Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Coping Without Prayer

I am not a modern day gnostic, nor am I over-pietistic in my attitude to daily life or ministry in the Church. Indeed, former colleagues and curates will tell you that I have always been an enthusiast for up to date technology, and even for utilizing the tools of management science in reflecting on structures and ministry methods. BUT the toughest battles I have fought in the Church are not the ones for which I am best known. They are the battles I have had behind the scenes – usually on behalf of others – with the kind of leaders (including bishops, archdeacons and registrars) who seem to have reduced “ministry” to “management”, and who, while claiming to use management science to enhance creative ministry, actually use it to crush the spirits of those who perceive things in a truly Christian way.

I know that might sound unfair, because careful management of resources and people is important. But the paradox of the modern church (and it is increasingly true of ALL western traditions) is that theoretically the aim is to increase “participation” in decision-making and establishing new directions, while in practice management science is used ruthlessly to bolster authority, eliminate alternative voices, and manipulate so-called “discernment” processes in a completely self-serving way.

For the sake of the Gospel and authentic ministry, it is urgent that the Church question this development at every level of her life.

With this in mind, I share with you today a brilliant reading from the book “Watchers in the Morning”, written by the Rt Rev’d Graeme Rutherford, retired Assistant Bishop of Newcastle (Australia), and Benedictine oblate. How refreshing it is to read such a balanced outline of one of our key problems!


In our post-modern world such a disciplined approach to prayer has been abandoned by many people.

Although there has been a resurgence of interest in meditation it is seen more as a means of relaxation than as a way of giving honour and praise to God. It is often a self-centred rather than a God-centred exercise. For others, prayer and meditation are seen as providing a sense of oneness or union in a world where estrangement is rife: estrangement from God, from others, from self. That is why managers and psychologists are so admired: they are controllers. Managers control the external world, and psychologists control the internal world. Both can be used to imply that the chaos of modernity might yet be controlled.

Church growth experts are increasingly inclined to tell us that the most fruitful sources from which to draw for Christian ministry are popularised versions of psychology and business management. Clergy are being told that 'vision' consists in clearly articulated 'ministry goals'. Their professional status is no longer a matter of character or theological skill in relating the Bible to the contemporary world but of interpersonal skills, administrative talents, and ability to organise the community.

Ever so subtly, clergy and key lay people can start to think that success more critically depends on plans, programmes and vision statements. What has been termed 'bottom up' causation of human designs takes the place of the 'top down' causation of God and the supernatural. Church growth becomes simply a form of streamlined humanistic engineering.

The issue is not either God or the tools of modernity such as management and marketing. It is, rather, which in practice is the decisive authority. Only when first things are truly first, over even the best and most attractive of second things will the Church be free to experience the growth that matters.

If clergy are appraised according to the active, visible functions they perform there will be a mounting pressure to neglect the anonymous, quiet, hidden and confidential dimensions that are such a very important part of ministry. But the confidential aspects of ministry do not easily lend themselves to the typical performance appraisal. The danger is that clergy will be tempted to become managers and professionals rather than pastors, thinkers, theologians or people of prayer. Os Guinness quotes the tell-tale comment of a Japanese businessman to a visiting Australian: “Whenever I meet a Buddhist leader, I meet a holy man. Whenever I meet a Christian leader, I meet a manager."

The sheer existence of contemplative religious communities stands as a challenge to the Church to ensure that the deep, quiet, hidden side of the ministry is not relegated to the periphery.

Properly understood, management skills and psychological insights represent purposeful direction and depth of caring in pastoral work.

Both should be regarded as God-given fields of knowledge. Both enable us to help people who live in a society permeated with change and complexity unknown in the days of Jesus and Paul. Both can and should be used in the Church with thanksgiving. They are indispensable allies in the understanding of life. But they are no substitute for prayer. Prayer, whether liturgical or spontaneous, must be central to the life of the Church and the individual believer.


Post a Comment