It has been 21 years now since I started in pastoral ministry. I know that because my eldest son has just turned 21, and he was born the same week I started work in my first church, got ordained and received the keys to our new home.
In fact I had worked as a student pastor and preached regularly for a few years before that, so I was not completely naïve about the challenges of church ministry. One of the things I had already decided, having observed the amount of ministers who seemed close to burnout, was that I was going to do this ministry thing differently. I vowed to myself that I was going to be more professional about things, and not allow my emotions to be at the mercy of the church in the way that so many of my mentors seemed to be guilty of. Professionalism, I decided, would require me to create more emotional space between me and the church, as well as compel me to make my emotions the servant of reason.
Years on, I have revised my view on this ? quite radically. I have concluded that even though the emotional vulnerability of my mentors and colleagues may not have been very professional, and even though I do need to maintain good boundaries, their approach was at least biblical ? more biblical than I was prepared to admit.
Just as the Bible presents a spirituality that is more gritty, more primitive, even, than some of the anodyne spiritualities that exist in the suburbs, so it also presents images of leadership that go beyond the cool, dispassionate models of professional management ? from which so many of our contemporary leadership models derive ? and into the raw, primal metaphors of a life of faith.
I have spent a good deal of time over the last few years promoting this backwoodsmen view of ministry among young ordinands (as well as those in so-called lay ministry), trying in the process to be honest about the egregious nature of church life. What I hadn’t realised, however, is that I had a perfect illustration for some of my reflections in the person of Wallander, the Swedish detective of Henning Mankell’s imagination, and now the cult figure of two distinct television series.
Like many people, I have had my flings with numerous crime detective programmes, from Poirot to Columbo. I can also recall a season when I was in love with Cadfael. But last year I found myself watching episode after episode of Wallander. I even changed the ringtone on my mobile phone to sound like Wallander’s. Throughout the series, I kept wondering what it was about him that I found so compelling. For sure, the plots were interesting and the acting was good, but what was it that touched me at a deep emotional level ? sometimes even causing me to cry.
Eventually, it became clear. Wallander brought me comfort, precisely at that place in my own soul where I had decided, years ago, to abandon managerial competency in favour of vocational passion.
Wallander heralds from a bygone era when vocation still meant something: a way of life, not a career path
As a pastor of a fairly large church I have read my fair share of books on professional competence, boundaries in ministry and time management. I’ve had the warnings about not getting too involved with my congregation and learning to delegate. What was so refreshing about Wallander, so reassuringly amateurish, was how much he took things to heart.
For Wallander (and each person has to decide themselves whether they prefer the Kenneth Branagh version, like me, or the Swedish subtitled version), each crime in the sleepy town of Ystad, on the coast of southern Sweden, is a personal affront to his sense of justice, just as each crime is about an actual person. Whereas others can do their work with a certain measure of detachment, for Wallander this is impossible. For him, crime investigation comes from the gut. It is visceral as well as cerebral.
In the unfolding of the gory details of the crime there is invariably a moment when Wallander crosses over from mere investigation into personal vocation; when his work ceases to be just a job, as it is for many of his colleagues, and becomes a calling. Wallander heralds from a bygone era when vocation still meant something: a way of life, not a career path.
The downside of this, of course, is that in pursuing his vocation, his personal and private life is a disaster. His marriage is on the rocks, his relationship with his father is awkward, and the rare times with his grown-up daughter are strained. It’s no wonder, since he hardly ever sees them. Or if he does, he is so emotionally vacant as to make his presence awkward and embarrassing. The truth is, his heart is elsewhere. In fact, you rarely see Wallander have a decent night’s sleep in his own bed ? he is usually seen sleeping on a couch and woken by his infamous ringtone.
To think that this kind of impassioned calling can be embraced without emotional costs is just plain dishonest
For anyone with a pastoral vocation ? or any sense of vocation, for that matter ? the parallels are obvious, not to mention uncomfortable. Writer and former Bishop of Edinburgh Richard Holloway confesses in his memoirs, Leaving Alexandria (Canongate Books), that he looks back with regret on the amount of times the needs of family took second place to the urgencies of the parish. Indeed, as I reach the 21st anniversary of my own vocation in pastoral ministry, which has coincided with my wife and I bringing up four sons, I have my own regrets about the all too familiar story of absenteeism. Yes, I have enjoyed the benefits of time around the table, days off with the family and so on. I have done better than many fathers in this respect. Furthermore, I cannot imagine five more wonderful human beings to be with than my family. But the obsessions of a pastoral vocation have most definitely affected us all detrimentally. The greatest sadness for my family, I imagine, has been the many times when I have been there, but not been there.
