A persistent failure

Aug 10th, 2010 | By | Category: Ministry

There was a pang of disappointment this evening driving across the Carlow-Kilkenny border.  The road passed through a parish where I had been assured I would be appointed; a parish which was not thirty miles away from my wife and family.  The parish did not want me, a familiar experience in times past, and the assurances crumbled into nothingness.

Most of the past fifteen years has been about failure.  Failing to be appointed to a post in Co Fermanagh in 1995, where Katharine and I might have had contiguous parishes.  Failing to cope with the strain of a large urban parish in east Antrim.  Failing efforts to bring new ways of being the church to a parish in south Dublin.

Back in 2003, my parish had embarked upon an ambitious project with two neighbouring parishes. I saw the project as our path into the future. Through engaging an evangelist in 2004, we were going to consolidate our existing churches and build firm foundations for going out with the Good News. The whole project fell apart at the beginning of 2006, when it became clear that my own church was less than enthusiastic about what was being attempted and that the parish accounts had slid deeply onto the red.

There was no strategy with which to move into the future; and few people to implement any plans there might be. There were no indications that the downward slide that has been experienced in church after church in England was not going to be repeated.  In the four years since, the situation only became worse.

Ministry has become about holding on, hoping that something might happen.  Asked by the bishop yesterday, “how are things?” I endeavoured to respond truthfully, “Unexciting”.

Surviving, getting by, is not an uncommon experience in the Bible. There are many moments in the Old Testament when the faithful are left just holding on. In the days of Elijah, even though Elijah was not the last of the faithful, as he thought, there were still only seven thousand left. The years in Babylon for the exiles cannot have been easy and must have been harder for those who were not taken into exile, but were left in the land without nation and without leaders.

No matter how tempting it might be to sing the laments of the Exile, Christians are not meant to be people of the Old Testament; we are meant to be people of the resurrection. Our faith is not that of a nation, it is meant to be the faith of people whose hearts have been challenged and changed.

The words of a wise old cleric in times past come once more to mind, “We are not called to be successful we are called to be faithful”.

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  1. I like to keep in touch with your website, Ian. I think your frank comments above are most refreshing. Clergy who say they succeed in everything leave me sceptical. Every blessing in your present parish,


  2. Billy,

    Preaching at our midweek service this evening, I was struck by a line from Jurgen Moltmann, “’The old rugged cross’ contradicts the old and the new triumphal theology which we produce in the churches in order to keep pace with the transformations of an activistic and rapidly changing society.”

    The cross at its essence is about failure in every human term.

  3. Ian

    Even the secular Department of Foreign Affairs attempts to facilitate married couples in their postings.

    What is happening here. When you speak of failure in South Dublin, did Ballybrack fail you?

    Do you think being an Englishman is telling against you. I am following your mission online and find you very understanding, empathetic and a powerful force in the attempt to unite Christians and make their message relevant to the real world.[ I should add, in parenthesis, that I do not share your religious conviction, as such, nor that of RCs.]

    I am very taken aback by the negative feeling emanating from your post. I had hoped that things in this country were improving on the religious front, even though I have long left that battleground myself.


  4. Póló,

    Ballybrack was very good to me. My failure was to accept the word of outsiders about how a church should be over the word of those who had for years been faithful members.

  5. You were held in great affection by us in St M. Remember the friends you made and the people who would not have got through their times of difficulty without you there. You were such a support to so many and brought insights of spirituality to some who would not have known where to look for it. Remember the wonderful comfort of the Evening Services and remember how you were and are loved. I for one feel that my life would be the poorer if I had not had you as my Minister and I wish you were ministering to us still. God bless you and may He hold you in the palm of His hand.

  6. Thanks, Barbara. The evening service became my stay and support. I was immensely grateful to those who came along.

  7. I can’t speak about your parish work or pulpitising. (Like it? I just made it up. It’s better in the American version with a z.) But you are a very effective example and communicator of the Word of God via your blog. Which leads me to think that wherever you’re stationed is lucky to have you.

  8. Each of the parishes in which I have worked has had smaller congregations when I left than when I arrived!

  9. Unfortunately diminishing congregations is probably a secular trend outside your control. However, had you been more facilitated in your ecumenical efforts, the reverse might have been true. Open minds are increasingly hard to come by and particularly within religious ministries.

    But there are always pockets to be worked on. My cousin was PP in Shankill (RC) a good while ago. He had the Rathmichael Rector (Fred Appelby) address his congregation, which went down well with the congregation, but got him complained to the bishop. It’s always an uphill struggle.

    Keep up the good work.

  10. Ian, I just want to echo what Barbara said, though without the bit about the evening services as I’m a Sunday morning person.

  11. I sometimes think my experience of ministry has been a bit like that of a soccer team at the foot of the table – there are bright spots in the season, even victories, but there is relegation at the end.

  12. Ian just reading these comments must bring you great heart. I doubt you’ll ever know whether you’ve effected change in your parishioners unless they, like Barbara tell you. Change is difficult at the best of times and I suspect even moreso in the Church environment. I don’t know what the Pentacostals are doing but here they’re certainly attracting a younger and more vibrant parishioner who seem to be more accepting of change and innovation.

  13. Baino,

    Alas, kind comments don’t change objective facts!

    I’m not sure the Pentecostals have much to do with Christianity as I understand it – there is not much of the way of the cross in their theology.

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