The following is a long, rambling essay in which I make no real attempt to be amusing or entertaining. You have been warned.
But it’s something I’ve wanted to write for a while – a sum-up of a typical week, in my ministry here at Merseyside Unitarians. I’ve wanted to write it for myself first and foremost – to make some kind of a record, so ten years from now I’ll remember what this wonderful time in my life was like. So it may be a bit self-indulgent, but I imagine it may appeal to a few others: congregants, perhaps, and colleagues in the ministry, or anyone who wonders just what it is, exactly, that a minister does all week. I love reading diaries from bygone times, and while it’s quite unlikely that this record will survive more than a year or two, the idea of a record for posterity appeals to me. So here it is: what my week is like, as co-minister of Merseyside Unitarian Ministry Partnership, 2015-2020.
Mondays used to begin with poetry. I had made it a habit – since 2013 or 2014, before this ministry started – to wake up early on Mondays and work on a little poem, which I would then post on social media. I called it “Your Monday blessing”. I like to think, in some way, it might be a gift for someone else. I didn’t want to get too grandiose about it; I was just stringing a few words together. So was Shakespeare I suppose – and I do always like to consider that every time I put pen to paper I am engaging with a millennias-old tradition – but I didn’t get caught thinking I was “creating poetry” in any hifalutin qualitative sense. I was just trying to make myself smile with words, and then sharing this smile with others. It was very gratifying, I freely admit, to check the website or Facebook throughout the day and see that friends had read it and enjoyed it.
Nowadays, on Mondays I work on my tri-congregational email. That may sound like an awful victory of prose over beauty – but I had hoped to spread the poetic urge out over the week a bit more. And anyway it was time. One Monday I said to myself, “right, this poetry every Monday thing was great, but five years ought to do it” and set it aside. I never looked back. I was curious to see if my creative energies would bubble up in other places – I often look forward grimly to that day when they no longer do, which will come eventually. This time around, though, the creative instinct kept bubbling along fine. I finished the blessing around the same time I was re-writing a play about America’s racial history, and also working on my translation and commentary on the gospel of Mark. Both of these projects involved a few months of waking up most days at 4 or 5 or 6 in the morning, when I found the best hours to cobble away at them, in a state of bliss. I say “bliss” – the truth is the first twenty minutes of prying my eyelids open are a bit rough. But once the flow gets going, it’s grand. That’s not something I can realistically keep up all year, though – it’s more of a “creative bender”, and even with the heavy doses of caffeine (only caffeine, though that’s a drug too) after a few long weeks I crave a more restful pace. These days of coronavirus, with the news so close to home and such anxiety in the global system, I haven’t felt much pull to get up early, until recently. I have been sleeping later, until 7 or 8. I don’t try to force myself up early when I’m not working on something, and I only work on something intermittently.
Beyond writing, Monday mornings are for planning. And prayer, though I don’t pray as I ought. I do usually say a short prayer, or have a minute or two of silence, or both. There are more little prayers scattered throughout the day, the odd public prayer I’m called upon to say at the start of a meeting or a meal, and many more private prayers in spare moments. I’ll often say the Lord’s prayer, or the twenty-third psalm, while in my car on my way somewhere. Both are quick and easy and I know them by heart. Formulaic prayers are less stressed in the Unitarian non-orthodox tradition, but I like these “prayers of protection”. I don’t mean “prayer of protection” as if God Herself is keeping score of how many times as say them. What I mean is that they keep me from the stupid traps of the mind, from getting too caught in my own ego, taking myself too seriously, forgetting about poetry and living in prose. They are wonderful little liberating prayers in that respect.
I also have a daily prayer that I composed years ago, though I no longer say it every day. I have said it so often that there are footnotes in my head about every line, traditions evolved over the retellings. For instance, after I say “I give thanks for my breath”, I usually pause for three breaths, and look out the window. Or when I say, as part of a litany of intention, “maybe today I’ll enjoy myself”, I’ll think “yes, this line feels a bit forced as well as hedonistic, but it’s important to leave room for joy”…and then the line after, when I say, “maybe today I’ll redeem the world”, I say, “sure, it sounds delusionally grandiose, but the idea is that we all redeem the world, in little ways, together.” In fact, I’ve mostly changed that “maybe I’ll redeem the world” to “maybe we’ll redeem the world” in my sayings of that prayer now. It would be a bit strange if, as an inheritor of a progressive and unorthodox tradition, I refused to alter to my own prayers! But I consciously tried not to evolve them too quickly, to sit with uncomfortable lines for a few hundred retellings before I change them, to explore whether they might take on new conscious and subconscious meanings for me.
As for planning – Mondays are the days when the week takes shape. Or at least, maybe they do. I suppose Sundays are really supposed to be the first day of the week of the Christian tradition – the Sabbath reflection that sets the tone for the rest of the week. I really appreciate that idea, but as a minister it feels like everything leads up to Sunday, rather than stems from it. I should probably read the Bible and sacred scripture more on Sunday afternoons, come to think of it…I’m just a bit exhausted after the Sunday morning service.
But, on Monday mornings, the week starts to take shape a little bit. Nobody knows what a minister does all week, least of all the minister. There is a gentle sense of incarnation to Mondays, the ethereal becoming common sweat and touch. This week, like every week, has existed in the mind for some time: events were placed on it, the datebook and google calendar were filled up with scribbles. So much for theory – but what am I actually going to do this week? In my New Jersey ministry I developed a kind of a blank spreadsheet I could scribble on, with categories like creative, congregational strategic, and pastoral goals, probable areas of stress in the week ahead, calls and emails to make, and so on. I tried to get suitably whimsical about it all: I included a place to jot down a bit of sacred scripture to pray on through the week, and also a song as a theme to the week. I remember the songs being mostly from the band Journey – including, of course, “don’t stop believing” – but probably there was a lot more variety than that. These days I don’t bother quite so much with the extensive planning documents. I do have an online calendar but I like to jot the to dos down somewhere physically – I sometimes use a to-do journal, other times I’ll scribble a few items on a spare napkin.
And I begin with the tri-congregational email newsletter, which I’ve sent out every Monday, with exceptions for holidays, or when I’ve simply forgotten about it. Writing it helps me as well as informing others, as it reminds me what’s going on in the weeks ahead. Usually there’s a congregational event or two a week – sometimes more, sometimes less – plus the Sunday service and the coffee morning. So I know I won’t be sitting around the house all week (pre-Covid). The tri-congregational newsletter begins with some sort of inspirational content – a poem or a reflection, mine or others’ – so it’s grounded in poetry, even if it does branch out into prose.
The three congregations I serve are in Chester, Warrington, and Ashton-in-Makerfield, near Wigan. I live between the Warrington and Ashton congregations and can nip to either in about 15 to 20 minutes; Chester is about three-quarters of an hour by train or car. On Monday I have a think about which congregation(s) I’m in for which day. Normally I try to not go to more than one on a day – though as things work out, it happens quite a bit that I’ll be at one congregation in the morning, and another in the afternoon or evening. Ideally, I’d also have one day, other than Fridays, that’s entirely a home day, to work on the sermon and other stuff – but many weeks, I just plan the sermon when I can, and answer emails around the edges of my time. There’s a lot of planning on the fly about what I’m going to do when. I sort of enjoy that, really – it’s like a fun little puzzle that keeps my mind whirring throughout the week.
Monday mornings are the clean-up day at Park Lane, the congregation in Ashton-in-Makerfield, near Wigan. I remember giving a sermon, in the first month or so of my ministry, saying how I didn’t know how to work miracles, but as a promise to them, I would do my best to show up. Well, over the years that has turned out to be Thursdays, coffee mornings, far more than on Mondays, when there was real work to do. Every once in a while I will turn up on a Monday and ask the outside lads – men in their sixties and seventies who are in better shape than I’ll ever be – if I can help, before drifting away casually before they hand me a shovel. We joke about it – they know I do something useful. Even if nobody’s quite sure what it is. I did attach a toilet fixture once – quite proud of that – and I’m good for reaching things on high shelves. But in the main I just wander around and natter at people. Or they natter at me. I’m a pretty good listener. Not a great listener, but fortunately most folks there are good talkers, so me not being a great listener doesn’t get in the way much.