But while there is no merit in this particular impact of vocation on our private lives, and nothing attractive about living with someone who feels guilty all the time about the needs of the parish, the antidote to someone like Wallander, which is to be that balanced, emotionally detached person, doesn’t work either.
Even though the emotional vulnerability of my mentors may not have been very professional, their approach was biblical
For the heart of a Christian understanding of ministry is not the cool, measured language of the risk-averse, but old-fashioned notions of taking up your cross, of giving yourself away, of incarnation. Preaching through Thessalonians one summer it struck me that Paul’s language is full of emotional images to describe his relationship to the church. For someone who has often been accused of being a misogynist, it’s surprising that Paul employs the feminine image of a woman in labour to describe the womb-like love he feels for the church. He likens the experience of being cut off from the congregation he had once served tobeing orphaned. In fact, the maternal image crops up everywhere in Paul’s understanding of ministry (just as it does in the Gospels and the Prophets). I have looked in vain in Paul’s letters for the language of skills, competencies and facilitation. Rather, I am overwhelmed by the notion of death and resurrection. To think that this kind of impassioned calling can be embraced without emotional cost is just plain dishonest.
There is a way out of this conundrum that I have been trying to describe, and that is to depersonalise the whole thing: to reduce ministry to formulae, techniques and programmes. Or else, make a career out of going to conferences, and give the ministry to other people. I’m convinced that the rise of the Church growth movement in the last few decades, with its programmatic approach to ministry, not to mention its endless conferences, is attributable to precisely this kind of ministry avoidance. I can sympathise with pastors who resort to this approach (after all, a programme cannot reject you the same way thatpeople can), but the implications for the Church are enormous. What remains of Christian ministry is almost unrecognisable in comparison with what pastors have been doing for the last 21 centuries.
Whatever else a Christian leader is, full-time or otherwise, he or she is someone who works at a grass-root level, who pays attention to details, who insists on the particularities of each and every person. Rather like the way Wallander immerses himself in his subject, so a Christian leader enters into the mystery ? place, name, and face ? assured that there is no other way to do this work. As Andrew Root says with regard to youth work (Revisiting Relational Youth Ministry, IVP), the real issue is not the ‘how’ of ministry, but the ‘who’ of the person of Jesus.
In short, ministry is not a technique or a programme, trying to find ways to introduce people to Jesus. Rather, it is an immersion in the messiness of their lives, trusting that in and through our ministry to them, Jesus is present. Which means, of course, as Root so strongly puts it, that perhaps the reason young people don’t always trust our offer of friendship is not because we lack the skills, but because ‘they intuitively know that we are not willing to see, hear and accompany them in their deepest suffering. We have offered them trips to Disneyland, silly games and “cool” youth rooms, not companionship in their darkest nights, their scariest of hells.’
All this you would get from watching Wallander, because one thing Wallander cannot do is idealise or abstract. To do either of those things is to miss what’s going on ? to trade mystery for science. Instead, he throws himself headlong into his vocation, into the lives of those who have become victims of an increasingly fractured Sweden, because he knows that anything less isnot commensurate with the mystery of life itself.
TAKING UP THE CROSS
In the third series there is a scene when Wallander and his new partner are with a counsellor, seeking to unravel the causes of their relational tension. Wallander says: ‘Anyone who does this work ends up like this.’ Much as my heart went out to him in that moment, I am not sure I agree (just as I didn’t agree with a missionary friend of mine who once quoted to me the old missionary mantra: ‘better to burn out than rust out’). It isn’t fair on those we love to believe in such a fatal, tragic end for ourselves. In fact, it is indulgent, and not at all Jesus-centred. What we must not do, however, as an alternative to these narcissistic tendencies in all of us, is try to pretend that we can do the work of Jesus in the world, without it exacting a great deal from us. As Richard Neuhaus writes in Freedom for Ministry (Eerdmans): ‘If we have anything to hang on our walls it is notour diplomas, but a simple crucifix, because this is all we have to say for ourselves.’
WALLANDER FOR THE UNINITIATED
This raw, but thought-provoking crime detective started life as the protagonist of a series of ten books by Henning Mankell (published 1991?2009). They have since sold more than 30 million copies worldwide, and been translated into more than40 languages.
The Swedish television adaptations first featured Rolf Lassgård and then Krister Henriksson in the title role, both shown with subtitles on BBC Four.
The first series of Kenneth Branagh’s BAFTA Award-winning English adaptation appeared in 2008 (series two in 2010, and series three in 2012), still filmed in the desolate Scandinavian landscape. The fourth and final series will be screened in 2014.