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What weakness taught me

by
09 October 2020

Paul Swann was the vicar of a flourishing parish church. Then one day he woke up unable to do anything at all. Here is his advice for new clergy

The Revd Paul Swann (far right) at his ordination in Worcester Cathedral, at Petertide 1990

The Revd Paul Swann (far right) at his ordination in Worcester Cathedral, at Petertide 1990

ALTHOUGH 30 years have passed, memories of my early days of ordained ministry remain fresh and vital: the enthusiasm of finally commencing what I had been called and trained to do —and the doubting inner voice that asked: “Who do you think you are?”

Flip-flopping between my Messiah complex and impostor syndrome, I stepped falteringly into that strange new world. Looking back over those three decades, some insights gained and lessons learned — mostly through missteps — might prove valuable in enabling you to sustain your ministry in the long run.

How you start off on this journey is important. The practices and patterns you put in place now will serve you well over many years; whereas if you wait for a less busy, less complex time to arrive, you may find that months — if not years — have flown by, and your pattern of ministry is harder to adjust. So, what would be good to address early on?

Self-care

The Revd Paul SwannFIRST, the crucial importance of self-care. It feels counter-intuitive: the need is so great, the tasks are so many, and the activism of your training incumbent is so alluring. But, when self-care slides relentlessly down your “To Do” list, something deep inside slowly dissipates. In my experience, that thing is joy.

I kept just one ordination card pinned to my noticeboard. It exhorted me to “Serve the Lord with gladness”, but I think I focused more on the serving than the joy. Joy — gladness — gets squeezed out by fatigue, overwork, and the resentment that creeps silently in when it feels as if too much is being asked.

For too many years, I neglected basic things such as meals, eye tests, doctor’s appointments, even going to the lavatory when meetings were squeezed too tightly in the diary. If you can learn now that care of self enables rather than detracts from serving others, you will have learned a key sustaining practice.

The American writer, speaker, and activist Parker Palmer says: “Self-care is never a selfish act — it is simply good stewardship of the only gift I have, the gift I was put on earth to offer others.” What simple treat or fun activity could you offer yourself today that will demonstrate self-love and care?

Success

SECOND, it helps to understand early on the nature of success. I was deeply aware of my five talented and greatly loved curate predecessors. This fed my inner drive to be the model curate. That was good for nurturing the performance and perfectionism to which I am inclined.

But it was a ticking bomb. The reality is that, sometimes, you will be amazing. At other times, you will mess up, let someone down, or simply make a mistake, and shame and self-accusation will whisper in your ear.

I have noticed that there are very few, if any, examples in the Bible of the disciples’ getting it right. You have embarked on a vocation in which success is not only ephemeral and elusive, but impossible to define, and of questionable desirability.

I am finally, with many false steps, trying to reframe “success” through the story of the feeding of the five thousand. Jesus asked his disciples to do something beyond their resources and ability: that’s what ordination regularly feels like. Their “success” is measured not by their ability to perform the task, however, but, rather, by their willingness to risk the total vulnerability of saying to Jesus, even in the presence of great need, “We cannot do that.” It is the power of this admission that opens the way to the feeding of the multitude.

Success is thus redefined, or even replaced, by having the courage to be vulnerable.

How would it look if the game of comparison played semi-consciously by colleagues were exchanged for this sort of authenticity? And as for my inner “model-curate” voice, I learned that the definition of “model” is “a small imitation of the real thing”; so I’m trying instead to be the real me, which is for the best because, as the saying goes, everyone else is taken.

Self-awareness

A THIRD practice for your long-term sustenance is self-awareness. In your enthusiasm to fulfil your vocation, it is easy to fill each day with both people and tasks. But, all the time, the reality of who you are will be informing what you say and do, and how you react.

The rough edges of your character will be exposed. Long-buried hurts will rise from the depths, and healed-over wounds will be reopened. Hopes and dreams nurtured for many years will have an impact on your judgement and decisions. But we can remain largely unaware of all this.

Like an iceberg with the tiniest tip visible above the surface, the vast bulk lies unexplored below; and yet key to sustaining your ministry in the long run will be risking expeditions beneath the surface. God knows us. Our weakness is not a surprise to the one who made us, but it often comes as a surprise to us. Why does that individual make me so angry? Why did those comments hurt so much? Why do my fantasies take me to such places?

These explorations require intention. They don’t just happen. Learning to be still will help: daring to stop doing anything for minutes in a day; for a sabbath in each week; for quiet days and a retreat each year. That stillness creates the opportunity to tune in to your own inner voices, as well as to the still, small voice of God. Therein is growth and resilience.

I have learned, too, that this is a journey of exploration which we cannot make alone. We need experienced guides. They are unlikely to come to you; you will need to seek them out.

A small peer group committed to transparent sharing, prayer, and support can be a lifeline. A spiritual director will help you to discern where you are on the journey, and where God is at work through both desert and mountain. Trained counsellors and therapists have their part to play.

It is good to invest in all of these supports right from the start, so that they become the trellis on which your branch of the vine can both grow and be sustained.

Significance

FINALLY, I leave you with what has become my strongest foundation. It is to do with significance. I can remember just one word of wisdom from my pre-ordination retreat: the guide, addressing our real feelings of self-doubt, said, “You are here today not because you believe in God, but because God believes in you.” It was exactly what I needed to hear.

Your deepest identity is not now, nor will it ever be, what you have or what you will do for God. Your deepest identity lies in being called, affirmed, and loved as God’s precious child. That is who you really are. Everything else flows from that. So I urge you to find a practice through which you can drink deeply of this truth every single day of your life.

I cannot emphasise this too strongly. Fifteen years of ill health, including at least five being unable to do practically anything, have shaken my foundations, but they have also steeped me in the love of God for me, right where I am. I know that this will remain the rock which sustains my own ministry, whatever the journey ahead brings.

May God bless you richly in your future ministry.

 

After a short career in Marketing, the Revd Paul Swann was ordained in 1990 and served in two parishes in the diocese of Worcester. In 2008, after a three-year battle with ill health, Paul was forced to retire early and spent four years suffering from chronic fatigue. In 2012, he began a new ministry from this place of weakness: he has served as Diocesan Adviser on Spirituality, offers spiritual direction, and leads retreats. He serves part-time on the staff of All Saints’, Worcester, and is the author of Sustaining Leadership: You are more important than your ministry, published by BRF at £8.99 (Church Times Bookshop £8.09).

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