Burning Out

A great many clergy colleagues in the US are linking to the NY Times op-ed piece on why clergy are burning out. I’m partly sympathetic to the case Jeffrey MacDonald makes; he alleges that congregations want their clergy to be entertainers and cheerleaders more than genuine pastors (it is greatly to MacDonald’s credit that he doesn’t claim the much-abused designation of “prophet”).
Yes, sort of, but an array of linked problems and influences have wrought the present discontent. I’ll oversimplify in identifying these — it’s time for me to cook dinner — but I’ll make the effort anyway.
First, the resistance to “clericalism” in the States effected several related baneful reactions. Once it became conventional wisdom that clergy were not vaguely superhuman angelic beings who deserve special treatment by virtue of their sanctity, many people hopped directly to an opposite point of view: that anybody whatsoever should have an equal say on any ecclesiastical topic, regardless of the depth of their familiarity with the nuances of theological or ecclesiastical knowledge. While it’s OK to laud a specialist or scholar who advocates your point of view, woe to the clergy leader, or scholar, or well-trained layperson from some other side. Any unwelcome appeal to depth may be denounced as authoritarian; any unwelcome appeal to authority may be denounced as tyrannical.
Likewise, clergy who knew that the old “yes, Father” model was corrupt rushed to assert their ordinariness. There’s nothing special about ordination, they assure people; we’re just one of the gang. This both denies the basis for a theology of calling and trivialises the training that the seminarian/divinity student-cum-minister has just devoted a great deal of time and money to pursuing. Both these reasons tend to undermine the standing of the minister relative to the congregation. If she’s just one of the gang, and the rest of the gang wants levity and feel-good nostrums, then who is she to oppose us? If his training doesn’t equip him distinctively to lead the church’s deliberations, why listen to him at all?
And since the familiar basis for clerical leadership was crumbling, ministers sought other warrants to shore up the basis for their congregational role. They were uniquely prepared to be leaders, or they were better at small office management, or they were more spiritual, or they were more welcoming (or personally attractive). All of these can certainly be good characteristics for a clergy leader — no question about it. But they don’t speak to the role of the ordained minister in the congregation. Any congregation might have a couple dozen business or civic leaders, managers, prayerfully meditative faithful, or congenial hosts, or magnetic personalities. It’s good if the clergyperson brings those qualities to their vocation, but they don’t constitute the vocation.
Add to that the power of consumer ideology (which MacDonald does mention), the idolatrous veneration of success, and a general cultural mistrust of the veracity of anything theological, and the stage is set for clergy to enter an ill-defined role with no institutional backing subject to capricious demands from decreasingly well-informed congregations (since clergy who partook of trivialised education are less well-prepared and very much less inclined to imagine that knowing something about the faith in any way contributes to the well-being of the church) — and now you really do have a recipe for failure. But it’s not the clergy’s failure alone; it’s the systemic failure of a malnourished, obdurate patient who refuses to acknowledge the value of cutting down on junk food, quitting addictions, getting regular exercise, and learning to understand the how the whole body, joined and knit together by every ligament with which it is equipped, as each part is working properly, promotes the body’s growth. And as the churches manifest less and less interest in respecting excellence in leadership, leaders with a commitment to ecclesiastical excellence will be rarer. And as churches treat their leaders as less and less special people (not “special” because of a mystified clericalism, but special because they’re well-prepared, hard-working servants at an exhausting, demanding, under-rewarded job), the expectation that clergy will nonetheless charm, impress, guide, and delight their congregations will take an ever-increasing toll on those who venture into ministry.
The churches need excellence in ministry — but without any shared, clear idea of what that is, or how it develops from the shared practices and identity of centuries of predecessors, both clergy and congregations risk flopping from one guess to another, one casual preference or faddish enthusiasm to another; and few congregations or clergy will attain excellence apart from by sheer luck or providential blessing. The taproot of excellence — serious, perhaps even arduous preparation and understanding, such that a certain degree of authority is earned and acknowledged — has been hacked away. The medicine tastes bad, so the patient would rather just dwindle and wheeze and watch TV.


