I am told that there is a good number of people still coming forward for the ordained ministry; but it appears that there are also good numbers leaving early, for various reasons. I recently sat with an individual who has been a priest for 18 years. He has found his present parish “the least Christian place on earth”.He went on: “I was thinking it was time to move. I knew I couldn’t do another December, it made me ill; so I started looking at job adverts. They all wanted ‘the Messiah-plus’ – you know, Jesus with a family and extensive PR experience – and I just thought, ‘No, I’ve had enough of this.’”Simon Parke, ‘Vocation: a fitting story,’ Church Times, March 28, 2014, p. 15.
It’s true: just glance through the vacancies section of the Church Times and you’ll see all manner of requirements. Very often, all that’s missing is something along the lines of ‘must be immune to Kryptonite’.
Last year, I was not recommended for ordinand training by a Bishops’ Advisory Panel. Among other things, the Panel’s report on me suggested that I had unrealistic expectations of the demands on a minister’s time. Honestly, I’m not sure what the Panel meant by this. I spent a lot of time at the Panel explaining how, as an introvert, I’d need to ensure that my time was structured so that I could safeguard my own sanity and preserve something of family life. I know quite a few stories of clergy burnout and family breakdown, and at the Panel I probably emphasised how much I didn’t want to go down the same path. Is this stance what led the Panel to believe that I had unrealistic expectations? I don’t know; the Panel’s report didn’t really say much more on this front. But arguably, I have very realistic expectations of the demands on a minister’s time, and my position constitutes a small but genuine resistance to what I see as the unrealistic expectation that clergy must be on-call 24-7 and be, as described above, ‘the Messiah-plus’.
The problem here is that I suspect that many within the Church of England, ordained and lay, fully endorse the idea that clergy have to be all things to all people – possibly on the basis that (a) God has called them to this form of ministry, and that (b) they have to be all things to all people (cf. 1 Cor. 9:19-22). If I am right in my suspicions here, then I think the Church of England – and any other denomination or Christian person who thinks similarly – needs to revise its unrealistic expectations of how much any one person can do.