Deja vu

One of the things you notice when you visit people is that you will often hear the same stories on subsequent visits. With many people you’ll get a ‘but I’ve told you this before’ comment, but what happens when it’s someone whose memory isn’t what it once was? My supervisor asked me the question a while ago about whether such visits continue to have value or whether there is better use of a minister’s time. It’s especially pertinent when the person visited has little or no recollection of you even having visited previously. It may sound a little callous but it’s a legitimate question (and especially when time pressures come to bear).

I’m not sure I have any kind of answer and I expect that whatever thoughts I have now will almost certainly change when the reality of ministry hits. I believe that stories are important. They define, in many ways, who we are. They are our condensed memory of an event, an experience or a relationship. They are coloured by our prejudice and edited by our ego. But they are important to us and telling them to others allows our stories (and ourselves) to have a place in a bigger story. By hearing stories we give a sense of value and worth to the teller. By bringing their story into our story we grow our own story and allow it to grow and change. And of course, by integrating our story, and the stories we hear, into the ongoing ‘narrative’ we have with God and our faith, then we also grow. And, of course, we have an example in Jesus who ‘unravelled’ people’s stories and opened them up to allow the gospel to become part of their story.

So, when we visit and hear a story, we continue to affirm the life of a person, the importance of their story and their continuing place in the broader story of the church family. When we hear the same story over and over again it may try our patience and we may doubt the use of our time, but it is a way of showing we value the person who is a loved creation of God.

All well and good, but can the reality be sustained in ‘real ministry’?

10 responses to “Deja vu”

  1. Perhaps it depends on what your “real ministry” is for.     Is your time more important than the tale teller’s life?   Assuming that you would not use the argument that time is money, then what else would you have to do that is more important than spending time with someone who has something that they feel they want to share with you?

  2. And when you are visiting someone who is in the very advanced stages of dementia and who has no speech by which to tell their story anymore…?  Some of my thought processes on this:
    We visit.
    We visit because people are created in the image of God.
    We visit because we value human worth no matter how broken or damaged that human is, and we don’t visit with a view to some kind of speculative investment [what they might be able to do for us/ give us].   I guess we visit as opposed to ‘have a meeting’.  That’s the difference.
    We visit because Christ was present with people on the margins and, in our society, the elderly and those with dementia are shut away/ isolated and marginalised – and counted as worthless.  And when we don’t visit, we have made the judgement call that these are folks who are simply not worth our time… and once we do that, where do we draw the line?
    We visit because it is ‘real’ ministry and Christ is present in the moment, not just in the past or the future…
    We visit because, at one time, these were people who were part of the story of our congregation and continue to be, although now probably unable to physically be present.  Although they may not remember, and be unable to tell their story, we do and can – and in and through this they are held in the body of Christ.  It is an honouring of past faithfulness, perhaps?
    We visit because even tho’ we may think and feel ‘what’s the point if they don’t remember’ the point is about being there – this is incarnation at the raw cutting edge.  It makes us feel uncomfortable because it triggers things deep down in our psyches about our own frailty and mortality, even though we might not be able to articulate it as that.
    We visit, because Christ does not forget them as he never leaves or forsakes us.  We are all beloved and remembered by God.
    We visit, because in visiting, it’s not necessarily about what we are ‘doing to’ folk… in the process of encounter, in the process of just being human and vulnerable and being there our lives are changed in ways we may never fully know.
    Guess it depends on how you view visiting: what the purpose of it is, why we do it at all?

  3. As someone who isn’t good at visiting can I humbly make an observation or two ?

    Why do we do it ? There is the bit in Matthew, I think, where the sheep and the goats are divided on the basis of visiting, healing, caring etc… when did I see you naked ? etc.

