aefenglommung (aefenglommung) wrote,

Questions, Part 5 – the Profession of Ministry

The Northumbrian Priests Law was promulgated by Archbishop Wulfstan of York sometime around 1020-1023, making it more or less exactly a thousand years old. In it, the good Archbishop set down his expectations for his parish clergy on the wild and wooly frontier of eleventh-century Northumbria. His priests were not, alas, very highly educated, and they were also, alas, likely to be married (celibacy was still only required for monks and monk wannabes at this time), but still, some kind of professional standards had to be maintained. Among his requirements were a) that they shaved regularly, and b) that they refrained from serving as ale-minstrels.

Well, times change and with them, the expectations on the professional clergy. In the questions posed to every candidate for clergy membership in the Annual Conference – each of which expects a positive answer – the question of professional standards is broached. In their approach to the use of time and other resources, we are dealing here with Wesley’s expectations, not Wulfstan’s.
17. Are you determined to employ all your time in the work of God?
18. Are you in debt so as to embarrass you in your work?
19. Will you observe the following directions?
a) Be diligent. Never be unemployed. Never be triflingly employed. Never trifle away time; neither spend any more time at any one place than is strictly necessary.
b) Be punctual. Do everything exactly at the time. And do not mend our rules, but keep them; not for wrath, but for conscience’ sake.

That first question (No. 17) seems to echo an earlier question in the first section, concerning the spiritual life of the clergy: 5. Are you resolved to devote yourself wholly to God and his work? But we should probably make this distinction, that this second iteration is concerned with The Job, not with God’s claim on our souls. Those being admitted in Full Connection are not, usually, going to be the kind of clergy engaged in what we call “bi-vocational ministry” or “tent-making.” What we are being asked is, “Will you keep your side-hustle, if any, under control?” Those being paid a full-time salary – with generous benefits – ought to make sure that they give their best efforts to those who are paying them. Anything they do on the side to generate income should be seemly for a minister of the gospel to engage in, and (equally important) not get in the way of their official job.

Now, the clergy, being one of the three traditionally learned professions, have various opportunities to earn honoraria by speaking and teaching here and there, or by selling books and articles for publication. But we all know clergy who spend a lot of time away from their appointed parishes preaching revivals or addressing convocations or just being a celebrity. There is an issue here of giving an honest amount of work for the salary and benefits accompanying the job that we were actually assigned to do. For many years, my Conference had a rule that no minister could accept preaching engagements outside the parish exceeding two weeks (including two Sundays) in any given year without the express permission of his Staff-Parish Relations Committee.

Likewise, the Elders of the Church (and now, Deacons in Full Connection) have filled many responsibilities for the running of the machine: acting as superintendents, presiding over Charge Conferences, serving on Conference and denominational agencies or as a General Conference delegate, volunteering for a Conference church camp, serving on the Board of Ordained Ministry or one of the District Committees on Ministry, acting as mentors to ministerial candidates, yada yada yada. This is all part of our responsibility to the church at large, but not to our local parishes which are paying our salaries. Once again, the need to keep all this in perspective is important. It is not fair to use one’s appointment as a mere salary-paying machine to finance the other stuff one wants or needs to do. That would make it a mere benefice, a thing that should make good Methodists shudder in disapproval.

The questions regarding the use of time (No. 19, a and b) are straight out of the driven world of John Wesley. We who are only too aware of the tendency to burn out in the pursuit of other people’s good need to be frequently reminded of our need for Sabbath rest. Wesley’s insistence on redeeming the time seems excessive to us. But then, I have met far too many clergy who could not measure up to basic professional standards, like returning phone calls in a timely manner, or submitting forms on time, or even being at a meeting they were committed to being at. Sometimes this is sloppiness or mental laziness; sometimes it is a symptom of burnout or depression. But if the young adult inclined to take a free and easy attitude towards being at work on time should not be indulged by the manager of a Dairy Queen, then neither should a professional with a fancy education be allowed to get away with standing people up or keeping them waiting unduly: not those who are paying his salary, nor colleagues who are also incredibly busy, and certainly not those he would wish to attract to membership and/or leadership in the Church of Jesus Christ. Alas, there are too many of these airheads. This is something seminary cannot fix; this requires close and helpful supervision in the earliest years by a mentor who is a master of his or her own time.

The question about debt is often accompanied by a certain amount of tittering among those who know only too well how much in student loans these candidates are still carrying. At the same time, keeping up with the social and dress demands of a white collar job on a blue collar salary can be challenging. But to quote Super Chicken, “You knew the job was dangerous when you took it, Fred.” There are certain financial strains that accompany the mission. Learning to manage your own finances is a basic requirement of discipleship and leadership. As for me, I long ago decided, in the words of Charles Williams, that “labour without grudge is labour without grief.” After getting through Charge Conference which set my salary each year, I determined as far as I could to forget how much money I was making. We budgeted in a little mad money each pay period so we wouldn’t feel poor, no matter what our actual situation was. Getting your debt under control frees you to approach life like one of its landlords, not as a tenant farmer facing eviction. And in the end, you cannot do good ministry if you are constantly resentful of those who pay you so little or envious of those who have more than you do.

Finally, we have that last bit of advice we are asked to affirm, which comes to us from Father Wesley: And do not mend our rules, but keep them; not for wrath, but for conscience’ sake. If you are the kind of person we have to threaten with consequences to get you to fulfill the ordinary expectations of your role, then you are going to be miserable, and you are going to make us miserable, too. Having agreed to all our rules up front and without coercion, you should take it as a point of honor to fulfill the expectations of your role without a lot of other legal stuff. And if you’re going to be that kind of person, who’ll do right simply because you want to do right, then we will always have a place for you.

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