Wednesday, 30 October 2013

Out of balance? On the theology and practice of farting around

Something has gone a bit out of whack. In my job.

I love my job, and most of what I find myself doing from day to day I find pretty life-giving and fulfilling. In my more optimistic moments, I hang onto the hope that at least some of what I do might make a bit of positive difference to the little bits of world that I come into contact with. But I've been thinking more and more recently (the imminent approach of the annual 'ministerial development review' has helped this reflection) that the balance has gone a bit wonky.

I've been vicar in Hodge Hill for a little over 3 years now. Having learnt something from how I began previous jobs, and the wisdom of others (particularly a little but incisively insightful book by Stephen Cottrell, now Bishop of Chelmsford), I was determined to try not to 'hit the ground running' but to 'hit the ground kneeling' (as the title of Bishop Stephen's book puts it). And I certainly tried. In a really valuable transition period between jobs, I spent a good deal of time visiting key congregation members, listening to them tell their stories, and hearing them share their hopes and dreams for the future. And in the first year of the post here, we spent a lot of time as a congregation reflecting on our strengths and weaknesses, the opportunities and threats ahead of us, and on our sense of purpose, vision and values as 'church' in Hodge Hill. Out of this emerged our vision statement - 'Growing Loving Community, in the love of God, with all our neighbours, across Hodge Hill' - and our 5 core values of compassion, generosity, trust, friendship and hope. Much more than attractive words on paper, these have really shaped our life together, and have turned out to be fertile common ground for shared activity with many of our friends, neighbours and travelling companions both locally and beyond.

In that first year too, a team of us from church went on a journey called 'Know Your Church - Know Your Neighbourhood', which led us to visit many local places and institutions, and listen to people in those places share their own hopes and dreams, their challenges and frustrations, their passions and stories - in ways that were inspiring and moving, which were shot through with the compassion, generosity, trust, friendship and hope which we had identified as signs of God at work, and which offered all kinds of invitations to journey together, and work together, for the good of our neighbourhoods.

But of course the listening and reflecting inevitably, necessarily, turns into action. We have started doing stuff. All kinds of interesting, exciting, hopefully good and worthwhile stuff. A brilliant 'unsung heroes' celebration. A 'play cafe' for under 5s and their carers. A twice-weekly drop-in which offers a warm welcome and a cuppa, and also the chance to help people connect to the Internet, search for jobs, and connect with their neighbours through TimeBanking and volunteering. A weekly, bring and share community lunch. A community choir. Outdoor 'cuppa' sessions at school gates and bus stops to strike up conversations, turn strangers into friends, and connect people, activities and groups together. A women's group bringing together a dozen different nationalities. A bike-focused social enterprise. A community passion play. And much more through our involvement, in all kinds of different ways, with other local groups and partnerships...

When people have asked me more recently how it's going, my reply has been something along the lines of "it's all really exciting, but there's just a bit too much of it". That's a reflection on my involvement and entanglements, rather than on the neighbourhood as a whole - of course it's fabulous that things are taking off and flourishing locally, and as more and more people get involved, the energy just grows. There's a real energy and vitality amongst the church congregation too, and while we don't, thankfully, seem to be a church where just a small group of people do everything, I do find myself keeping a careful eye that people aren't overcommitting and risking burnout. But looking in the mirror, as one individual human being within church and neighbourhood, somewhere along the line I find my own diary has become full to overflowing with stuff: activities, events, and... yes, lots of meetings.

It's the meetings that are particularly challenging. Not that any of them are unimportant. Few of them are even particularly tedious. Many are vital places where strategic planning and decision-making happen. They're also, at the risk of stating the obvious, places where people meet, where relationships can develop, connections can be made, visions deepened and enlarged. But it is sometimes in the meetings, particularly, that I find myself wondering, "should I really be here?".

I'm reminded of a conversation some time ago with the Australian Christian community activist Dave Andrews, who drew our attention to the Yiddish distinction between 'maching' and 'schmoozing' - the former being the time we spend together in task-focused, strategic mode, that most 'meetings' are made of; the latter that more relaxed, unfocused time where friendships are mostly made and deepened, and where new possibilities and ideas and connections have the time and space to emerge, unforced and unexpected. I have an increasingly concerning sense that I'm spending much more of my time 'maching' than 'schmoozing' - a sure indicator is a sense of hurriedness between meetings, turning up at the last minute and leaving the moment it has finished, so that even the time that 'meetings' offer for 'schmoozing' is missed.

We decided, recently, in Hodge Hill that we would not, at least at this point in time, become a member of Citizens UK in Birmingham, part of the worldwide broad-based community organizing movement. Some of that was about our capacity, some of it was a deeper unease about something that felt like it was being just a little bit too rushed. But there is much in the methods of Community Organizing that is nevertheless valuable, not least in its emphasis on regular 'one-to-one' conversations that seek to listen carefully, and reach into the depths of people's passions and energies.

