A few years ago, in a casual conversation with a Lutheran clergy person, I received the following pearl of practical pastoral wisdom: “Good administration is good pastoral care.” The clergy person then offered a well-reasoned (and I suspect well rehearsed) argument to buttress his assertion. While I can’t remember all of the nuances of the ad hoc presentation, the gist was something like this: “If the database is up to date, the bulletins are well-produced and error free, letters go out in a timely fashion, e-mails and phone calls are returned within twenty-four hours, then an air of competence is established in which parishioners are able to relax in the knowledge that their clergy person is taking care of the parish, and by extension, each one of them.”
I had never thought of pastoral competence as something that could be measured by e-mails or such. I had been taught about sitting with people through the dark night of the soul, offering last rites, taking the sacrament to the shut-ins, listening to people struggle with the problems of living life in a culture that is increasingly isolated, aloof and pressurized. In seminary, we were taught to consult the Scriptures, the Book of Common Prayer, the “Anglican Divines” and/or other sorts of overtly spiritual material within the Christian Tradition to assist us with our work. Who knew an error-free Sunday bulletin was the goal?
Nine years on in this joyous vocation, I have spent my fair share of time sitting in a desk chair for hours at a time — doing the sorts of things my Lutheran friend described in our brief chat. I’ve gotten a bit quicker with responding to e-mails and a lot less chatty when speaking on the phone. The trick to begin a good desk jockey, it seems, is to move briskly from task to task without ever appearing to be in any sort of hurry. I’ve not quite mastered that trick just yet. Volume of boxes checked in a day “counts”, even if for no other reason than to avoid the appearance of being a slacker.
I’m fortunate. On the whole, the parish I serve is understanding, supportive and encouraging. The folks here know that hours sitting with people in the midst of their difficulties is more important than perpetually sitting at a desk, office door open to heartily receive unannounced visitors, with two hands furiously pounding out meaningful, theologically astute and prompt e-mails, while my ear is glued to the phone giving a non-judgmental listening space to the caller on the other end of the line, while simultaneously conducting reviews of the latest cost-saving methodologies to help balance the budget.
As ludicrous as the previous (very long) description of a “desk jockey priest” may have sounded, the reality is most clergy folks I know worry about the things they know are daily being “left undone”. We are usually overdue on at least some administrative tasks. We are frequently guilty of inadvertently forgetting to properly announce this or that important event with sufficient lead time to insure maximum parochial participation. More often than not, we are the unintentional choke point in the life of one or more organizations within a parish as the people in those organizations wait for a word from “Mother” or “Father”. And yet, when deployed to do what we were trained to do, many of us are compassionate, insightful and prayerful (sometimes even managing to offer a bit of “wise counsel”!).
So, after spending the better part of today cranking out e-mails, writing reports and returning phone calls, I finally looked at my “to-do” list. I managed to check a few boxes. I hope that “good administration” does make for “good pastoral care”. I’m done being a desk jockey for the day.
But no promises! There still may be a typo in Sunday’s bulletin!