It is now more than a year and a half since I retired from full time ministry in First Armagh Presbyterian Church. I confess I do not miss the constant pressure to preach at least once a Sunday to the same congregation maintaining biblical truth, as well as relevance and freshness. Nor do I miss the pressure which comes with being continually available, waiting for a phone call to spark off another pastoral emergency. Nor do I miss Kirk Session meetings when I am accountable to elders, even very pleasant ones. However, on reflection I found the most stressful aspect of ministry were the inner tensions, the conflicts of the soul.
The biblical character with whom I probably most identified with was the prophet, Jeremiah, who suffered his own inner conflicts. Walter Brueggemann comments, “Thus Jeremiah is aligned against the kings, the prophets, the members of his own town, and finally even God.”
In retirement, I am writing the history of First Armagh. The working title is “Meeting among the Spires”. I have been trying to understand my predecessors as ministers in First Armagh. I was shocked when I read a report in the Belfast Newsletter of what one of them, Rev David Miller, said with great honesty about his inner conflicts to the Armagh Presbytery when he took early retirement in 1915. “A Minister among the rush and worry of his pastoral work often felt that he had no time to possess his own soul far less to win it. He had often felt that in trying to promote the interests of religion in others he was in danger of impoverishing his own and therefore he welcomed with unfeigned thankfulness the prospect of more freedom and leisure.”
Much of the truth of the Bible comes to us in poetry.
Walter Brueggemann in his book “Like Fire in the Bones -Listening to the prophetic Word in Jeremiah,” writes this, “He shatters old worlds and imagines new worlds. It is done as a poet re-described the world, reconfigures public perception and causes people to re-experience their experience. To do that requires that speech must not be conventional, reasonable, predictable; it must shock sensitivities, call attention to what is not noticed, break the routine, cause people to re-described things that have long since seemed settled.” So in conclusion, I offer this poem, which I wrote for my final service in First Armagh in July 2022. I trust it helps you to pray for all in ministry who experience inner conflicts.
The Ministerial Tightrope
To be good but not self-righteous,
to pray but not be sanctimonious,
to be efficient but not be officious,
to be profound but also playful,
to be kind but not gullible,
to be respectful but not too respectable,
to be clever but not intellectual,
to be tolerant but not heretical,
to be discerning but not judgmental,
to be firm but also flexible.
To pastor but not be nosy,
to speak but not be noisy,
to preach but not be preachy,
to be alone but not be lonely,
to be vulnerable but not needy,
to be relevant but not trendy,
to be technical but not geeky,
to be poetical but not wordy,
to be prepared but also extempore,
to be just but also show mercy.
To be ecumenical but distinctive,
to be evangelistic but not manipulative,
to be open but not voyeuristic,
to be realistic but not pessimistic,
to be called but not messianic,
to be energetic but not frenetic,
to be sacrificial but not heroic,
to listen but not be passive,
to be generous but not naive,
to grieve but not be morose.
To be friendly but not too familiar,
to fail but not be a failure,
to be humorous but not too flippant,
to be natural but not incoherent,
to be sensitive but not easily hurt,
to care but also be careless,
to question but not disbelieve,
to dissent but not disengage,
to keep Sabbath but not be Sabbatarian,
to work but not be driven.
To be confident but not be proud,
to empathise but not be downhearted,
to be humble but not humiliated,
to be educated but not sophisticated,
to be approachable but not be overwhelmed,
to be enthusiastic but not overbearing,
to celebrate but not be gushing,
to be dependable but not boring,
to lead but not be brash,
to be prophetic but not be harsh.
I confess I regularly fell off that ministerial tightrope.
Tony Davidson is Minister Emeritus, First Presbyterian Church, Armagh.
Please note that the statements and views expressed in this article of those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of Contemporary Christianity.