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.