    But, visiting is by far and away the easiest thing to criticise a minister for doing (or not) and almost always by someone who has either a theoretical notion of what ministry is about or who has no practical idea at all. And that criticism can be very hurtful indeed, speaking from bitter personal experience.
    The practicalities of ministry isn’t about making judgement calls on someone not being ‘worth our time’. It’s about trying to balance a vast array of ministerial expectations not just of the job itself, but of the use of particular skills and talents.
    I heard an apocryphal tale of one minister who went to a congregation and said you can have my head or my feet but not both. By which I understood them to mean that sermon prep took time as did visiting, but to do both well was not physiaclly possible. I tend to agree with that analysis. Anyone capable of doing both well will be a candidate for therapy within six months, or a Nobel prize.
    I try to visit where and when really needed and that has to be a judgement call. There are people who exaggerate a need in order to be certain of a visit and that takes away from where real needs exist. There are many within churches that hark back to the day when the only church visit was the minister’s one, and today there are still those who give legitimacy to the clergy visit. What value to they place on lay visits ? Are they someone not good enough ? Are they not making an unfair and unwarranted judgement call on the church member and friend ?
    Visits are but one of the balls that are kept juggling by clergy at a time where the demands on clergy is ever on the increase. Once you add on the funeral load, the Sunday prep, the various committees and council work of the church at all levels and then try and have a life with family and ‘me time’, it all mounts up.
    In ‘real’ ministry realities can be maintained, but other things have to be sacrificed and choices to have to be made and that will inevitably mean a judgement call of one kind or another.
    Rant over….sorry.

  4. Thanks all,

    Linda, thanks for commenting. You’re right, of course, in that ‘time is money’ cannot be an argument for ministry and if someone has something to share (and the minister is often in a privileged position for such sharing) then a significant part of that calling is to listen. David highlights some of the pressures that can mean we cannot give as much time to people as we would always like to do. And Nikki highlights some excellent reasons why it is an important part of ministry.

    Your comments also show the tensions inherent in ministry We acknowledge that people are to be valued yet with finite resources and different giftings it can (and will) be impossible to meet the expectations of a congregation and a community and give time to all who require it.

    What I sense in the words is that integrity is crucial. If the focus is to be on preaching and teaching (with less emphasis on pastoral), then that needs to be done consistently well. If the focus is pastoral work, then it has to be done in a way that reflects the value we claim for individuals. I suppose that if one ‘path’ is chosen over another there are things that can be put in place to supplement the apparent ‘shortfall’ – pastoral visitors or study groups. But I suppose the biggest thing is not to beat one’s self up if you feel you cannot meet everyone’s expectations. Know your strengths, gifts and priorities and learn to juggle.

  5. John, I was chatting to a couple of pals last night about this over dinner.  Gonna paint with a bit of a broad brush here, so please do excuse that, lol.
    We were reflecting on the nature of ministry, and the point/ purpose of visiting, and in particular visiting folks who are in the various stages of dementia/ alzheimer’s/ etc.  We wondered if in the midst of all of this, there is a gendered way in which this might be viewed?  [and, as an aside, I remember being asked about what I perceived to be the difference, if any, between men and women who are in ministry]
    This question, to crudely phrase it,  ‘what’s the point of visiting people who want remember you’ve been there in 10 minutes time… isn’t it just a waste of time?’ …  Has, at its heart a desire for efficiency, good use of time, some ‘point’, and also an acknowledgement that this is a problem that ain’t gonna get fixed by visiting, so best to just move on somewhere that you can be more ‘useful’.  And it’s also something I rarely hear women asking, and nearly always asked by chaps.  This isn’t a criticism in any way.  I just suspect men and women are, in general, wired to approach people/ problems/ things differently?  Women have tended to be the ones who’d ‘just pop in to see if great aunty mildred was alright’, or sit quietly by hospital bedsides waiting as a loved one died, or meet together for a good blether [in the midst of which there was a shared pastoral thing happening subconcsiously].  Women are used to just being and blethering and understand that this is perhaps a big part of the stuff of life, maybe?  Men have almost been conditioned out of this, and forced into approaching life in a more ‘functional, efficient’ manner, perhaps.  And of course, there are women who are totally useless around people and men who are incredibly good at being and blethering…  but I wonder if this kind of makes some sort of sense?
    Sorry for rambling and making generalisations… just teasing things out in my own thought processes mate, lol!!

