I may not be the sharpest pin in the box, or maybe I was sitting behind the door when the instructions were handed out but, in any case, I seemed to have missed a thing or two in divinity school. My professors taught me to read ancient languages, decipher complicated texts, actively listen, and use Robert’s Frickin’ Rules of Order, but nobody ever mentioned the following:
1. You will be an interloper on holy ground. Whether it is the moment you hand someone the Eucharistic host, or whether you are the silent third party witnessing a tearful couple finding new life in their relationship after years of pain, or whether you are hearing someone confess for the first time to a crime they committed long ago, these and a hundred other situations will regularly place you on someone else’s holy ground. Like Moses before the burning bush, it is best to tread as lightly as you can.
2. The bully wins. Not always, but almost. You know the one in your church with the super-sized ego? The one who believes the church would fall apart without them, and everyone else wishes they would give it a try? (Tip: they were probably somewhere in the picture when you interviewed for the job, but you didn’t realize it then.) They are variously known as gate-keepers, king-makers and by other – less friendly – terms. Well, if you decide to be a hero and rescue your people from the tyrant’s oppression, don’t be surprised if, when the crucial moment comes, you’re the only one marching to the fight. The reason is simple: everyone knows that if you try and fail and end up leaving, they still have the bully to deal with; he or she is still their next-door neighbour and a member of the church council. You, on the other hand, are dispensable. Instead of the hero you will merely be the latest in a long line of scapegoats: the sins of the community will be heaped on your back and you’ll be sent packing. A useful ministry too, but maybe not the one you envisaged.
3. You will have countless opportunities to abuse your position. Sadly, this has been proven many times over in church history. Cases of clergy abuse are often in the media these days and have been the focus of heightened efforts of prevention by church leadership. But the fact remains: your position is one founded on trust and if there are weaknesses in your character or flaws in your integrity, these will have ample room to manifest themselves. You don’t mind having a little bit of extra lunch money in your pocket from time to time? Presto: people will push envelopes of cash into your hand, in complete confidence that you will see it to its destination, and with remarkably little interest in verifying that you did. You have slightly too much interest in the blooming bodies of adolescent youth? No worries; they trust you, their parents trust you and you will find ways to indulge your interest. I could go on , but you get the point. Please, if you know deep down that you can’t be trusted, go find another career where you’ll do less damage.
4. Every object has hidden significance. Your job is all about opaque signs and symbols, so you should be used to this concept. You aren’t; not by half. In churches the meaning behind the thing always works out exponentially. When you walk into your church facility for the first time it might be helpful to imagine that you are a character in a video game walking into a room full of treasures. Every single item in the room that you touch, no matter how insignificant, will cost you points, but the value seems to be assigned arbitrarily. Those old hymnals at the back that have not been used in at least a decade? A thousand points; very costly. The set of quality biblical commentaries someone left in the church library? Oh, we don’t care, do with those what you will. The 1950’s era, badly framed snapshot of the children’s choir hanging in completely the wrong place? Don’t even think about it. That little photo carries more weight than the bearing wall on which it hangs; remove it, and the whole place will collapse….
5. The best two days will be your first one and your last one. On your first day you will still be living in the fanciful world of the parish profile and your new congregation will still earnestly believe that you are the sum of your CV. On your last day you will all know the truth, and the truth will set you free, and the people whose lives you’ve touched but never said a word will finally come forward and have their say, and there will be tears and there will be laughter, and pain and satisfaction, and bitterness and thanksgiving, and it will all be right.
6. There are, actually, some Christian people in the church. Not everyone, not by a long shot. And by Christian I don’t mean the baptized, though I suppose they win on a technicality. And I don’t mean those people with impeccable manners who always behave in such a civilized way. Nor even those with an active faith who give you books “you should read” and pat your hand knowingly and tell you they are praying for you. And heavens no, I don’t mean the ones who listen to those awful Christian radio stations and are always going on about how the church should be doing more evangelism and becoming more contemporary. I mean the handful who have taken Jesus at his word. Who make the time to care for the materially and emotionally poor. Who give of their means, generously and quietly. Who are glacier-like slow to judge the intentions of others. Who somehow find it in their hearts to love even their detractors. Who serve without pretense or false humility. Who come to the aid of the marginalized. These are the people who get it, and who, in so many ways, will enrich your life immeasurably.