But as I say, as it happens I’m not at the clean-up most Mondays anyway. On the first Monday of each month, I’m due at the Warrington congregation for a lunchtime meditation. We’ve tried out meditation groups at all three chapels, and most of the groups I facilitate incorporate a little silence as well. This, despite the fact that I’m not really all that good at sitting still. I do sometimes meditate on my own, though I have no regular pattern to it. Some days, while waiting for the train, I just stare at the reeds and let my mind go blank. It only does for a moment before the thoughts race off again, but it’s a good moment – like a breath of fresh air in the mind, a momentary communing with the All. I like meditating with others better, there’s something special about several people experiencing silence in unison. I try and keep the sessions very simple: I introduce meditation a little bit, remind them I’m not very good at it, sometimes read a short reading, and then we’re off. At first, the clock in Cairo Street, the Warrington Chapel, put me off – it’s an eighteenth century tavern clock (tavern-style, I should say, as far as I know it’s never actually been in a tavern – though this would not prohibit its appearance in our chapel), and it ticks very loudly. I spent the duration of the first meditation cursing myself for not stopping it before we began, worrying that it was ruining everyone’s experience of peace and tranquillity. I discovered afterward that it only ruined mine. One participant told me they never noticed it, and another said it was very meditative. Ministry has taught me it’s not a good idea to guess at other people’s reactions from a state of my own anxiety. I’ve needed to learn that lesson more than once.
Other Mondays I’m in Chester for “dine and discuss”. As I mentioned, I like to take the train to Chester. It’s a very pleasant experience, indeed: a ten minute stroll to the local station, a 35 minutes to Chester (I find the gentle motion of trains great for working in – the majority one of my numerous committee reports were composed on a train), then another 10 or 15 minutes to walk into town. Chester is a walled city; the wall was first built by the Romans and I enjoy muttering “darn Romans” if I have to go out of my way to get somewhere because of it. I don’t do this with any genuine consternation, it’s just fun to mutter sarcastically about people who lived two thousand years ago and who come across my path all the time. The truly beautiful thing about Chester is there are always multiple ways to get there, wherever there is. I can climb up the wall and walk along the top, or go street level, or walk down to the canal and cut through that way. I often drop into the Polish bakery to get a feta and spinach fried thingy – not remotely healthy, really, but delicious, and as cheap as Gregg’s.
Dine and discuss was my idea. Sometimes my ideas don’t work – I’m not terribly attached to my ideas, when it comes to congregational activities. Actually I’m perfectly happy when they fail as that means less work for me. But it is nice when they are successful, too, and Dine and Discuss was one of the moderately successful ones. I kept it very simple. Three to eight of us or so gather for a meal and one of Chester’s approximately six million eateries for lunch. Each time, we have a nominal subject of conversation: the Tao Te Ching, Anthony Gormley’s sculpture, four types of love in Greek thought. The conversation is pretty loose, but the topic gives us something to return to, a little intellectual content to think about between sharing the stuff of our lives. I miss it now, in the plague days.
I may also have a hospital visit or a house call on Monday, depending on the Monday, though those are often later in the week.
Planning the week is always an interesting challenge. There are so many possible ways to spend my time as a minister. By the same token, there is nowhere near enough time to do everything I could do, or want to do – to make all the visits I keep thinking I should really make someday; to phone all those people on my heart who could use a kindly word; to respond to the emergencies – and there are always emergencies, real or perceived. The week fills up so fast. Many weeks I’m a failed magician, trying to stuff thousands of rabbits into a hat, and learning that getting one bunny in there is hard enough, and two is near impossible.
For the first couple of years of this ministry, I tried earnestly to get feedback from the congregations on how they wanted me to spend my time. Should I spend more hours on growth, strategic planning, as opposed to church events? Did they want me out in the community, talking to prospective avenues of congregational justice ministry? How was I doing on pastoral care? As much as I elicited a little advice, people were reluctant – understandably – to tell the minister what to do. So I hit upon a new plan: I would do whatever the heck I wanted, and if they don’t like it, they were free tell me about it. So far, this has worked out well. It helps, I think, that they know I work hard. I always have a new project on the go – six, more like – and even if many of the projects are quixotic (like this one you’re reading), I put the hours in on them. Because I’m an enthusiast by temperament, I try to balance this by asking periodically if I’m putting off any of the hard stuff that really needs to be done – the boring-but-important financial matter; the onerous phone call to the town planning committee. I try to find a high-energy, but low-creativity, day to get that stuff done. I know my own moods fairly well by now; I’ve been watching them pretty carefully for years.
Mondays I’m due back to pick up the kids at 3. So it’s a shortish day, with time for emails and phone calls in the late afternoon or evening, or just to relax if it was a hard week last week. The school is a couple of blocks away from our home; it always feels good to stretch my legs and process the day so far. Monday afternoons are often one of the quieter parts of the week. On Monday the Sunday service is still a thousand miles in the far distance. A particularly good day for reading. I am reading throughout the week, and throughout my life, I keep a list of books I read each year. I read widely: quite a bit of spiritual stuff and religious history, but plenty of everything else too, and more of the everything else on the days when I’m getting tired of life being quite so churchy and pious. I keep books about the house, so the words can seep through me when they find the opportunity. I have a book in the living room, an e-book on my phone, a book by the bedside, kids’ books by their bedsides. And of course, one in that that temple to books, the bathroom. That last one gets read often, while I brushing my teeth with the electric toothbrush in the morning and evening; waiting for the shower water to heat; as well as before any ablutions. So there are books from start to finish in my day. I try and give the books themselves away, there’s no room or urge for vast bookshelves here. In the case of any toothpaste stains, I regret my carelessness.
And so we come to Tuesdays. Now the week really begins in earnest. Tuesdays are often my last real opportunity to get much non-sermon computer work done – reports or articles or whatever – as Wednesdays I’m usually in Warrington for part of the day, and Thursdays in Ashton. So if there are committees to be tended, book reviews to be written, denominational work to push forward: they need to compose themselves now, or forever hold their peace. There are frequently meetings or community events on a Tuesday, or classes on a Tuesday night. I don’t mind filling up the calendar with these things, especially if it’s not over-full. I find it’s nice for me to have something to go to, in person and not just on a screen. (Covid’s been hard, thanks for asking.)
Pastoral visits are usually fairly uncomplicated. I just show up at the time arranged, and say yes to a cup of tea. Remember that book from a few years back, “Three Cups of Tea”, about befriending the natives of Afghanistan and Pakistan? My book about the natives here in the U.K. would be called “Three Thousand Cups of Tea”. Hand on heart, I’ve enjoyed every single one of them. There’s something about just sitting down over a cuppa, feeling the warm mist float across my nostrils, as my ears settle in to listen, that does a body good. And then I hear whatever they have to say. I seldom have an agenda for these conversations. Occasionally I’ll think of a chapel event I might want to let them know about, or some chapel controversy it’s important they weigh in on, and I make a mental note to remember to mention them at some point. Nine times out of ten, though, I simply want to spend a little time with them. I have this gift – a not uncommon gift, but one not to be taken for granted – I have this gift of being preternaturally fond of people. I like hearing what they have to say. I enjoy the variety in people: funny people, humble people, principled people, imaginative people, story-telling people, quiet people; I like ‘em all. I’m almost utterly non-judgmental, too. This is not through any virtue or training – I just naturally tend to respond with fascination to people, including people who live their lives in a different way than I would. I’m either an introvert or a borderline introvert/extrovert, meaning I don’t want to be around people every second of every day. But when I am opposite a person, sitting on their sofa, it is a genuine privilege for me to get to know them.
My training does come in handy when it comes to the “heavier” moments. My sitting in the parlour, as the Rev, is an unspoken invitation to delve as far as they would like to go, into grief, hopelessness, shame, guilt, regret, uncertainty. It’s not confessional – both in that there’s no expectation that they go to any of these places, and that there’s no box, and they know very well who I am. So if they want to talk about the weather for sixty minutes, that’s absolutely fine by me (weather conversations are extremely interesting, if you know what to listen for). Even if they are active in the congregation and know me quite well, that doesn’t mean they trust me, or themselves, enough to go into their deepest and darkest with me. Or they simply don’t feel like it. I don’t pry (at least, I don’t think I do). But if someone wants to go there, too those deep places, my body and mind take on an attitude of receptivity, a sort of posture of readiness to listen to what they are about to say. I don’t think about it, this is instinctual behaviour that comes through thousands of similar instances of listening to people’s stories. I’m sure most ministers develop something similar, that “Spidey sense” that comes with pastoral conversations. Only Spidey sense – and I am only a superhero casually, as a hobby, so this is based upon a limited understanding – is a kind of tightening, a preparatory response to danger, while a pastoral Spidey sense is the opposite. You try and loosen up your joints, resist any anxious tightening in the nervous column. Ideally, you’re trying to slough off your own “stuff”, your own chain of thoughts and ego-projections, in order to turn your attention fully to the other person. I’m making it sound very clinical here, when so much of it is really an art, a way of being in the world. In chaplaincy training, and later in my spiritual direction training, we would write down transcripts of our conversations and analyse them. We got to see how there was a flow to them, a warp and weave. There are opportunities in there – the conversation could go one way or another, on the slightest touch. So there is much I could pay attention to, if necessary – which is not to say I don’t sometimes just switch off and enjoy a good chinwag.
