Shaping the words

Jul 9th, 2009 | By | Category: Ministry

Cissie Braithwaite

Les Dawson used to tell stories of women working in the mills of northern England.  The noise of the machinery was such that conversation was impossible, so they developed the skills of mouthing words and lip reading.  Observing the wordless conversations inspired Dawson’s ‘Cissie and Ada’ dialogues with fellow comedian Roy Barraclough.  The pair played northern working class women Cissie Braithwaite and Ada Shufflebotham, who would converse normally until something not quite respectable would need to be said and Dawson’s wonderfully expressive face would silently shape the words.

The mill women faced lives of constant pressure, yet Dawson was able to find wonderful humour in their relationships and in their coping with the realities of each day.  Poor working conditions; noise and pollution; low pay; bad housing; unemployment; few prospects for young people – the list of causes for complaint was lengthy, yet there was a community, a solidarity, amongst the women that enabled them to overcome all that came along.

The ability to cope came from their ability to communicate.  Problems were common to all of them and there was a mutual sharing and support on the floor of the mills.  It was far from idyllic, but the women stood together through difficult times.

If a trouble shared is a trouble halved for most people; it is said that amongst clergy, a trouble shared is a trouble doubled.  There is an extraordinary capacity in clerical groups to magnify problems to such an extent that small issues can push people into a headlong slide into a slough of despond.

A letter came about a three day ‘Stress Management Course’ for clergy.  it would be hard to imagine anything less cheerful than spending three days listening to clergy talking about stress. Anecdotes of how terrible people think things are proliferate at clergy conferences; three days of focus on such stories would be intense gloom.

The causes of stress seem hard to identify.  Rectory life has been a vocation; it has been something reached after years of preparation; it is not something begun after responding to an advertisement in the ‘Situations vacant’ column and turning up on a Monday morning.  It guarantees a house that it at worse reasonable, and at best luxurious; a house that comes free of rent and free of maintenance costs.  It guarantees pay that might not be great, but is at least secure.  It offers job security of around 99% – the number of unemployed clergy is very small.  In Ireland, particularly in rural areas, it still offers a social standing not shared by many professions.

The stress mostly arises from interactions, or the lack of them, with other people: from problems in communicating with people who may not share the Rector’s ideas; from the lack of any support structure whatsoever to deal with niggling issues; from a simple lack of anything that might remotely resemble a line of management.

It is not a stress management course that is needed, it is a Cissie and Ada Network – and training in mouthing words like ‘bishop’ and ‘archdeacon’, and other unspeakable things in clerical life.

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  1. Hear! Hear! Ian you are the first clergy person I EVER heard speak this way. Most are SO busy telling you how busy they are. Ok, it is not an easy life but you go into it knowing what is involved.

    Something that bugged me for years here in Northern Ireland was that as soon as the young Ordinands appeared (just in time for the high tensions leading the 12th of July) all the seasoned and senior men who held sway in communities had decamped to France for a month. Hopefully they spread their holidays through the year like the rest of us have to.

  2. Grannymar,

    I think there developed a culture of self-justification – unless you were complaining about how busy you were, there was an assumption that you weren’t working as hard as you should be.

    I agree about the disappearing clerics!

  3. I totally agree with you Ian. Yes there is busyness, stress, challenge in ministry but it is a great privledge to do what we do. It’s that sense of vocation, God’s call on our lives that keeps us sustained and going. I hope it never becomes just another ‘career’ option. That’s why I love good clergy blogs that show the busyness yes, but more importantly reflects the deep sincere commitment shown by many men and women. I also agree that we as clergy need to talk and share with others, the problem can be that there seems to be perceived weakness in honest sharing. Personally I know I’m better when I have a good open clergy network around me and poorer when I disconnect or have no opportunity to share with others.

  4. Hi Craig,

    Aren’t you on holiday?

    I ran into stress in my last parish, because I bought into a ‘managerial’ agenda, trying to run the parish as some sort of CEO instead as a pastor and friend. I think last Sunday’s Scripture from 2nd Corinthians about God’s power being made perfect in weakness is vital. Accepting my own failings is the first step in coping with stuff.

  5. Thanks Ian. I have the great blessing in this Diocese of a network of mentors and pastoral support. It is easily accesible and readily available and has taken away the loneliness and stress of being in a parish on your own with no one to turn to. It means that someone has the “right” to ask you how things are going.
    Parish ministry is a wonderful vocation and a great privilege. If we work too hard and don’t take care of our own needs then we will be stressed. We are weak – none of us has it all sorted – yet – in God’s strength we are able to do what God asks us to do – not necessarily what we, or other people, think we should do!

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