Tuesday, 5 February 2013

Back in Kilkenny with some searching questions about ministry

Kilkenny Castle in the dark ... seen from my room tonight (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2013)

Patrick Comerford

I am in Kilkenny for the next three days at the Dublin and Glendalough Clergy Conference. This is my second time in Kilkenny in less than seven days, this time staying in the River Court Hotel, with a room looking out onto Kilkenny Castle, on the banks of the River Nore.

The speaker at this year’s conference is the Revd Bruce Pierce, Director of Education at Saint Luke’s Home Education Centre in Northridge House, Cork. Bruce was worked in the past in the Diocese of Dublin as curate of Raheny and Coolock with Canon Cecil Wilson and the Revd Jim Carroll, curate of Taney with Canon Des Sinnamon, Rector of Leixlip and Lucan in succession to Canon Eric Despard, and a hospital chaplain in Tallaght. He later moved to Amsterdam and Toronto, before returning to Ireland.

Introducing himself – as though he needed any introduction – Bruce admitted he felt “a little like Our Lord going back to his own home patch.”

But he brought us back down to earth with his humour and with some of his own stories, drawing from his own life experiences. He warned us, that “in case of fire,” we should “exit [the] building before tweeting about it.”

We need to listen, especially to listen to ourselves, he reminded us. Telling us to look at our assumptions, he challenged us to ask ourselves: “Why do I react in particular ways?”

We were asked questions such as:

● Why do we need to be pleasing people?
● What is our need for affirmation?
● What is it like to be lost when I don’t know what I should be doing next?

We were reminded that change comes with a cost. The answer to the blocking mechanism phrased in words such as “We’ve always done it that way here” is to ask: “Why?”

But we too need to ask when we move to something new whether we are we moving to something or are moving away from something.

And he went on to ask us:

● Who am I without a clerical collar?
● Who comes first – me the person, or me the priest?

Many of these questions were raised for him in Toronto, where he was a chaplain who happened to be an Anglican, rather than an Anglican who happened to be a chaplain.

He asked again:

● Who am I in this role?
● What are my boundaries and what are my expectations?

The Johari Window ... a key to self-understanding

He introduced us to the Johari Window as a way of identifying our weaknesses, prejudices, triggers and blind spots.

Freud once said feelings are neither good nor bad, but what we do with them can be good or bad. We mask our feelings very well. And so he challenged us to examine our deep feelings. Yet so many of us fear that these are like a pressure cooker, and that if open it or take off the lid there are going to be dangerous consequences.

He suggested that many clergy have low self-esteem, and their self-doubt is coupled with recurrent problems about worthiness in ministry.

● Are we valued, safe, secure?
● Have we chosen the right career?
● Did we come into clerical ministry because we wanted to be loved and affirmed?

He said people with low self-esteem have high anxiety levels, tend to be perfectionists, and their anger can be expressed inappropriately, yet they have a manifest desire to please others in an effort to self-protect.

Are we worried whether we make any difference at all? And he illustrated this dilemma with a sign that says: “The meek shall inherit the earth ... if it’s alright with you.”

Clergy have huge issues around confidentiality, yet we need to share what is going on in our lives.

Do we find that we are not the people we believe we are?

And he left us with some questions to consider:

● How are my own needs met in my ministry?
● Can you finish the sentence that begins: My role in ministry is to...?
● How do I handle conflict in the parish or in the institution in which I work?
● Am I aware of my own boundaries in ministry?

He told us: “When we learn about ministry, we learn about ourselves.”

This afternoon, Bruce also introduced us to the Clergy Wellness Project, which is being carried out by Bruce and the Revd Daniel Nuzum of Cork University Hospital, in association with Dr Wanda Malcolm, Professor of Pastoral Psychology at Wycliffe College, University of Toronto.

During the conference, we are worshipping once again nearby in Saint John’s Church. On Tuesday evening we are in Saint Canice’s Cathedral, followed by a reception in the Deanery.

Just before this afternoon’s coffee break, news broke of the election of the Revd Ferran Glenfield as Bishop of Kilmore, Elphin and Ardagh. But there were interesting conversations with the Revd Dr Norman Gamble of Malahide about injecting new life into Affirming Catholicism in Ireland and into the Society of Catholic Priests, interesting conversations over the dinner tables, and interesting conversations that went on until late in the night.

Looking out on John Street Bridge in the dusk of evening in Kilkenny (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2013)

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