Really, pastoral visits are not all that taxing. It’s an enormous pleasure, drinking tea and getting to learn about people’s lives. The hardest part is scheduling. Serving three congregations, with various responsibilities (vaguely alluded to in this essay), I have to choose my days carefully. Apart from nursing homes and hospitals, most congregants do not want me popping by unannounced, so advance planning is crucial. I enjoy the strategy of it, actually: Calling to double-check a visit by one person, before driving up to another; finding I have an hour to spare in between, using it to nip up to hospital, or phone a colleague about something; and then back to the second visit. I know my way around the roads by now – and have found the administrative holy grail, the free two-hour parking spot a short walk from the hospital. Sometimes I may make a phone call while I’m strolling up from it. On a very busy afternoon I can cram four or five visits in, in various locales. Two people may live in the same neighbourhood, say; another might not involve a full visit, just a quick hello. A lot of times, it doesn’t work out quite so efficaciously as all that. Someone can’t make it today, or the patient is no longer in hospital, and so I just make just the one visit, then walk about a bit, nip in a café for a latte and type on my laptop, then go home. There’s very little frustration in either scenario. That’s where these little prayers and meditations can help: to make me more ready to welcome the day. A busy day is not better or worse than a quiet one. I remember being tickled by a story from the Vedanta tradition – a village was having a funeral, and after the funeral there was a buffet. Some villagers said, “we mustn’t forget about the holy man who lives on the mountain, or else he might get angry at us and send curses our way!” So they brought him some sweets from the buffet, knowing he was partial to sweets. He was indeed delighted. But then the villagers worried: if he was delighted by the sweets from the funeral buffet, perhaps he would pray for more funerals, and the village doomed! So they brought him sweets from the next christening (not really a christening, of course, but the rough equivalent) so he didn’t just pray for funerals. The holy man was delighted again, although he joked: “you people really love your sweets!” That story – which I’m probably butchering – has always stayed with me. For me, in those times in life when I’m fortunate to be more or less on an even keel, the contents of my day is a bit like sweets to the holy man. Happy to get them, wherever they come from.
Speaking of funerals, the pastoral visit every minister knows by heart is the pre-funeral visit. There is something about it both so awful and so sacred: entering into a family’s grief, ringing the doorbell, offering muttered condolences to each person there, and then getting down to the heart of things: so, what was she like? Sometimes, of course, I’ll have known the deceased quite well; other times I’ll have never met him or her. As a Unitarian I don’t get called to the hospital bedside of strangers very often – it is a deep honour when I am. More typically it’s after the event, and leading up to the funeral, when I am called upon by the funeral directors. But whether I know the deceased or not going in, going out I feel very close with them. It’s such a profound privilege to get to know the life of someone through the eyes of their loved ones. I can’t put it into words; it moves me to tears sometimes. To discover the little jokes they shared as a family, and to look at the holiday snaps. To learn the little tics drove them crazy about their beloved – all of this is to be a witness to the holy.
I do occasionally get compliments on funerals, and (assuming they are genuine) I think that sense of awe is the main reason I have any competence at all. It always amazes me that I can speak at all to the life of a Lancashire coal miner, sixty years my senior, who served in a war I read about in the history books. All I have is respect. Not unassailable wisdom, nor any elixir that will take away the pain – only the utmost respect. And sometimes, this respect seems enough to do some good.
Some have asked me what it’s like to be around so much grief so often, as most clergy are. Yes, I do mourn these people myself, every one of them. And no, it’s not the same as grieving for my own family. It does feel different. Professionalism does add a bit of a remove, a barrier, even if I was very friendly with a beloved congregant. As professionals we keep the distance we need to in order to stay sane – many is the good chuckle I have had with funeral staff in the hearse, before we compose ourselves again to be present to the enormity of grief. Nevertheless, each death affects me. I often find funeral services a challenge to compose. There are mountains of procrastination to wade through, and even as a lot of the prayers and readings are cut and pasted from other funerals, tweaked here and there, it’s like pulling teeth to get myself to sit down and do the work. Before as well as after the funeral, there is a kind of subtle added heaviness to life – I’m a bit slower getting up in the morning, my senses a tad numbed in the afternoon. After a funeral, or a tough house call, I always make sure to do something nice, like going for a walk or stopping off for a bag of chips drenched in salt and vinegar. We people really love our sweets.
As I say, Tuesday evenings are often taken up with classes and events and such. We’ve run everything from bible study groups to Building Your Own Theology courses to expositions of Gilgamesh and Star Wars. About half the time I offer whatever takes my fancy, and the other half comes from other people’s ideas and requests. I’m always happy to get an idea for a class and I rarely turn any down, except if I think I’m not the one to best lead it. I have very wide interests. I’m no polymath, but I am a poly-enthusiast.
I seldom stress the content much when it comes to adult education classes. I pay closer heed to the running of the meeting, people’s experience of the content. I usually keep the content fairly simple, and this may be a fault – sometimes, in retrospect, the class could have used a bit more pizazz here and there. I do try to keep the learning pedagogy appropriately multi-sensory, which is to say I throw in the odd song or activity, and always try and have a tea break in there somewhere. But mostly, I find, I can trust that people just enjoy being together – the magic of group engagement comes from the gathering, and not from anything I provide. I can facilitate the magic, and there is an art to that – two years of spiritual direction training come in handy here – but it’s the group that bring it, and it’s the shared intention that ignites it. I just watch the campfire burn, and tend to the coals now and then.
The stress about running the meeting is more about the logistics that are so important. Did I put the same time and date in the written newsletter, e-newsletter, service announcement, website, or did I make a mistake somewhere, and do I now need to scramble madly to contact all possible participants? Will I forget to turn the heating on (usually, if I remember, I just ask someone else to do it)? Who will turn up? Will two people turn up who are chalk and cheese, and if so, how do I help the magic of diversity along? Will extroverts take up most of the conversation. Oh help me God, will I take up most of the conversation, as usual? Who will turn up? What will I do if it’s just one person? Or two?
I never worry about it being no people – that means I have some time to read. And I try to keep in mind that there is nothing at all wrong about two or three being gathered. But part of the mild anxiety is that I have no real clue about how the “feel” of the meeting will be until half an hour into the meeting. Sometimes I don’t know into the break, when I go out for some fresh air (not a euphemism, as I don’t smoke – though I often join smokers in standing out there, so maybe it is a second-hand euphemism) and silently ask myself, “What’s going on in this meeting? How is it going? Do I need to shift tack?” Some meetings are molasses, a bit slow to get going, but with a subtle sweetness to them. Some are a bubbling brook, brimming with energy from start to finish. Sometimes there’s fireworks. Sometimes fireworks are necessary to keep the group dynamic lively. Meetings can shift in energy halfway in. I enjoy the challenge of it, the uncertainty. Though when all is said and done, it can take me a couple hours to get to sleep later that night. If I get to anxious and micromanagey, I remind myself that there’s nothing really to worry about, ultimately. It’s not rocket surgery, just a bunch of people getting together to reflect on the world. The odds are skewed heavily towards things going pretty well. I help the odds along, by bringing interesting snacks.
Tuesdays can be any or all of the above, or none – emails, service prep, denominational activities, can all take up much of the day. With Wednesday and Thursday at the congregations, I have to buckle down on the to-do list by Tuesday if I’m going to get anything done. I quite like To-do lists, actually. I like to write them down in paper, and the physical act of crossing the items off. I take stock of which sorts of items are carried over from one week to next – usually expense reports, attempting to fix sluggish computers, and professional development, as well as the longer, less pressing projects I dearly want to do but never seem to find time for, never seem to give myself permission to indulge in. The To-do list helps me take stock. Ministry is so amorphous and abstract, it’s nice for me to have something quantitative and simple about it. Write the item down, do it, cross it off. I can do that – even if the item in question involves something that is complicated, subjective, or emotionally challenging. Write the item down, do it, cross it off.
