls, more video-conferencing, more live-streaming, becoming our only means of “being with”.

As challenging as this adjustment is for many of us, there is an opportunity to seize here. We should admit our conflicted feelings about time at our desks, and then consciously work to integrate the ways in which we serve our parishes and people from behind them.

Perhaps, more than anything, this will be a work of the pastoral imagination — taking the lessons that we’ve learned from ministry in person, to share the light of Christ on the other end of a phone, a screen, or a WhatsApp message.

 

The Revd Dr Philip Lockley is the Assistant Curate of St Clement’s, Oxford.

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