Friday, July 16, 2010

Ministry Blues: How much can one person possibly do?

A little down tonight. Kind of a rough day at work. I found that I am even further behind than I had believed... discovered an uncompleted large project, got several additional projects that seemed, like rabbits, to take on a life of their own, reproduce and generate even more tasks, got a few things done, had a bit of a venting fest with someone I work with, got out of the building long after everyone else was gone... well, it wasn't exactly a great day.

OK, Ms. Perfectionist here doesn't like discovering I have missed something. The unfinished project should have been completed last summer... but I am trying to be charitable with myself, realizing that last year at this time, I was pretty much non-functional, in the early throes of grief at losing the person dearest to me - and that the additional responsibilities for our diocesan Year of the Eucharist have tied me up for months.  However, it goes beyond that, to the question  - in this time of shrinking ministry resources and reductions of staffs on all levels of the Church, how much can we be expected to do?  Do we drop our daily standards or do we try to uphold them until WE drop?

I have a picture in my office that my friend Jim had given to me - of the Cat in the Hat juggling an umbrella, fishbowl and several other objects while balancing on a beach ball...  and many days I feel that really is what I must look like. Paste that smile on my face, act like I am having fun, when unlike the Cat, I am really just trying to make it through without falling off the ball or dropping anything. (Well, anything important, maybe!)

I remember parish ministry - it really was no different. In my last position, as director of religious education and directory of liturgy, I pretty regularly put in 60-80 hour weeks. I simply did not have a life. I hear the same story from most other parish ministers.  It always, for me, was that there were tasks to be done, and it was a priority to get them done - and there often was no one else to do it. If I had a nickel for every night after RE or an adult faith formation session that I was the last one in the building, cleaning up and locking up, I'd have my retirement savings in good order! 

With the much-touted "bad economy," our office has, over the past couple of years, watched parishes let full-time, qualified people either retire or ask them to leave, and replace them with part-timers who do not need benefits, or simply eliminate the position.  For those left to do the work, it becomes doubly hard - parishes are relying on them to do more, with less. Everywhere we gather with other diocesan leaders, it is the same as our situation. Once we were a very large office. Now, there are two of us in ministry and two support staff people. Certainly, we are able to do less. Yet many tasks do not disappear just because we cannot do them - and these stack up and the guilt is allowed to gnaw away at us.

Scripture (and the familiar old song) point out "the harvest is plenty, laborers are few". And how!  But lately, even the plentiful harvest seems to elude us, as Mass attendance and parish involvement continue to decline. One disturbing trend, directly attributable to the drop in parish and diocesan income/stewardship is for business managers to take the lead in decision-making that affects ministry, without really having any solid knowledge of what ministry entails. Instead of boldly going forward, trusting God will provide, ministry personnel are cut, hours are cut, or much-needed resources are reduced.

This happened a while back at my own parish - and now, in a parish that is actually growing because of the increasing population of Hispanic immigrants (but whose income is not keeping pace), we are asking, even though the diocesan finance office has affirmed our cuts as being instrumental in creating financial solvency - are we shooting ourselves in the foot by cutting back on ministry services?

Where are these trends going? How many people will be burn out on the way back to sanity - or will we even head back there at all.? Or, was it really ever sane? Is the answer just to trust and plan great things and do as many of them as we can? Not sure. I do know that a lot of God's people are very tired - and tonight I am one of them!


  1. I always remember something Bishop Imesch said to me when I first came to serve in the diocese, 18 years ago now. "Work your eight hour day, do what you can do, and leave the rest to the Holy Spirit. What gets done, gets done; what doesn't, wasn't yours to do in the first place." Now, of course, there are those days longer than eight hours, but his words bring a certain liberation in the midst of the labor, a lifting of the burden of it all.

  2. Nice in theory, Tom, but I have a hard time accepting that the Holy Spirit wants parts of the Church to go unserved or people to feel not valued or that the Church just does not care. The kind of things I am getting behind on are some basic tasks that affect people directly - not the frill tasks that we maybe could let go of. We are already cutting back on most of those! And my parish, by cutting staff back to 32 hours a week has created, in a growing parish, a dynamic where the welcome mat is no longer out on a day people would neaturally expect to interact with them.