Even so, real life – both inner and outer – refuses to be confined to such a pattern. Many is the day the whole plan goes out the window. Someone calls me up with a crisis; usually there’s not much I can do about it, except witness, but I will do that assiduously. Or weird impromptu errands come up, beyond what I can encapsulate here. We need to find twenty blinking candles, all of a sudden, or I have to drive to the town register to talk over a form with them. Most days I take these tasks on pretty willingly – finishing the to-do list entails only a mild sense of satisfaction, and there are other rewards to life. Some days, an undivertible inspiration will strike out of nowhere, and sp I’ll wipe the scheduling table clean and spend two hours researching the life of some eighteenth century non-conformist, or quibble away at some social media discussion of soteriology. I’ve always had a Mr. Toad streak a mile wide. It doesn’t take me much to get distraction. I’ve learned the distractions can sometimes be the most useful bit of my ministry.
Wednesdays I frequently go into Warrington. This involves a fashion decision: do I wear a clerical collar? I never used to wear one, in the U.S., though a few colleagues did. I was inspired to wear one here by a Methodist chaplain who informally, and very kindly, mentored me when I first came to Warrington. He explained why he almost wore one, when in public: a basic, unmistakeable expression of role and authority; he was a representative of religion, and wasn’t trying to hide that fact. A bus driver wears a uniform, for much the same reasons: who are we to think we’re above that? I promptly went out and found collared shirts. The first two I got from a wonderful little ecclesiastical clothing room hidden behind a men’s clothing store in Manchester. A couple years later, I found a place online that produced Fair Trade collared shirts, and as I’m on the Fair Trade committee, it seemed like a good purchase. Now I have four collared shirts, an outsized fraction of the hangers in my otherwise not extensive wardrobe.
As an aside, the theology of ministerial fashion is a topic that sometimes creeps into my mind as I’m getting dressed in the mornings. When I’m not wearing a collar (and there are strategic reasons behind this to) I try not to especially stand out – the opposite effect I get from wearing a collar. I was told at my internship I have a “rumpled professorial look”, which may have been intended as a gentle constructive criticism, or a backhanded compliment. These days I go mostly just for rumpled. If it goes too far, even for me, I’ll drag out the ironing board. I’ve noticed when I put my belt on in the morning somehow I always manage to miss a loop – I don’t do this on purpose, I like to think of it as God’s way of keeping me humble. You think you’re special, mister rev? You still can’t put a belt on properly.
Lately I’ve narrowed down what I need in ministry to two practical virtues: humility and courage. Prior to those are Paul’s spiritual gifts of faith, hope and love. Without that stuff, courage and humility don’t serve much of a purpose. Much of my personal prayer life, from the actual spoken prayers I mutter, to just enjoying myself on my day off, comes down to reminding myself and reenergizing my own faith, hope and love. A lot of times they are bubbling very near the surface. Once in a while, though, I really need to dig deep.
Once you are acting from that place of faith, hope, and love, I find, humility and courage are the crux of it. You need to go out into the world and put that faithful love into practice. This is why I think of humility and courage as the practical virtues (as opposed to the spiritual gifts). It takes courage for me to wear the collar while at work. I don’t think I look especially cool. I think I look a bit of a plonker, to be honest. I never had a clergywear fetish when I was younger. But the collar is a simple way of saying: if you’re looking for a religious person, here I am. Some will avoid me, but quite a few will make conversation with me on account of the collar – a little, kindly remark, a sharing of some little part of what happened to them that day. People treat these encounters, in part, as a happening I suspect, something mildly interesting that happened to them today. They’ll tell someone later, I spoke to a priest today (or a vicar – neither of which I am, but I only get into the ecclesiological distinctions if people ask me about them). I do get asked about faith, once in a while, while walking on the streets, or riding the train. It’s been interesting for me that I often find myself taking a more conventional religious view than I would have anticipated earlier in my career – speaking up for religion, rather than saying “Oh, I’m a Unitarian, I don’t subscribe to all that.” I find the recourse-to-denomination is often, for me, a way of dodging the question, and I don’t want to go that road. As a for instance: once someone who had met me before, at an event we were both at, saw the collar, and came up to me as I was walking. He asked about the tragic death that had been in the news. He had prayed for it not to happen; in fact so had I. “Where was God then?” He was visibly upset about it. This was a deeply kind-hearted guy, and also a hard-luck soul who had been dealt a rough hand in life. I didn’t say, “well, I’m a Unitarian, and we don’t believe in the immediate and necessary efficacy of prayer – hey, £%”t happens.” Instead, I said something like, “I don’t know, man. It’s a mystery to me, sometimes. But hey: notice all that compassion you have, for a total stranger. Maybe God’s in that, right? There’s a lot of love in the world. I don’t know why so much stuff happens not the way we want it to. But all that love that connects us – maybe God’s in there somewhere.” Or something to that effect. I expect it was even less elegantly phrased than that.
Humility and courage. Just get out there, and share what little faith, hope and love I have with the world. I’m fond of the ironic pair of minister’s mottoes: when there is absolutely nothing to be done, we show up; when there is absolutely nothing that can intelligibly be said about a matter, we speak up. It’s funny, but it’s also true. Speak into the ineffable. Say something.
Whether I am wearing my collar or not, on Wednesdays I will usually meet a stranger or two. The Warrington chapel is by a little alley in the heart of town. We keep the gates open, so that people might wander in. It is a beautiful, historic chapel, and well worth a look. It is easy to hear the clatter of someone coming in; wherever I am in the building there are monumental echoes. I try to give visitors a minute or two before I interrupt them. Naturally, many times they are there for the building, not the cleric. Sometimes in my eagerness to say hi I inadvertently scare them off. Often, though, they assent to a little chat with me. Once in a while someone’s eyes light up upon seeing me – there is something they’ve always wanted to ask to a minister, or – if they are a little more theologically literate – to a non-conformist/Unitarian minister. It’s a bit of a rollercoaster, because I’m never able to guess correctly in advance what the question is going to be. I am totally unable to tell, based on appearance, whether it’ll be an insightful query about our 17th century origins, a personal reflection about the life of faith, or a broad and pretty ignorant swipe at Muslims. As I know many of my colleagues would, I try to be a little more forceful in my defence of Muslims than I am in my defence of Unitarians, the former not being there to defend themselves. On the whole, though, I try to meet people where they are. This comes pretty naturally to me: I have the curse of regularly seeing the sense in other people’s points of view. I am sure if someone planted a recording device on my phone and played it back, they could pretty easily accuse me of giving contradictory statements to various people. Very well then: I contain multitudes. I am a bit conflict-averse, it’s true – I do prefer conversations that explore nuances of points of view, to arguments where two points of view butt heads and have at each other.
Mostly, conversations are quite jovial. I offer a cup of tea; if the my new friend says yes I mentally wipe the calendar clean for the next hour. For an American who has no idea how to make a proper cup of tea, I have made a frighteningly huge number of cups of tea. But it seems to go alright, in spite of me not knowing how to make it properly. Then we sit down in the vestry and talk over the world. The vestry is also my office. As you can surmise, my days in Warrington don’t involve a lot of “work”, if by work you mean typing stuff on the computer. The day is a series of wonderful interruptions. After a year or so, I stopped bringing my laptop into the office most days.
There are a lot of return visitors, which is a great joy. More than once someone has come back to tell me that they’ve turned their life around. The fact that I get to witness to this boggles my mind, and brings me, figuratively at least, to my knees. But whatever has happened, or not happened, in someone’s life, it’s terrific to see a familiar face. I don’t always remember names. This failure on my part is agonizing to me. I have tried any number of systems and mnemonics. Some work a little, but the truth is my mind just doesn’t seem to be up to the task (oh, it might be, if I funnelled all my energy into remembering names – but as a creative, much would be lost by this approach, and it isn’t worth the trade-off). People generally remember my name – it’s a bit easier, since I was about the only other person in the giant chapel building, and they are in the building for the second time in a year. Whereas for me, when someone returns out of the blue, my mind races to remember where I know them from, with mixed results. People are very forgiving of my all-too-obvious limitations.
