The dehumanising metrics of modernist ministry 1: The Present
There is a clear counter-argument for every point I want to make here. In fact, I sort of agree with every counter-argument myself. But I feel the need to make them nevertheless. For my hunch is that one of the key factors in ministerial burnout is that we are far more influenced by post-enlightenment modernism than by the values of the Kingdom. It shouldn’t come as any surprise – we’re always more insidiously affected by our culture than we appreciate. It’s just so sad how little we face the problem.
The wonder, and curse, of the enlightenment project was its astonishing success. It did change the world. And there is no doubt, that many things were improved by it. Just think dentistry. But the costs of its success have been incalculable and pervasive. This is not an exhaustive treatment by any means. But here are just a few less than positive effects on those of us in ministry. As I say, I take issue with more or less with all of them…
(i) The economics of effectiveness
We are all finite. Everything about us is. Nothing can change that. The challenge has always been to figure out how best to make the most of who and what we are and have, given the limited nature of all our resources. I’ve always been helped by the maxim that the enemy of the best is invariably not the bad but the good. Indeed the apostle Paul was insistent that we give thought to maximizing our opportunities. Furthermore, we always want to be responsible stewards of whatever resources we do have.
But I fear a sinister trend has crept in. For if we’re not careful, we can seek an effectiveness shaped more by Wall St than the via Dolorosa. Big business constantly seeks a combination of efficiency and growth in order to thrive… which is fair enough. Maximum profit for minimum effort. But this is effectiveness measured by the Damoclean sword of the bottom line.
But in ministry…? I hear a lot of talk about constantly seeking to have an effective ministry. And who doesn’t want that? But how on earth do we measure that? The Wall St resort is to use numbers and graphs (which of course have their place): whether bums on seats, cash given tax efficiently, staff size, baptism register etc etc etc. But that is not necessarily, or even inherently, kingdom ministry… after all, it’s pretty interesting to study Jesus’ reaction to crowds in the gospels – he was usually getting away from them; or at least suspicious of their intentions. Of course one wants as many as possible to benefit.
But we’ve got to recognise that the huge range of unknowns and unknowables render any attempt to find an ‘effectiveness metric’ impossible. We just can’t know.
(ii) The impatience with slowness
Love isn’t the drug. Speed is. We want everything yesterday. As the old credit card ad had it, “Access takes the waiting out of wanting”. And as life speeds up, our impatience thresholds deteriorate. So now, we can be incensed by a slow wi-fi speeds that hinder access to google images by a matter of seconds. But honestly! Life isn’t all a Formula 1 race in which milliseconds really do count.
But this impatience affects profoundly ministry. Which is a problem, because a brief concordance search of the word ‘wait’ in the New Testament will demonstrate that it features rather a lot. From my cursory glance, it looks as though the most common adverbs used in conjunction with waiting are ‘eagerly’ and, yes you guessed it, ‘patiently’ (Romans 8:25, Hebrews 6:15, James 5:7).
But this is especially hard in a world which seems to value speed over quality and immediacy over longevity. And it is especially hard in pastoral ministry – where some issues are by their very nature chronic. We impose timetables on repentance, recovery and growth. Which can be cruel on others and crushing for us. It also means we’ll shy away from the intractable and insoluble. And if personal fulfilment is our goal, then any commitment which doesn’t deliver before a certain time is abandoned, replaced by the next promising offer. Could this be why so many of us are afflicted with frustration and lack of stamina. Where are the lifelong ministries?
Of course, as I said, there are always going to be situations which demand review – and perhaps for the sake of good stewardship of limited resources, some things must stop for others to thrive. Ministries do outlive their relevance. And often, institutional euthanasia is vital.
So in response: work hard at the task your engaged in, do your best… and pray. And if necessary stop it. But must never allow impatience to be the ultimate motivation.
(iii) The franchising of norms
The franchise is a peculiarly modernist invention. I’ll never forget walking into a brand new shopping mall in Sarajevo, eating TexMex with a Bosnian friend, opposite a Gap store and near a promotion for a new brand of car. It’s a cliché – but I really could have been anywhere. There weren’t even the slightest attempts (that you sometimes witness in malls) to convey a sense of local colour and culture. But when planning for corporate growth, it’s much easier to replicate than innovate in a new place. Which is interesting, because as I’ve mentioned before, this illustrates the modernist tendencies of both capitalism and communism. A few years back I was doing some talks to students in Vilnius, Lithuania – and stayed in one of the university hostels. It was a concrete tower block in a big university estate, dating back to Soviet years. And i was told that the floor plans for the building were identical to all hostel blocks across the USSR. So whether you were a student in Vladivostok, Tallinn or Sochi, the broom and utility cupboard on the 13th floor would be in exactly the same place. So much easier for planning on a large scale.
Not so good when applied to ministry. Many have picked up on the dangers of McDonalds-style ministry. But too few seem to be listening. Where is the commitment to contextualisation? Why do churches need to feel the same wherever you go?
Now of course, there’s a problem with this. For catholicity (small ‘c’) can’t be bad per se – we must constantly navigate the dynamic tension between unity and diversity, locality and globality, individuality and community. But we must beware the one-size-fits all mentality which assumes that what works in one place must work in another. That is a sure-fire recipe for burnout. We must learn from one another, for we must never see ourselves and our work as so unique as having nothing to learn from what ‘works’ (which is a modernist concept, if ever there was one) elsewhere. Postmodernism would fragment us into entirely isolated silos which is equally absurd and dangerous – we do have things in common.
But we must take care never to let the next revolutionary (yet another modernist concept) ‘package’, usually but not always from a highly ‘successful’ and branded global ministry based in America, become the backbone of your work. There may well be things to learn, but if it is your primary source, you’ll only abandon it as soon as the next ‘better’ (i.e. well-marketed) package appears.
So in response: work hard, do your best… and pray. Learn and make the most of what you can from what is used elsewhere – but allow yourself to be shaped the unique contours of your context.
So much for how modernism shapes the present. Next time, we’ll think about how it shapes our past and future.