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My Collection of Fridge Magnets, or Learnings from Ten Years in Pastoral Ministry

By Geoff Colmer.

(The author of this article is a regular contributor to Ministry Today, so, when he took a sabbatical after 10 years in ministry, we asked him to allow us to share his reflections on those years)

I'm a Filofax person. And that's an understatement! Not only do I have sections within it, but sections within sections. One sub-section consists of 'Jottings', and another 'Learnings'. I started the 'Learnings' section during a particularly difficult time in church life, when it helped to provide some anchorage when things felt very stormy. At that time especially, and at other times, I have needed to remind myself of those things learned. Some of the learnings are once and for all. Others need to be revisited from time to time. Still others are on-going, 'lessons in process' if you like. Many of them aren't specifically about ministry, but about life, life over the past ten years, and before. Some of them tend to read like fridge magnets, short sayings containing wisdom or humour, or both or neither - I was given one for our fridge which says, 'Life's too short to drink bad wine'. Some will be obvious to you, but I have needed to acknowledge them for myself.

How did they come? Sometimes directly from an experience, a conversation, a discussion. Sometimes from hearing someone else speak, either in person, but mostly in a book or article. Sometimes from a period of reflection. Nearly always, they came like a butterfly on the shoulder, rather than a thunderbolt on the head.

I include some of these things as I reflect on the past ten years, not all of them. There are many important areas I haven't touched upon, such as preaching, worship, prayer, mission, and leadership. Probably one of the major lessons I have learned, is to be myself, that is the person whom God has made, and is making, and so my lessons will be very different from yours. However, I hope that some of them might find a resonance with you.

  1. One day at a time

Theologically, I find myself proclaiming the eschatological tension between the 'here now' and the 'not yet'. But all too often it feels like a bit of an apology for the 'here now'. In stressing that we are 'people of the future', looking forwards with hope to the 'not yet', the importance of the 'presence of the future', 'here now', can be dulled. Also, by nature I tend to be looking forward to the next thing, sometimes at the expense of what I am doing at the time. So, I have found very helpful the idea of the 'sacrament of the present moment', living fully in the now. And a prayer I use most days assists me to maintain this focus: 'God our Creator, your kindness has brought us the gift of a new day. Help us not to cling to yesterday, nor to covet tomorrow, but to accept the uniqueness of today.'

2. Holy detachment

The second is the need for what a counselling supervisor described as holy detachment. This seems vital for surviving and thriving in ministry. I have heard colleagues who boast, "The church is my life". It isn't mine! Ministry does not equate to life. It is a part, and a very important part, but I love my wife and my sons, and friends Christian and not-yet Christian, and music, and reading, and drinking red wine, and running marathons, and walking in the mountains. And all of these things are not to be subsumed under church or ministry as they can so easily, especially when church life hots up. The same is true for my own relationship with God, something which can too readily become confused with my role as a minister. The same wise supervisor spoke in terms of establishing and maintaining boundaries, but especially 'around anxious parts'. Those anxious parts can become so dominating that everything else seems to go.

3. What is the minimum that can be done?

The third lesson is related. In difficult situations, what is the minimum that can be done? Early on, when confronted by a crisis, while not resorting to Private Jones of Dad's Army behaviour - 'Don't panic, don't panic' - my tendency was to throw myself into the crisis. Surely to do something - anything - is better than doing nothing. And the more the better. But sometimes doing nothing is the best thing, and doing only what needs to be done is the next best thing. This is not to be a bystander and abdicate responsibility, but not to take on too much responsibility, a ministerial tendency which comes with the messiah complex.

4. Truth without love kills: love without truth is a lie

The fourth would make an excellent fridge magnet, and one I have found invaluable. It is about the need to hold together truth and love. Truth without love kills. Love without truth is a lie. I have applied this to myself on countless occasions, and to others. Am I being a truth person at the expense of love? Is she being a love person at the expense of truth?