Humility and courage. I’m not all that. We have a connection with one of the local homeless shelters, and folks will pop by in a group to pray, or on their own if they’re passing by. I remember early after seminary thinking “I won’t focus on homeless ministry, there are so many other colleagues more compassionate than I, and it’s just too difficult for little old me.” Which goes to show you that God’s sense of humour is better than mine, as it’s a considerable part of my ministry here. I don’t “do” a lot with folks who are homeless or in housing transition. But then, I don’t do a lot generally. I listen to them. I make them a cup of tea, and biscuits, having tried to remember to stock the chapel up on biscuits when I’m at the shop. I will say a prayer if they ask, or offer to pray with them if it feels like the time is apropos. There is a wonderful, a saintly volunteer who accompanies a group of them – a deeply spiritual person, Catholic, and together we talk faith and invite anyone to listen in, or contribute, as they feel moved. I lead with my humility: I don’t know how to fix what ails them – I don’t even know how to fix what ails me, and I don’t hide this fact. God, grace, the great not-me does the fixing for all of us. Part of my spiritual practice is keeping in mind that I, too, am the undeserving poor. Now, I don’t mean this in the socio-political sense that I am not cognizant of the fact that I have had enormous advantages in life: I had a pretty stable upbringing, middle-class, white male, all the perks. Many of the people I meet have had an almost unimaginably rough upbringing of neglect and abuse. Not always: sometimes life just went off the rails at some point for somebody, a there-but-for-the-grace-of-God kind of moment. I know I’ve had a easy time of it, compared to most. I am undeserving poor, in the sense of being human, and frail. I miss the mark, I’m not up to the task, I take what I don’t deserve (including taking all the advantages of being white, cisgender and male). I stumble about in life, making mistakes every single day, surviving from one day to the next not on my own merits but on sheer fortune.
Many times I have been offered food by people who have next to nothing. I almost never refuse. I don’t want to anyway, as I love food! But I do it for other reasons, too. There is something so holy about this communion, this fact that we share with one another, depend on one another. I’m often rather hungry, as it happens – I’m usually in Warrington in the midday hours and if I’m not staying for an evening meeting I don’t usually bother with a full lunch, though I might grab a little bite at the grocery or one of the pasty places. My belly rumbles now and then, but I’m never in danger of starving. When it does rumble, I try to remember those that are.
I always make a point of shaking people’s hands when I’m out and about (not now, though: another Covid sacfrifice). I’m a bit of a politician I suppose, glad-handing all over the place. I’ve been struck by how powerful the simple gesture of a handshake is: I see you, I acknowledge you, I’m willing to touch you – and I hope, you are willing to reciprocate. There’s something deep down, primal about it, a pure expression of commonality and community. So if there’s a chance to cross the street to offer a handshake, I jump at it.
On Wednesday mornings there’s a drug rehabilitation group that meets in the Chapel. Occasionally I sit in on the meetings, although I might squirrel myself away in the vestry if I have a few things I need to do. Even if I’m not in the meeting itself I hope one or two will pop in and say hello during the break. When I do attend the meetings, it’s an awesome and humbling experience. These drug recovery groups are about the most spiritually powerful experiences there are, full of truth-telling, despair and courage. I know I’m not the only pastor who feels incredibly privileged to get to sit in on these meetings, and who feels in some way these meetings are “pure church” in a way few other encounters can claim.
Once a month on Wednesday I have a morning meditation in Chester. As with Mondays, this involves a long, leisurely train ride (though I have to hustle to catch it, after dropping off the kids in the morning), then a stroll into town. For the last couple of years, our meditation has been meeting in the upstairs room of a wonderful hippie-ish shop that sells incense and spiritual items and a few books. Before that, we met in Chester Cathedral but we were never really part of the official itinerary of the cathedral (I did email them a few times to make sure we weren’t breaking any rules, taking the lack of any reply as permission). So I was never sure which nook or cranny of that wondrous place we’d be meditating in. To make it a little easier to find one another, we began to meet in what we thought was an ecumenical centre. But then the church of England kicked us out, rather dramatically one Wednesday, for being Unitarian. While I try pretty avidly to increase the concord between different faiths and denominations, I must admit to being rather proud to being kicked out of a church building for leading a Unitarian silent prayer. I did meet the vicar eventually for a cuppa, and we smoothed things out about a bit. Anyway, the top floor of the incense shop has been our home for a long spell, and it has been absolutely wonderful. The deal is, we get the space for free, provided we buy tea and cakes afterward. I give a short introduction, we keep silence for 20 to 40 minutes (I vary it based on how much I think I, or we, can stand on that particular Wednesday), and then we have lemon drizzle cake and a long chat. After we say our good-byes, I wander back to the station. If I’m not in a rush, I’ll stop in a shop, or the cathedral, or stroll by the canal. I have even – though not often, honest, about once a season or so – stopped in for a pint if I had the time. There’s nothing like catching up on my email over a pint, in the pub, once in a while.
If that all sounds very cushy – well, it is. You must understand that I went into ministry half-thinking it was a nice cushy gig. A little writing, a little reading, a respected member of the community, getting to do my own thing. The sad truth is, if you are looking for a cushy life, ministry in the 21st century is not really a great option. It is challenging in all sorts of ways you can’t predict. The hours don’t have to be onerous – they often are, but I think we ministers put that on ourselves to be honest – but the emotional demands are very real and very intense. I’m not grousing, I love it – but it ain’t easy. So on Wednesdays in Chester, I will take cushy, thank you very much, and live the dream for an hour or two.
Wednesday nights could be another class or an event, or could be a quiet night. Sometimes I’ll idly wonder what the sermon will be about that Sunday. If I haven’t gotten hymns in yet I may need to get cracking on them and send them in. We use three different hymn books at the three chapels so this is a somewhat complicated matter, but I won’t bother to expand on here.
Thursdays are coffee morning at Park Lane. I still remember my first coffee morning. I came there when I candidated (tried out for the job), and the little hall was crowded and buzzing. Many people called me over to make kindly conversation with me. The only difficulty was that I had no idea what they were saying. I leant over a table to try to decipher these thick Wigan accents…an older dear softly speaking indecipherable code three feet below my head. All I could hear was the clatter of coffee cups, and the background shouts of “Push it! Come on! Two more!” – gym and boxing club meets next door, and the walls are thin. In spite of not getting a word, it was easy to tell they were being friendly, so I just nodded and smiled. I remember how much I liked the feel of the place, even as I had not a clue what was going on.
These days, I understand the language – most of the time. In spite of being a non-native speaker, I feel at home during coffee mornings, as much as anywhere else in fifteen years in the ministry. Whether this is because my Mum is from Lancashire, or just sheer luck, I don’t know. It’s probably the sarcasm. There’s a current of humour running through the morning, a gentle ribbing that puts me at ease. Oscar Wilde I ain’t, but once in a while I can keep up with the wits at the raffle table, say just the right thing to get them giggling.
Just before moving here, I read Kate Fox sociology book, which insightfully discussed British reserve, politeness, and stiff upper lip. It was still fresh in my mind when one of the tables at coffee morning was having an extended conversation about bowel movements after the age of seventy. Later that same morning, someone asked me, with an extremely kind tone, “have you put on a couple pounds, pastor?” It made me wonder how much Wigan figured in Kate Fox’ calculations. It is much more up my street, really, no airs and graces. And they would do anything for each other, always looking to help, as kind as the summer day is long.
Over the course of two hours, and two cups of tea, I tend to drift between the tables so I can catch up with just about everyone. And I go out for little jaunts outdoors as well. Some of the parishioners come to coffee morning without going into the memorial hall, where the tea and coffee are served. They take their cuppa and go off to work on the gardens, or tidy the chapel. These are the ones who can’t sit still. Having more than a smidgen of that affliction myself, I love wandering about and chatting over the day to them as they tend the flowerpots. I like all the little conversations. One or two of the quieter ones I may be mithering, admittedly, but they put up with my saying a quick hello. I do take little non-conversation breaks, either looking at my books in the chapel to see if there are any tomes I need for Sunday (unnecessarily – really it’s just an excuse to be around books for a few moments), or walking round the little graveyard at the side of the chapel. I know many of the residents of the newer section of the graveyard, either personally or through related chapel members. It feels good to be reminded of them, to spend some time around these dear people – the memory of them, I mean. They don’t feel very far gone, really. In the older section of the graveyard there’s the stone to my colleague Hezekiah Kirkpatrick, who served around the time of the American Revolution. The stones have all been moved around over the years so no telling where his bones are. Hezekiah was an interesting guy – cared a lot for the poor, wrote some lovely prayers I adapt sometimes, and wrote a cookbook about the potato, the hot new vegetable over from the Americas. OK, more accurately it had been over for a century or two, when it was written, and already Lancashire-grown potatoes were especially prized – in the book he offered to anyone interested, that they could pop by his vestry and sample some, for a nominal fee. Even though I never took him up on his offer, and the vestry is no longer extant, I feel like Hezekiah Kirkpatrick’s a small but important part of my life. I feel that way about a lot of people.
