By Cole Hartin
Last week I spent over half an hour scrubbing the filthy, grease-caked window on my oven with steel wool and vinegar.
This isn’t so strange, I guess. Save for the fact that I let it get so dirty that I needed to clean it for so long in the first place.
What was strange, however was how truly gratifying it felt.
The sun was starting to go down, glowing through the kitchen window, while my kids “cleaned up” their toys with shouts and bumps in the other room. I put some music on (partly to shroud the sounds of plastic toys thrown too far), got down on my knees with some water and steel wool, and got to work. Very slowly, and with much effort, I watched one corner turn from opaque to transparent, and over time this edged itself wider and wider.
I felt like I was making art, however crude.
Why did I feel so satisfied working on this mundane, rather unpleasant household chore that I’d been putting off for too long?
I think it felt so good because the results were so tangible, so measurable. I could apply myself to a task that needed to be done and watch the filth be washed away. In a relatively short space of time I could see a “before and after.” It felt so purposeful. I envy craftspeople because with their hands they create something real and beautiful, no matter how slowly.
Tasks like these are about as far as you can get from work that centers around helping people. This is especially the case with pastoral ministry, which is the vocation I’ve chosen, or that has chosen me. I’m a priest.
In the role of a pastor, results are not tangible and are seldom measurable. Even when they are measurable, the question of what they are measuring is an open one. I can apply myself to a task and see nothing change over long periods of time. Pastoral ministry can often feel purposeless.
And, as I mentioned, this reality is shared by all professions that center around helping people. People are not malleable objects, they don’t change quickly, and even when they do, this is not necessarily a good thing.
The pastoral vocation is relatively clear in theory, it’s the practice that is so complicated, so confusing.
As a priest, my vocation is to study Scripture, preach the gospel, prepare folks for the sacraments, and administer those same sacraments. I’m supposed to work for the cure of their souls.
But of course the job description of “priest” also includes writing emails, studying, leading small groups, teaching youth, overseeing children’s ministry, moving bags of garbage back off the sidewalk when they were put out too far from the curb, etc. etc.
One day I could spend most of my time in an office reading and writing a homily preparing for group studies.
The next day I could spend most of my time grieving with family who has suddenly lost a loved one, and is now picking up the pieces of their shattered life.
All of this is punctuated by the rhythm of worship each Sunday, when Christians celebrate on the first of the week that Christ was risen from the dead.
The strange thing is, that though I feel very busy most of the time, when I look back over weeks and months there is no visible “progress” to what I am doing. There is nothing beautiful I can point to and touch with my hands. I really am walking by faith and not by sight.
It’s true, there are moments when the fog rolls back, and I’m reminded about the mystery of God’s providence. Spiritual growth and change are seldom straightforward, but I trust God is at work through it all – the good and bad – doing something in people’s lives. This is so frustrating in one sense, because it’s so unpredictable, so difficult to harness and control. But on the other hand, it’s liberating. It is a reminder to me that the Church (with all of its failures) really does belong to Christ after all, he is the Good Shepherd. Not everything falls on our shoulders.
So pastoral ministry doesn’t give me the same satisfaction as completing a sculpture, writing a song, or cleaning a dirty oven. I was trying to come up with a better metaphor, and I thought pastoral ministry might be closer to another form of art: winemaking. The pressing of the grapes, the barrels in which the juice is aged, the cellar conditions; these are all important. But at the end of the day, you put juice in a barrel and leave it alone, while nature does its work. The best thing you can do is to stay out of the way and try to facilitate an environment where nature takes her course.
I think this is akin to pastoral work, and all kinds of people-centered work. We do have an important role to play in setting things up and providing space for the magic to happen. Still, we have little to no control over the processes of change, where just like unremarkable grape juice transforms into something much better, so individuals and families are slowly shaped toward the good. We don’t make it happen. We just stay out of the way and let God do his work.
The Rev. Dr. Cole Hartin is assistant curate at St. Luke’s in Saint John, New Brunswick.