5. Learnings about people

I have developed an interest in pastoral counselling, something which began as a ministerial student, and has continued with further training and more recently as a tutor. In the process, I have learned lessons which have been basic to ordinary pastoral practice. So, if you like, this learning consists of a cluster of lessons about people. A person's greatest need is to be heard - you might want to disagree, but time and again I have found this to be true. And this has come to light in the phrase, no encounter is insignificant. It is too easy to set the agenda ourselves as to who we are going to meet, and how important the meeting will be. Behind every obnoxious person is a hurting person - this was brought home to me again recently as I read a book with the title, The Care of Troublesome People. Its premise is that in pastoral ministry we don't talk about 'dealing with difficult people', or at least we shouldn't. It was a timely reminder that we are in the business of caring. However, the next one is reinforced almost on a daily basis. People want relief not cure - maybe more than at other times, our generation wants the quick fix.

6. When a person is obnoxious, difficult, troublesome, what is their gift to me?

The sixth comes in the form of a question: when a person is obnoxious, difficult, troublesome, what is their gift to me? The thinking behind this is that rather than react, I will reflect and look for something of value. I need to stress that this is not the power of positive thinking, but as a wise friend put it, "God gives us difficult people not for them but for us". They cause me to plumb my own depths. It is part of the process of being made Christ-like.

7. The journeying principle is key

The seventh is that the journeying principle is key. Early on I became committed to continuous growth. This was not a noble decision, but a matter of survival. I have found that I need resourcing through many things. More recently I have expressed it in terms of needing inspiration. Too easily I can become static, and resourcing or inspiration, leading to further development, not just in what I do but in who I am, is essential.

8. Who we are is more important than what we do

About five years ago, I came across the best-selling book by Stephen Covey, The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People. The fact that I read a book with such a title is nothing less than a miracle, but having overcome my prejudice, I found the book enormously helpful. What struck a chord early on, and provides the basis for Covey's work, is the importance of who we are. So the eighth lesson is that who we are is more important than what we do. Covey talks about 'primary greatness' in our character, and only 'secondary greatness' in what we achieve. I have learned and re-learned and am continuing to learn, that God's mission statement is to make me like his Son, and that he is more concerned for my character than my comfort, my holiness than my happiness. This lesson has been uncomfortable!

9. Learnings about God

I suppose I ought to include some things I've learned about God, and about the church. So here is a cluster of learnings about God.

  • God is present in unlikely places and particularly in unlikely people.
  • God's truth is very much bigger than our little systems.
  • The truth about God is less than the whole truth about God.
  • All truth is God's truth.

These might seem to be simple statements about God but have come out of experience, and have resulted in me becoming a broader Christian, for better or worse, depending on how you view it. I have found it extremely helpful on many occasions to remind myself of the simple truth that in any situation God is present, and active, and that he loves me.

10. Learnings about the Church

Eugene Peterson, together with Roland Rolheiser, have been my tutors as I have reflected on the church. I go back again and again to these companions on the way. Peterson constantly reminds me that the church is composed of equal parts mystery and mess. And Rolheiser reminds me that the church forces me to live the confronted life, to live in reality and not fantasy. Frequently I go back to a favourite quote about the church in part of a narrative by JF Powers: "This is a big old ship, Bill. She creaks, she rocks, she rolls, and at times she makes you want to throw up. But she gets where she's going. Always has, always will, until the end of time. With or without you."

11. Pleasant experiences make life delightful; painful experiences lead to growth

I am writing this while on sabbatical. From my present perspective as I look back, there have been wonderful moments, and some horrible ones. But as another fridge magnet might say, pleasant experiences make life delightful; painful experiences lead to growth. Certainly ministry is challenging. And the tendency is to want to sort it, to solve it as though it is a problem. So I conclude with Henri Nouwen, another companion on the way who has helped to keep me orientated: "Ministry is the profession of fools and clowns telling everyone who has ears to hear and eyes to see that life is not a problem to be solved but a mystery to be entered into."

And as a post-script, never forget that life is too short to drink bad wine.

The Revd Geoff Colmer is Minister of Melton Mowbray Baptist Church, Leicestershire.

Ministry Today

You are reading My Collection of Fridge Magnets, or Learnings from Ten Years in Pastoral Ministry by Geoff Colmer, part of Issue 21 of Ministry Today, published in February 2001.

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