In all these little chats it’s here I catch up on all the congregational gossip that is so valuable to a minister, learning who needs a visit or call; getting people’s input into various developments at the chapel; sharing vital information that I neglected to include in the newsletter. I try to keep a little notepad with me, to jot things down. Sometimes I’ll make a quick phone call to someone from coffee morning itself, while I think on’. The first few months, when I didn’t understand the accent very well, the two hours of coffee morning used to feel like the longest two hours in the world – not at all in a boring or drudgery way, but in a challenging way, straining my ears to hear everything. Nowadays, they fly by.
I also have another little task to do between conversations: I load up my car with people’s used clothing. Early in my ministry here, I had the chance to go and help out for a week on the Greek island of Samos, where refugees from Syria, Iraq, and elsewhere landed on their rubber dinghies from Turkey. It was a moving and harrowing experience, that I wrote about elsewhere. This interfaith trip was organised, incredibly ably, by a congregant from Warrington. Not wanting to force anyone’s hand, I soft-pedalled it a bit here at Park Lane – I did preach on it, but didn’t try to demand they do anything about it, immediately. It was a congregant who asked if they could donate anything for the refugees, and I said sure, as a charity was being set up in Warrington by another attendee on the trip. So they put a box out – one of those big plastic containers – in the hallway. It filled up with people’s clothing, straightaway. I knew what a godsend this was. I had helped distribute warm clothing like this to people who had washed up on the island with basically nothing to their name. I brought the box in my car to Warrington. A week later the box was full again. I’ve now distributed somewhere around 100 carloads to the charity in Warrington. My car is regularly bulging with stuff. A couple years back a congregant brilliantly suggested a separate donation box for toiletries, which also fills up regularly – these aren’t only cleaning out their closets for this, people hunt for bargains on toothpaste and school supplies and sanitary napkins so when they go to the stores. So I load those in my car, too. It’s another fun mental puzzle trying to find the right time to drive them into Warrington – I do like to take the train into Warrington as well, so I like to find a day where it’s less convenient to take the train; and I need to find an extra half hour to drop them off at the retail centre with the charity is. Occasionally, I’ll pop down right after coffee mornings. I always need to be very careful about time – Mondays and Thursdays, and Fridays when I’m generally off, I pick the children up at 3; Tuesdays and Wednesdays Abbey or I pick them up at 5:30. So time is always ticking in the back of my mind.
The drop off in Warrington is quite funny, by the way. The charity is by a big Asda so there are a lot of shopping carts lying around – while in the car park, I pile as many bags of clothing into a shopping cart as I can. I’m going the wrong way – instead of bringing new items out of the mall, I’m carting old items in. Sometimes I’m wearing my collar and I get a few looks – this bedraggled prophet trying to balance multiple bin bags in a shopping cart, another weird old bag man on the streets. I like this; it feels like some kind of performance art, reimagining capitalism or whatever.
More often, after coffee hour I’ll make one or two quick pastoral visits, or a run to the hospital. I’ll give someone a lift in my car if it’s helpful and the offer is accepted – I feel a bit guilty owning a car, and being able to use it for a taxi service, or a refugee donation system, assuages the guilt considerably.
If there’s no-one particular to visit, sometimes I’ll stroll around Landgate, the housing estate across the street from the chapel. I’m glad to report that after five years, a few folks in Landgate know who I am. I quite like being “local clergy” – even though technically I live a short drive away, I want people to be able to call on me if they wish to, know me well enough that I’m part of the neighbourhood. I’ve found that a lot of energy in ministry is expended, usefully, in just letting folks know you’re around. I have “chat with the minister” days, were I’ll be at a café or a pub and anyone can stop by. Most times no one does, which suits me fine – I’ve always got a book at the ready, and most of these places have Wifi now, which means I can peck away at a few emails. (Speaking of pecking, there is a pub that does food next to one chapel, and a tapas restaurant next to the other, which may help explain why I’ve put on a few pounds). But even if no one stops by, these meet-the-minister things put the idea in people’s heads that I’m available for a chat, should they need it. Sometimes I’m less available than I let on. If someone calls and wants to see me, I may have to do some schedule-juggling to find a good hour to meet in this week or next. If it’s someone from outside the congregation, I make them a high priority, because it takes courage to reach out to a minister, and it’s almost always for a very good reason. It’s no good responding to such requests to “I can see you in four weeks”, you have to strike when the iron is hot. So I have bumped meetings with beloved lay leaders to meet with someone new – that’s just the topsy-turvy, Gospel value deal with ministry, and I think they understand.
Back to Landgate, once in a while someone will hail me as I’m strolling about, which always feels satisfying. I suppose I have this fantasy of being the neighbourhood vicar – I’ve read too many Agatha Christie novels with the friar bicycling around the village. I might pop in on one or two folks, or I might not. I try to vary up who I visit and when, not giving too much attention to any one person or neglecting anybody. But it’s tricky – impossible in fact – and I suspect every minister keeps a kind of running calculation, of who hasn’t had their share of our attention, and who maybe gets more than is fair. I do know most clergy carry the general feeling that they’re not seeing the people often enough. I have the painful thought that, for all the flattering adulation that’s come my way since I announced I’m leaving this post, there will be a few who grumble that the minister wasn’t there for them when they needed at. And you know what? They’re probably right. It’s a bit of a crapshoot who I visit in any particular week, month, or year, and inevitably someone gets left out in the cold. I would only protest that it was accidental – I’m quite happy to visit anybody and everybody. Sometimes I make of visiting “difficult people” (the ones who, for whatever reason, take a lot of energy) more, just to prove this point myself. Though there are also days, especially when life is a bit rough, when I’ll visit the lay leaders who are a piece of cake – and may even furnish one – just to lift my spirits.
Generally, I try not to let all these concerns weigh on me too much. I return to simplicity: I’ve got these hours here to work with, what do I do with them? As you can see, I stay busy. Probably too busy, sometimes. What it all amounts to, I don’t honestly know. Some days I’ll take a couple hours to just stroll about and pray – and by pray I mostly mean reflect on life. Some days, I’ll have appointments over the course of fourteen hours, and lots to do in between. But there’s always lots to do. I try to find a little time not to do it – it’s important, as a minister, that the career not become a matter of accomplishing tasks, or you’ve lost the whole point of ministry. I skirt that danger quite a lot, in a busy ministry. Have children in school helps: even though there are a fair few tasks wrapped up in parenthood, at least they’re different sorts of tasks. But I try to have some time to not be task-minding at all, if I can.
Which brings us to Friday, and Saturday, typically the quietest days in my week. Fridays I might take totally off. Or I might not. If I’m not too exhausted by the week, I may spend an hour or two writing in the morning – either getting the initial shape to the sermon, or else advancing whatever other project is on the front burner, like a denominational article or a non-ministry fun piece. However, I don’t write heavily on Fridays as it’s a letting-off-steam day. I like to stroll into Earlestown market and get some fruit and veg, stroll back and cook a little lunch. I read a lot on Fridays. Friday afternoons (pre-Covid) the children’s friends and neighbours often crowded round our the house, and I felt an amazing sense of peace, listening to the sound of play in the other room, while chopping up snacks in the kitchen, or lounging around reading. I check on them once in a while, but I don’t always play with them; I’m happy enough to be in the background with a book or the dumb games on my smartphone. I am called upon to play monster, which involves going RAWWR and chasing them around the house, a task at which I excel.
I’m not religious about my Sabbaths (pun intended), and sometimes I’ll make a little phone call on a Friday. I’ll schedule a visit if it can’t be helped – and sometimes there’s a funeral on a Friday – in which case I’ll try to find a time for a little time off elsewhere in the week. There was a spell in my first ministry when I really made sure to keep my day off totally off. Not only would I not work, I’d not turn screens on if I could help it, to preserve a feeling of restfulness. These days, for better or worse, I’m a little more lax about it all. I may do the odd job on my weekends but I try to build more drifting into my week – I didn’t want to take one or two days fully off, but then be at a sprinter’s pace the rest of the time. I’d rather leave plenty of room for a little moping throughout the week.
Friday nights are always nice because then I don’t have the service coming up so I can stay up late – though often I don’t bother – and sleep in – if I care to. Sometimes I meet with my co-minister for a curry in Liverpool. We each serve three chapels, so we’re fairly independent of each other, but we’re very simpatico – both creative, empathic types – and we always spark ideas from each other when we have our nights out. Plus we understand each other’s struggles better than most. We each may have our own parishes, as it were, but having someone else who is also working shoulder to shoulder is so much better than being the only minister in town.