(Please note — I’m not saying this describes every congregation, leader, minister, congregant, congregation, denomination, or whatever. There are situations in which deep-rooted theological, ecclesiastical wisdom governs bodies of the faithful. But I doubt the NY Times was describing those situations, either.)


Facial Recognition

Margaret assigned me to watch Julie & Julia (which I did, and enjoyed), but I’ve been frustrated by the appearance of Julie’s boss at the LMDB. I thought I recognised him as Chris Parnell; not only does he look like Parnell, but at times he tilts his head in a characteristically Parnellian way. But the IMDB full cast listing doesn’t mention Parnell anywhere, and I can’t figure out what the boss’s character’s name is (though so far, none of the male parts looks the way that actor did).
OK, Web, thank you: the actor is Brooks Ashmanskas (photo), and the name of the boss is “Mr. Misher.” I’ll be able to sleep tonight.

Thank You Armando Iannucci

This morning’s news on the BBC has emphasised a new proposal from the Health Minister that the government end its program offering free milk to under-fives at nursery. It has, that is, until just this moment when the breaking news bulletin advises that “the plan to scrap free milk for under-fives has been abandoned” (nothing to link to, yet; I’ll put a link in as soon as it hits the Net).
It is greatly to the credit of Armando Iannucci that we can now visualise this conflagration almost exactly, complete with bumbling ministers, dithering aides, and profanity-shouting press officers.

Wave Goodbye

As the Net reverberates with commentary on the demise of Google Wave (not without a soupçon of schadenfreude), it occurs to me that Google might have done better with Wave if it had presented it as a narrow-focus tool for group authoring/editing — and then allowed us users to discover, much to our delight, that it could also be used for a zillion other things! Wowie!
By hyping Wave as a technology that would enable not only group editing, but also hypermedia, plug-ins, social networking, a replacement for email, carpet cleaner, and cures tooth decay! they left users at a loss to figure out what actually to do with Wave, and with whom to do it.

Social Web

It used to be conventional wisdom that people who spend a lot of time online would have no social lives, would turn into pallid, inert root vegetables who are annihilated by sunlight and abhor garli… oh, wait a minute, that’s vampires. But you remember — “Will little Rigoberto ever have a rich human relationship if he likes chatting online?” Back then, when Blogaria was less a megalopolis and more a big city with smallish, friendly neighbourhoods, we actually used to get together relatively often (given the distances and expenses involved) and revel in one another’s company. We would always take pictures, then, partly to remember each other by, partly to share with colleaguse who couldn’t make it, and partly (I suspect) as a visible rebuttal to the convulsive panic that we were all asocial agoraphobic misanthropes.
Yesterday, Maggi came out to Glasgow and we had a delightful lunch together. I don’t remember when we first crossed paths online; it was probably way back when the search terms “Anglican” and “emergent” would have been a lot closer to a Googlewhack (and remember Googlewhacks?) than it is now. But we’ve traded comments and tweets and links on and off over the years, and recently she kindly sent me a copy of her recent book The Writing on the Wall, an introductory overview of the plot of the Bible and its entanglement in popular and high culture (I’ve suggested that we consider it as reading for the coming year’s Level One course in biblical studies), and she has said kind things about my Faithful Interpretation. So that’s all good.
We enjoyed vegetarian lunch entrees from Brel (she hadn’t seen Ashton Lane before), talked over hermeneutics, Coleridge, the joys and pains of writing (she’s working on what should be a wonderful manuscript about “pilgrimage”), ecclesiastical partisanship, “emergence,” early church history, jobs, and any number of other topics. And — and you will remember that this is how I started the post — there was no urgent need to have a picture. I think we’ve all put paid to the dread that digital = unreal and antisocial, thank heaven.

