The Ministry of Availability

I took a day off work today.  Yes, I am “sick.”  My minor medical condition could justify a day off.*  But more than “sick,” I am tired.  My work exhausts me in a way that it really hasn’t for the last two years.

This year, I have moved into a direct ministry role.  For the past two years I have done some combination of teaching and service learning and saw my role as ministerial, as I firmly believe that teaching is a ministry.  But this year, I am The Campus Minister of the school.  I coordinate the retreats, I stock the Campus Ministry candy bowl, I am the supplier of tissues for those who come into my office crying.  I did not think this transition from ministerial to minister would be so challenging.  After all, it’s the same school, same students, same colleagues.  But what I’m finding at the end of each day is that I am exhausted mentally, emotionally, to a deeper level than I have been by any other work.

Beyond the retreats, liturgies, and service work, ministry taxes me so much because how available I have to be.  What I didn’t know before I started is that being a minister means being available to whoever drops by my office and to chat, or discuss a problem, or find advice and encouragement.  Students and staff alike come into my office seeking something–they flop down on my couch and start talking and I have to turn away from my computer and listen.

At first I was annoyed.  I thought, “I don’t have time for this!”  (Especially since it happens approximately 200 times a day)  “This work is really important!  Do you think retreats plan themselves?” I thought self-righteously.  And I began to worry a lot about being able to get everything done–every time I had to stop working, I grew anxious or preoccupied and I couldn’t focus on the person in front of me.

But somewhere after I directed my first major retreat, I realized that listening and being available everyday in my office doesn’t take me away from my work as a minister–it is my work as a minister.  I can’t be a good minister unless I listen to my community, even in the most casual and mundane ways.  By stopping to chat with a student on her way to lunch, or a test, I became a little more attuned to what students worry about and how to best reach them spiritually.

And beyond my students and my work, as I listened more and more, theology came pouring out of me.  In the years since grad school, I have not picked up a theology book once; being in grad school just seemed so disconnected from the life of the Church and by the end, I mostly felt that I was done talking about theology and ready to start doing theology.  But as I listen to students’ questions and problems, I suddenly have so many ideas swirling around in my head.  With my ministerial experiences as my foundation, I see so many connections to what I’ve studied and want to develop those ideas into theology.  Being a minister has breathed life into those ideas I spent two years discussing in grad school and reinforced to me the importance of doing good theology.

So that is what I have been thinking about lately.  What if we made ourselves more available to each other?  What if the leadership and theologians of the Church made itself more available to the faithful?  If listening makes us better ministers, and being ministers makes us better theologians, shouldn’t we intentionally seek out opportunities to listen?**   I understand specialization makes ministry and theology more sophisticated, but in the process, we also divorce theology and ministry and prevent the kind of good theology that flows from ministry and good ministry that is rooted in theology.

The importance of availability not a novel idea, but I’m not referring to the kind of instant availability smart phones and the internet give us.  I can tweet at the Pope now, but I know he is not truly available to me.  I’m talking about availability on a person to person basis, built into the schedules and training of Church leaders and theologians.  To academics, this might seem outrageous; I know most academics would give me the standard answer–specialization gives academic theologians the freedom and time to produce good theology.  But I honestly think that specialization comes at the cost of theology rooted in the actual experience of the Church.  Given the rate at which Catholics are leaving or disengaging the Church, it seems that one of the highest priorities of those interested in the Church’s future should be to understand and respond to the needs of the faithful.  Being available ministers is the first step in that process.  

 

*Psst!  Don’t tattle on me!
**I won’t make the mistake of assuming my experience should apply to absolutely everyone, but I think in general, better connections between theologians, Church leadership, and the faithful is a good goal we ought to pursue.

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6 thoughts on “The Ministry of Availability

  1. First off–goodness, no wonder you’re exhausted. Listening is exhausting, in a way I think we tend to minimize or ignore, and being “on call” constantly in the way you’re talking about sounds impossibly hard to me. I support your day off.

    I think you’re absolutely right, and I’m struggling to articulate a response that’s more productive than just saying “yes.” It’s really exciting to me to hear that you’ve got theology in your system again (because you’re awesome). It’s especially exciting to have this theology come directly from your work as a minister, from the questions and problems of your students and colleagues. It sounds to me as though there’s a precarious balance there: your role as a minister leaves you both full of ideas and theological ambition and also enervated, maybe even beaten down.