Saturdays it’s often my ambition to make pancakes for the family, and some Saturdays I prove true to that intention. With the children watching cartoons on the telly and the adults sitting around checking the news, Saturday mornings are a wonderful slow time, just as family life has been, presumably, since Neolithic times. Some Saturdays, though – too many – I have a meeting to go to. Or a workshop, or a conference, or a community event. It’s a little too strong to say that Saturday events are the bane of my existence. I understand why events need to happen on a Saturday, it’s the time busy people can make, the day off on working people’s calendar, or even retired people who are so busy, these days. Most Saturday events I like well enough, when I get there…there’s just a slight groan about leaving the house. It’s a reminder that I’m not, professionally speaking, a normal person: weekends don’t exist in the same way for me.
I’m griping…most days, a Saturday morning committee meeting means I’m back by around lunchtime. Same goes for the church fairs, only I’m back with cake (I actually enjoy the church fairs a great deal – there’s a book stall, and a tchotchke corner where I once picked up a pulpit watch, that I sometime use to notice when I’m preaching past noon, and lots of people about to chat to. And they never make me bake the cakes which is a wise choice). So I don’t really miss much of the day. All-day workshops or events happen only sporadically. There are afternoon weddings but that entails a lovely three hours, maximum, including a glass of lemonade raised before dashing out of the reception and going back home.
I forgot to mention about the conferences and classes and so on, all the professional development and denominational commitments that happen outside my three “parishes”. I appreciate all that stuff, gadding about to Liverpool or Manchester or London, or our Unitarian retreat centre in the hills, and meeting with a bunch of colleagues about something or other. Kurt Vonnegut wrote, “unexpected travel plans are dancing lessons from God”, and I don’t know where that leaves planned committee meetings, but there feels some sort of grace or wisdom in whatever calls me somewhere unfamiliar for a day or two. I used to take classes at the college in Manchester, which entailed taking the train into town with my novel, then strolling the Oxford road, past the universities and the curry mile. I’d take the bus if I was in a hurry… but if not, what a walk! There’s a Blackwell’s, three free museums, and sixteen cuisines of curry on the way.
Plenty of the various commitments involve an overnight stay, paid for by the denomination which makes me feel vaguely important, probably without warrant. In the meetings themselves, I go from the feeling I don’t have anything to contribute to not being able to shut up (a.k.a. white man syndrome); I do try to keep my worst impulses in check. I’m likeable and a bit charismatic which is always dangerous: I can present a stupid idea and everyone in the room, including me, will be enthusiastic about it at first, until it comes time to try it out and we all realise it’s a disaster. Every so often I’m able to make myself genuinely useful. As it stands, I am a small, very minor influence on British Unitarianism, a small movement but one I cherish. That little old me is any influence at all feels incredibly humbling.
Saturdays, I might have to do something about the sermon. I don’t finish the sermon on Saturdays of course – I’m no swot – but I might compose a few rough paragraphs. Once in a while, I storyboard the sermons – usually in my mind rather than on paper. I imaginatively travel through the journey of the sermon, the images, expressions and ideas. Some Saturdays, I draw a total blank. If I go out for a walk I can almost always rustle up something – whether it’s any good or not I don’t know, it’s hard to do effective quality control when you preach every week. I also try and get the order of service mostly laid out, think what the children’s story will be. I may have a reading left to place in there tomorrow, but I don’t stress it. Probably I should stress it more – just the right reading, bible or poetry or prose or whatever, can be incredibly powerful, if chosen in just the right spot. I seldom get it right – I have so many readings lying around in books and tabbed webpages, accumulated over fifteen years of ministry, and I tend to just say “that’ll do” some weeks when really I should give it a little more thought. Mea aliquantum culpa.
Saturday nights are not a work night for me, but they also aren’t a party night. I don’t touch alcohol – my mind needs be in tip-top shape in the morning. I tend to relax and not think too much about anything, switch my mind off, maybe do a few of the math and word games in the newspaper. The big day’s coming.
At last, we come to Sunday. Which as we all know, is the only day ministers actually work. I’ve wondered, publicly somewhere (I don’t remember where I wrote it – online, probably), whether Sunday worship will long continue to be the touchstone of Unitarian congregational life. I’m not saying it won’t: I’m just curious to see how it evolves. Even though weekly worship goes way, way back in Jewish and Christian tradition, there’s nothing in the Bible that exactly says “thou shalt meet on a Sunday at 10 am and sing hymns”. And we’re tied none too closely to the Bible anyway. Nowadays, a considerable number of what I would call the “congregation” don’t actually come on Sunday. They come to coffee mornings or groups or solstice evening services so often that it would be impossible for me to ever consider they were not “one of us”, a congregant. Still, for those who regularly attend on a Sunday, there is something unique about it: Sundays are a jewel, Sunday mornings the “Queen of the week”, if I could crib – very inexactly – a Jewish expression for the Sabbath.
I wake up as early as I need to. If I still have most of the sermon to write – which has been known to happen – that can mean 4 or 5. Even if the service is completed to the last letter, my body won’t let me sleep much later than that, on a Sunday. My bones and my subconscious know what day it is, and are incapable of sleeping in on Sundays.
I turn on my computer and get to work. The sermon, and the service generally, is an incredibly spiritual process, but the outer form of the process is pretty mundane. I write sermons like I write most other longer form works: I set an approximate word count, and then I write. It varies: let’s say, 300 words and the coffee on by 5; 800 words by 6; 1200 words and the prayer by 7. This sounds frightfully dull, I know. It doesn’t feel dull at all. Once I have the word count down, I no longer worry about it. The faeries supply me with the words and my job is discovering in wonder what they are. Or if you want to be all non-magical and sciency about it: I know from experience how much I will be able to produce from my subconscious, but the fun is that I have very little advance idea of what the content will be. Or I might know the rough outline – but the really fascinating bit, the shape of the content, can only be revealed piece by piece.
I’m known as a pretty good preacher. There have been rare moments, up there in worship with the people, where the world has just stopped, where we’ve been taken up together in a transcendent moment, where you can feel the energy of the spirit moving through the room, almost taking your breath away. You might think I’m bragging – really it has very little to do with me, I’m just the instrument. It’s worship itself, this coming together with a listening intention, that creates these priceless little moments. They don’t come often, and I never quite know when they’re gonna come. But when they do, people don’t forget them.
Most Sundays, though, it’s a workaday sermon. For all my quirkiness, my messages are pretty simple. I don’t have too many…let’s see, there the “appreciate the present moment” sermon, or seize the day. Conversely, there’s the “we are connected to the past and the future” sermon – this can be about grief, or heritage, or hope, but the message is approximately the same, exploring how the past and the future are with us right now. I have a message about trying to forgive ourselves and each other, a lot, “seventy times seven”, because we’re only human and being human is a messy business. I preach joy, quite a bit, and also perseverance and consolation, going through despair. Both joy and despair will sometimes feel like the wrong sermon, as I contemplate the person for whom it seems inapplicable that week. And there’s a raft of sermons about how life is a journey, a tangle tale with lots of dead ends, twists and turns, told by a chorus of voices, signifying everything. I’m probably missing one or two main sermons in this list I will get super-esoteric on a whim every couple months and preach about fascinating minutiae – but probably for the majority of Sundays, you could sum up the message without too much difficulty.
My sermons are pretty simple. It takes a little while for congregants to discover this, because I wrap my sermons up in stories about space aliens and biblical midrash and conversations I had on the bus and snippets of song and so on. I do have tricks up my sleeve. I’ve studied worship with the best – to any tendency to self-praise, I like to inwardly respond “well, you should be good at preaching Bob – just think about who taught you!”
I especially like writing prayers. I don’t go for literary excellence, though I will use a hifalutin word here or there – inadvisably, at times. Mostly, though I try to be simple and visceral. “We think of the skinned knees and bruised hearts”, is generally better than “there are many who suffer”; but “there are many who suffer” is fine too, and infinitely better than “it occurs to me that our existence has much ignominy, but this fact can be explained.” There are often two prayers in a Unitarian service – typically I’ll write one, so that I can challenge myself to read the room, and speak one on the spur of the moment later.
When the sermon is printed out, I try to think of a way to make the children’s story come alive, grab some breakfast, bring in the silly props, and drive to chapel. The hour before Sunday service begins is a funny one. I have various little tasks to do – papers to place on the lectern and the pulpit, bobbing about thinking through the hour to come – as people come filtering in. I try to greet the early-comers, who are often the leadership, and have a quick chat to catch up while they’re doing their little jobs and I’m doing mine. People will give me names to mention in the prayer, or special happenings to get in there somewhere, and I’ll scribble them down at the front on a scrap of paper. Sometimes I’ll write a note on my notepad on the lectern, during the service as it occurs to me, like some old-fashioned newsreader.