Much To Do

Back at work this morning, clearing email, parsing verbs, glossing Greek, and generally slogging ahead in writing the James commentary. At midday I’ll connect with Maggi Dawn (who’s visiting Glasgow), then perhaps some errands and back home.
It occurred to me this morning that one reason I’m disliking the process of writing this commentary is that I’d much rather encourage people to read the epistle, and then talk and argue about what to make of it. I’ve said before that I dislike the genre of the commentary, and I find I’m disliking the writing of it.
I need to figure out a genre of academic writing in biblical studies (as opposed to hermeneutics, critical theory, or theology) that I do like — but not until after I clear a few more book-length debts.


Is there an episode in which Jim Taggart actually says,“There’s been a murrderr?” or is it like “Play it again, Sam”?

Koff, Koff

I’m taking a sick day today, hoping that if I simply roll around the flat lazily, drink a lot of fluids, maybe a clear-the-lungs shower toward midday, read suspense fiction, watch movies, and so on, that the mild cold that I’ve been ignoring for the past few days (save for an unwelcome encounter with Lemsip on Monday) will give up and retreat. Productivity? Who needs it!
One activity that befits semi-conscious laziness is location-tagging photos in Flickr. It’s a repetitive, low-demand, restful pursuit, and it gets things done that I would be embarrassed to spend time on when I was more available for vigorous activity. That means I’m spending a lot of time with the new Flickr interface. I see the rationale for combining various things-to-do-with-this-image under two tabs, and a larger main image is always welcome. They’ve made a big misstep, though, with the “light table” feature. First, the interface uses a magnifying glass icon to represent the action “go to the light table” — because after all, when you use a magnifying glass, don’t you usually use it for guiding you to a light table? Then, once you get to the light table, if you really want to see a larger version of the image you’re examining, you have to click the “See all sizes” option which — /eyeroll — takes you out of light table mode, to the familiar range-of-sizes Flickr page. If it were up to me, I’d have separate paths to “light table” (using which you can’t resize the image at all) and “magnify/reduce.” But maybe that’s just me.
The location search option looks as though it could be very cool eventually, although for now it seems only vaguely useful. MAny of the photos aren’t particularly nearby the tagged location, and although I haven’t spent more than fifteen minutes on it, I haven’t hit on the way actually to get at the photos whose pink circles appear on the map. The satellite photos and the map don’t align perfectly, so some locations may seem off-target if the location is fixed with one of them. And off-road sites that are located under foliage — Partickhill Lane, for example, or the pathway from University Avenue to The Square — can be very difficult to find.
And I am led to ponder the semantics of location tags. Sometimes, for instance, one has taken a photo of a specific object (this morning, I was tagging photos I took of the stained glass from St Mary’s); then one can be expected to point the tag at the location of the photo’s subject. If there’s no single dominant subject for the photo, though, I reasoned it more appropriate to tag the photo with the location from which I took the photo.
But at least Flickr doesn’t introduce capricious interface changes that make the user experience more complicated and frustrating (I’m looking at you, Facebook). And for those who appreciated the xkcd comic about university websites to which I linked earlier this week, Inside Higher Education has picked up the story. They explain why university sites end up the (attractively packaged) dog’s breakfasts that they usually are, such that there’s little reason to hope for improvement in the near future. Oh, by the way, the University of Glasgow is rolling out its new website (important pages first).
Anyway, time for me to go lie down for to nap read.