One of our guiding principles in Hodge Hill has been what I've called 'overacceptance': the willingness to say 'Yes' to other people's invitations and offers and to seek creatively to join in making something more of those invitations and offers. In many ways it's the opposite of the 'initiatives' that are the constant temptation of churches and community organisations - it's not about 'taking the initiative' ourselves, but about responding receptively to others. It demands much more humility and patience. But it can still, I'm reflecting here, end up in a busyness and a superabundance of 'meetings' that looks very similar to the cumulative effect of endless 'initiatives'.

I'm reminded, again, of some hard-won wisdom from radical democrat, Romand Coles. Although Coles describes himself as 'not a member of any church', he is fascinated with what resources the Christian tradition potentially offers to the venture of developing grassroots, community-based, radical democracy. He engages with in particular with Mennonite theologians John Howard Yoder and Stanley Hauerwas, and Sam Wells, an Anglican priest influenced strongly by Hauerwas. Wells in particular develops the themes of improvisation and 'overacceptance' that I've drawn on heavily. While Coles finds much to value in the 'creative receptivity' of 'overacceptance', he also identifies the temptation to a certain hurriedness, in what he calls ‘the theatrical / dramatic imperative to “keep the story going”’. Alongside such creative receptivity, he argues, we need to hold onto that vital ‘ethical capacity’ of ‘[n]ot knowing what to say and knowing one does not know – perhaps for a very long time’. Beyond the choice of either ‘blocking' (saying No) or 'overaccepting’ (the creative 'Yes, and...'), Coles suggests there lies ‘a host of other crucial capacities’ including ‘radical patience, stillness, “acting out of the deepest silence,” sitting around on front porches with no plan of action and resisting imperatives for quick improvisations,’ ‘asking the other(s) questions,’ and ‘allow[ing] ourselves to be called into question in ways that perturb our energies’ and temptations to remain in control. We discover, says Coles, ‘long pausing as frequently the most profound ethical art in difficult situations. We cultivate arts of pregnant waiting.’

I find Coles' suggestive insights - from his own deeply lived experience of community organising - profoundly helpful and challenging. They form the beginning, for me, of a theology and practice of the value of 'farting around'. Or, to use slightly more theological language, of the value of 'being present' as much as, if not more than, 'being active' in community. There's a pragmatic argument for it - that it's necessary, that it works - which I suspect is why community organising places so much value on its 'one-to-ones'. But there's also a 'spiritual' argument for it, which perhaps comes closer to my current sense of unease and imbalance.

I struggle to say No to 'meetings', or to pull out of roles which demand a lot of them. A lot of my struggle comes out of an anxiety about not wanting to let people down, or not wanting to be seen as 'retreating' from or devaluing things that are important. I suspect there's a bit of a dose of imagined indispensability too, which is particularly dangerous, and often not half as true as I - or my co-workers - imagine it to be. I struggle too because, as I said earlier, the 'meetings' are also often a great opportunity for the 'schmoozing' as well as the 'maching' - and can, at their best, be places of great creativity and deep insight.

One of the core questions for me has become, "what is my distinctive contribution to this piece of work / group / meeting?" If the answer to that question comes anywhere near 'nothing', or indeed 'everything', then that is the time for me to be deeply concerned, and to do something serious about it. I'm sure it's not just vicars who fall into the trap of imagining we are omnicompetent, or have to be everywhere, but I know we are particularly bad at it. 

I spend much more of my time in and around my neighbourhood than I do in church and doing 'churchy' stuff. Rarely do I regret that aspect of my 'life balance'. But I am increasingly aware that part of my vocation as a priest, as well as community builder / connector / development worker (although I am something of that as well), is to cultivate Coles' 'art of pregnant waiting', that 'radical patience, stillness' that allows those deeper connections, harder questions, less obvious possibilities, to surface. There is something deeply spiritual about this role, if not remotely exclusively Christian or priestly. I think I am able to write and talk about it with more ease and naturalness than I am, as yet, able to practise it. But I know it's important, vital even - and it might just be the one thing that I really need to do...


  1. I'm always challenged by Henri Nouwen's approach to 'leadership/priesthood' - he cites the temptation to relevance.....pondering this can be disturbing. I thought it might be pertinent. Excellent post.

  2. Cracking reflection Al. ' the willingness to say 'Yes' to other people's invitations and offers and to seek creatively to join in making something more of those invitations' Vicar and I were discussing this very thing only very recently.

  3. Al, this asset-based approach is very interesting stuff, and it's great that you share it. I work in social care more than community development, and I'm really hoping that much of what the ABCD community is discovering has a place in social care too.

    It could be said that a traditional parish priest role has a kind of 'social care' aspect to it, visiting the sick and isolated, especially those with long links to the church. How do you regard that part of a priest's role, in the light of what you've learnt from ABCD?

    Are you aware, from your own direct practice, or perhaps elsewhere, of asset-based approaches to social care? Or do you feel it is an essentially geographical approach?

    They sound a bit like interview questions! They're just what I'm wondering about at the moment - any thoughts grateful received.

    - Simon Foster