Fifteen minutes before service begins, I try to be more or less in place at the door, to greet people as they come in. The feel of this critical quarter-hour varies widely. Park Lane is a steady stream of people, a reassuring rush of handshakes and kisses as one by one, couples, families, the little chapel fills up. There are gaps between people, time for me to centre myself. I’m not big for sitting in the vestry, I prefer to pace outside and breathe the fresh air, even if it’s raining. Chester is only a small gathering, and often everyone is there early, as they’ve come from a distance. Even so, I like to stand outside on the stoop, take in the day, and wave at the occasional visitor. Or the passers-by, if they don’t think I’m too mad. In Warrington it’s a tricky one: most attendees show up close to 10:30, when we start, or even a little after. I can live with this, it’s just a funny feeling being twenty minutes from the service and not sure if it will be five people or twenty-five people. I’m not at all despondent at preaching for five – it’s lovely and intimate. But even though the words are the same, the feel of the service is very different, and it helps me to prepare to know what the congregation is going to be like.
However, nothing is really all that predictable about worship. The best worships, and the worst, are when something unexpected happens. At a ceremony around water I just impromptu decided we’d all go outside for the end of the service, and when we did, it occurred to me to ask if anyone had a blessing. A visitor provided the most beautiful words from the heart, as together we poured our collected water over a tree. Another time, a dove flew over our summer solstice, just when I stopped talking, to provide the final word. The children’s story can land with a thud some weeks – and then sometimes there’s just an amazing energy in the room, we’re all transfixed while taking part in a wisdom story about animals.
The singing is the heart of the service, really – and now that we can’t sing for a while, it won’t be anything like the same. At the two smaller congregations, it’s a bit of a challenge to carry the tune, but we do our best. People have been known to have opinions about the type of music they want to hear, and sing, in services. They will share this opinion with me, the pastor. Now, I’m not musically gifted – I do like to write the odd ditty or hymn lyric, but that’s the words, and I can’t really sing, as everybody who has heard me knows. I do have wide and eclectic tastes in music, as in most subjects. I don’t pick the music according to my own personal listening desires, but I’m usually happy enough, whatever we go with. Getting the music just right has been a challenge. I don’t mean merely the challenge of pleasing everybody, which is of course impossible – making the best possible use of music in a service involves a lot of thought and effort. I don’t think I’ve quite cracked it, to be honest. But when it’s the right closing hymn, in a congregation of any size, it’s such a felt blessing, sending us off with a spring in our step. It just sets everyone up for the week, until we meet again.
As the above essay probably suggests, I don’t spend as much time in service preparation as I might do. Certainly not so much as I did in my last job, when I was serving a single, 140-member congregation. There are more other things to do in my week, and strategically, I don’t think it makes sense to spend 20-plus hours prepping worship. I’m not averse to dusting off an old favourite sermon from a decade ago. I’ll often give the same sermon two weeks in a row at two different congregations, varying a few elements here and there, to suit the listeners. I’ve heard of preachers who like to make the service completely fresh each week, even if they’re at a different location; they like the newness of it, the bracing honesty that it’s fresh on their mind and heart. For me, it’s a bit like a musician with a song: if I like it, I want to sing it again, and if I really like it I want to sing it many times – not every time, but as the mood strikes me. I do keep a table of what I’ve preached where, but even so sometimes I can’t shake the feeling of “I’ve given this sermon before”, which is a terrible feeling. I don’t know if I have done that, but I do know some sermon topics closely resembled a topic from a couple years back. I don’t mind this so much: revisiting stuff is part of the life of faith, and as somebody once said, originality is highly overrated.
There is a lot that goes into the performance of a worship. Sunday services are something of an athletic event for me. I pace about, I try to modulate my voice here and there to liven things up; my brain is always whirring. It’s a rush. During the prayer, I try to use my jedi training – sorry, I meant say, my spiritual direction training – to get a sense of the energy in the room, how God is moving, breathe it all in and try and let it have an impact on my words. As the service progresses I mull on thoughts like, “how will Sally take this passage, with all that’s going on with her.” Occasionally this will lead me to switch my words round a bit, or modulate my tone slightly, though I can’t afford to dwell on it.
I do stumble, mumble, stammer. I don’t, ever, mesmerize the congregation for sixty minutes solid. But that’s not how worship works. It’s best experienced as a regular practice. The ones who come week in and week out aren’t bedazzled by me – though of course they probably like me a little bit, if they keep coming – but over the course of years their ears are sculpted so they get more out of worship, than a casual visitor can really imagine. It’s an integral part of our week, part of what makes us human together. The congregants live and breathe worship in their service, the way they live their lives. And even though most of them don’t say a word until the coffee hour, it’s their worship, not mine. I’m just the window dressing. Or the spark in the chalice, if you will – but the candle is the real sustenance.
The benediction I try and come up with while the last hymn is playing; I like it to be from the heart. After that there’s another little bit of music, and I tend to close with “God bless you, we love you, go in peace.” Not because it’s terribly deep, but simple sayings and maybe one of those phrases will hit home when it’s most needed. Sometimes I’ll add “and have some cake” if it’s on offer.
After the service I’m exhausted, but fortunately coffee hour is dead easy. I chat to folks, and accept the compliments, whether genuine or de rigeur. I don’t worry too much which they are. If there’s any constructive criticism, I tell folks to get back to me later in the week – begging your pardon, but I’m not in a good frame to hear about technique, two minutes after I’ve run the marathon. I also tell committee folks and others to email me any church business they want me to follow up on, simply because I won’t remember it. My brain is pretty much incapable of retention on noon on a Sunday: it’s wiped clean. My email serves as my backup brain, not just on Sunday but throughout the week. If it’s in my starred email, there’s a very good chance I’ll attend to it sooner or later, whereas if you bend my ear, it often springs back unaltered.
There are Sundays where I have to buck up and gather my energy for a bit more after the service ends. There may be a committee meeting – though I seldom expend a lot of energy on those; it’s easy enough just to sit there and listen. Or a visitor may have something quite deeply important to get off their chest, and now’s the opportune time for a deeply important conversation. In that case it’s pure adrenaline – and I don’t mind at all, it means a lot to be trusted with someone’s story. I may have a quick hospital visit to make – I don’t think I’ve gone into hospital visits in any detail but there’s not much to tell here, even though these visits include some of the most memorable experiences of my life. I get there, I show up, I wait to see what happens, and how I’m needed. Sometimes, they’re sleeping peacefully and I go home, delighted to have spent a moment with them, and happy they’re doing OK. Sometimes there’s eight people there and we join hands while I mumble a prayer. Other times they’re not especially religious and we share a couple bad jokes and complain about the weather. It’s just showing up, and being myself. Experience and training help a lot with that, but that’s all it really is.
Sunday afternoons are either nap time or, if I can’t quite fall asleep, very near nap time. I’m not up to doing much. Sometimes our family might nip out to a National Trust and walk about. Usually I just eat, sleep, read, and watch telly.
Sunday evenings are usually quiet, once in a while there’s an event on. In particular there’s an LGBT-inclusive monthly communion service I go to sometimes. Nominally I do it to be supportive, and I will give the sermon when it’s my turn: but when I get there, I find it’s one of the times that especially nourishes me. I get to worship in it fully, as it’s not my church and I don’t have to worry about the logistics quite so much, I can just be one of the congregants. It’s not all that often I get to participate in things as a full worshipper; when I do I always think to myself “I should do this more often.”
Going to bed on Sunday, with Monday waiting for me. I don’t dread Mondays – it’s more of a quiet energy day, the beginning of the weekly cycle. But I’ve told you all about that.
So that’s my week, basically. Or the professional ministry bits of my week: I’ve left out the joys and challenges of parenthood, or married life; I didn’t include games night or my somewhat-less-than-impressive exercise regimen. You got some of my expansive love for food, but I could’ve written a whole lot more. This is already a longer essay than the world probably needs. I think I might get a kick out of it, reading it again in ten years.
There is one major part of ministry that is not included in this essay. It is the very most important part of ministry, along with the faith journey (which also is not covered here in any depth). And that is the people. Of course, I’d never intentionally share anything confidential about individuals. More than this, there are so many people that are so dear to me, and I wouldn’t want to leave anyone out. If I tried to write about each person and speak to what makes them so lovely, even briefly, this would be not an essay, but a book. So I’ve kept it general, and left the best bit out. But it is to the people, who I am privileged to serve, who have taught me how to be a better person and brought some glory to each and every day, that I dedicate this little essay. Thank you.
We have been given only a little life, but so much love:
let us use that love to love kindess, to seek justice,
and to travel humbly in the great spirit.