Conflicting Tasks

The social functions of higher education — primarily, accreditation/qualification (on one hand) and instruction/formation (on the other) — balance precariously, if at all. When one begins thinking of universities principally as a system for accrediting qualification, an interest in genuine learning and formation tends to fall by the wayside: “You need to know this and only this, and then you’re qualified.” But if universities exist primarily to warrant qualification, why do they entail so many required preliminary tasks? Why can’t I (for instance) obtain instantly a bachelor’s degree in theology? I’m not less qualified for it than is one a typical undergraduate. There must be more to university higher education than just attesting that a particular person has accomplished the necessary steps for qualifying as a “graduate” relative to a particular program.
This comes to mind because, in straitened times, some politicians and even academics begin looking for ways to pare away “unnecessary” elements of higher education (this comes up often in arguments about distance education). I agree that it needn’t be the case that every university foster the kind of intellectual odysseys that require a certain kind of cognitive tracklessness; I’m not suggesting that every institution ought to be modelled on an Oxbridgean ideal, or that an intense program in engineering (for instance) wasn’t truly a baccalaureate degree but only a (make sneering tone) “technical” degree. But I do think it’s worth distinguishing different flavours and approaches, and perhaps even to distinguish different sorts of degree, in order more honestly to communicate what a degree is asserting about a graduate.

On Giving Up

I see that many — including many clergy leaders — are impressed with Anne Rice’s decision that Christianity doesn’t meet her standards, so she’s moving out. There’s much to be said about this, but if I criticise her decision, I lend credence to her picture of Christians as quarrelsome, judgmental, exclusive types. I cannot think of a coherent way to applaud her, and I admit that I’m mystified that anyone with more-than-rudimentary instruction in the faith would find her proclamation anything but a sad commentary on the state of the church’s ministry of making itself understood.
First, and most obviously, Ms Rice is describing only some Christians when she categorises Christians as “anti-gay, anti-feminist, anti-artificial birth control, anti-Democrat, anti-secular humanism, anti-science, anti-life” and she knows it. I am at a loss to devise a charitable explanation for someone self-consciously misrepresenting people in order to justify their own supposedly antithetical (but only to the very limited extent to which the misrepresentation itself is true) position. It’s a nasty rhetorical stunt at best, and I decline to think worse of people than they oblige me to.
Second, although she knows there are in fact large communities of Christians who don’t fit her characterisation, she separates herself from the whole movement. She could have sought refuge in an expression of Christianity that didn’t fit her caricature — but she didn’t want to. Now, what I’m about to say depends on a distinction that many people don’t like, but not liking it doesn’t make it go away: this mind of gesture illustrates the precise hollowness of a particular kind of cultural identity, whereby the equality of each person before the law, and the equality of all souls before God, is quite fallaciously trotted out as an argument that no one could possibly understand more about theological truth than anybody else. Anne Rice’s trumpeted departure depends on people not asking just how deeply she understands what she’s talking about. If her understanding of Christianity is all about each separate individual making a separate peace with God, she’s got a complicated job of justifying that theology.
And third — well, I’ll put it this way: I don’t understand how anyone with Anne Rice’s presumably deep faith in Jesus comes to the point of making her own self the spotlit centrepiece of resistance to what she calls Christianity. I could see it if she stopped attending church, sorrowfully, and no longer made a best-selling big deal out of her somewhat idiosyncratic heterodoxy; if she redoubled her charitable efforts, and perhaps quietly sought conversation from church leaders in order to make sense of the discrepancy between what she thinks about Jesus and what some church leaders say. I don’t understand why she needs to call attention to herself in making this act of deep renunciation.
A great many Christians invest way too much in “Which celebrities call themselves Christians?”, a risky marketplace with at least as many downs as ups, and which is utterly irrelevant to the proclamation of the gospel. It would be imprecise to say I don’t care what Anne Rice thinks; I do, and it saddens me (for her sake) that she willingly gives the impression of such spiritual superficiality. But the take-away from this promotional event should be that churches that don’t fit the image she paints of “Christians” don’t do an adequate job of making that difference visible and intelligible; and that churches that do fit her picture of “Christians” don’t do an adequate job of making clear the reasons that they advocate causes she finds repulsive (their cases are clear to people-who-already-think-as-they-do, but that’s not the same thing); and that I feel even less obligation ever to read anything by this novelist. I’m giving up fiction, in the name of Flannery O’Connor.