    Okay, here’s what I want to say: being available is both critically important and really hard.* And when I think about how to seek opportunities for theologians to listen, I fear that we’ll start to see the ministry of availability as a means to do better theology, rather than as an end in itself. (For some reason this comes to mind: http://www.theonion.com/articles/my-year-volunteering-as-a-teacher-helped-educate-a,28803/) So how do we get theologians to see genuine engagement with the faithful (and unfaithful!) as an essential aspect of their role? And then how do we make it so that they don’t have to do that alone?

    *Thinking about availability and listening got me thinking, in a vague and unfocused way, about my own Adventures in DepressionLand in the last couple of years. (Although, honestly, at this point thinking about garlic bread would lead to Adventures in DepressionLand. I have pretty much a one-track mind right now.) One of the striking things about my time on psych wards was how hard it was for some of my treaters–usually the psychiatrists rather than the nurses or social workers–actually to listen to me as an individual, rather than as a collection of symptoms adding up to a diagnosis. This would have been less of a problem had my symptoms actually fit any diagnosis well. I think this tendency to oversimplify grew out of the situation we were in: an inpatient unit is always overcrowded, with the insurance companies breathing down the doctor’s necks to stabilize people and get them the hell out of there as fast as possible. Understandable, but not helpful when you’re trying to explain to someone that, no, you really don’t have BPD. I guess what I’m trying to point to is that people whose role it is to listen desperately need support themselves if they’re going to be able to fill that role.

  2. Haha, my exact response to everything you’ve said is also “Yes.” Being available is hard. And it’s also hard to just get started with this somewhat radical idea I’ve suggested. But something worth doing well is worth doing poorly, so just getting going on incorporating ministry into theological training is where I would start.

    Your point about ministry as a means to an end is fascinating–I didn’t think about that at all. And nothing like the Onion to hammer home the truth of something in a funny/depressing way. I guess my answer is–its not perfect but its still valuable? The system we have in place currently for training doctors and teachers means that whatever patient/student happens to get that med student or that first year teacher will suffer, but ultimately, its in the interest of the entire system to have that training take place. That’s not a great answer, but I need to think about this more….

  3. I’ve been thinking about some similar things, Carmen: I’m financing the end of my PhD by serving as a hall minister in an undergraduate dorm. It’s something that I’m really looking forward to (albeit with the sobriety that comes from knowing there are going to be quite a few things I’ll find frustrating / annoying / enraging about it), but also something I’ve felt quite sheepish about with other theologians. I *believe* that acting in that sort of ministry of presence should make me a *better* theologian… but I keep expecting people, particularly faculty, to look down on it as insufficiently serious (“If you were a *real* academic, you’d support yourself by adjuncting and teaching 6 classes while trying to finish your dissertation, not by helping students plan retreats and liturgies or *caring* what happens in their *faith lives*”). So we’ll see.

    • Glad to know I’m not the only one tossing these ideas around! I absolutely have felt that sheepishness–when I told a professor in grad school what I was going into high ministry after graduating, he responded by saying “Oh, so a gap year. What will you be doing after that?” I felt like I was a disappointment and a waste of the education that had been invested in me.

      But I’m curious–do *you* think its insufficiently serious? I know I’m not a PhD and I don’t know what it’s like to survive/thrive in such a serious and academic academic environment, so what do you think? I’m sure its sounds naive for a non-academic to propose these kinds of things to academics, but I could not get over the disconnect between academia and the “real world” and I feel like some combination of theology and ministry could deal with that problem.

  4. And also, what you’re saying about your adventures sounds SPOT ON. We don’t listen to one another well even in the places where we are supposed to listen to each other. So I think it would take concerted effort to get theologians/Church leaders to do it too. And even worse–we don’t support the people who do the listening. I know quite a number of people who burned out after a few years of ministry simply because there wasn’t any support for them. So in some sense, this is a general idea–“Listen to people around you, everyone!” But I also think it specifically deals with some problems ministry and theology face.

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