  6. Hi Nikki,
    Thanks for adding some thoughts. I suspect you’re right about the issue being ‘gendered’. Men do have a habit of wanting to ‘fix’ things and if it’s not fixable then there’s no point in doing anything with it. I think that’s one of the lessons we learn going into, and through, ministry – there are times when we can’t fix things. I guess how we respond to those situations is key to shaping pastoral ministry. I suspect it’s not limited to the pastoral side either. I tend to want to pack too much into a sermon, because I’ve got to explain everything, don’t I? Again, that may be a gendered thing or it might just be me.
    Or is it about ‘process’ against ‘results’? What’s important, the journey or the destination? Maybe our answer to that shows up how we might respond to the rest?

  7. The ‘gender’ thought is a very helpful one. I do want to use time as best/efficiently as I can.
    It doesn’t address the wider issue of congregational expectation and the loaded criticism that comes in the clergy direction. It is the easiest way to get clergy on a guilt trip is to fire the visiting (or not) arrow.
    ‘Integiry’ is a good way of looking at this issue. If, at the end of the day, integrity is intact, then the guilt thing is lessened, though not destroyed.
    Sorry about the rant earlier…. it’s a bit of a sore subject for me.

  8. Dunno if it was a rant, exactly, David – think you had some very good points and made them well.  Yup, congregational expectation’s a difficult one: I heard a story last night about a minister who, when interviewing for a new parish, stated to the committe quite categorically that he ‘didn’t do visits’.  The minister following him was discussing this many years later and said, ‘y’know, it was probably a crucial mistake: if he hadn’t of said that, it wouldn’t have mattered.  But for years, the minister had the reputation of never visiting.  Ironically, according to the following minister, previous minister visited well and frequently, and more than he ever does… and yet is perceived as the one who is a minister who visits.
    Another story a minister pal told me concerning visiting.  The previous minister [a chap] had a reputation of doing lots of visits – each week, lots and lots….  My friend arrived at the parish… and very early on was being harassed by the session and a couple of elders in particular for not having the same frequency of visits.  She eventually worked out that previous minister would do a 5 minute pop-in visit… to her half-hour/ hour visit.  Not criticising either approach, both are ministers who visit: in a sense one does quantity the other does quality, perhaps??
    From my own experience, the visits with folk with dementia and hospital visits are better at the shorter end of the time-scale – it is exhausting for the folk you’re visiting to stay too much longer than say 15-20 minutes.  With dementia visits, especially at the advanced stage, where there is little speech faculty, visit in pairs – and as the conversation happens bring the person your visiting into the conversation – but make sure to bring them in and not just chat amongst yourselves, lol!!  One to one dementia visits set up a dynamic of subtle expectation – dialogue … the expectation that the person with dementia may feel pressured to have to respond.  Again, by doing a visit as a pair, that pressure is taken off.  A useful place to look into how to include/ care/ work with folks with issues around dementia is the group FIOP – Faith in Older People.  They are great.  I was involved in one of their courses and learnt so much.

  9. Thanks Nik.
    One thing I still do when visiting someone with memory problems is to always leave a card for relatives to see. That way they know that I’ve been.
    The quantity/quality issue is an interesting one. I’ve seen examples of that very point and have to leave that one to the person’s professional integrity.
    I have to say that sometimes a conversation in the street is almost better than a conventional visit because people are relaxed and will occasionally tell you something they wouldn’t have in the home (although I readily accept that very personal things are spoken of best there)
    The previous minister…. that’s always a tricky one. Some are canonised (and everything they did was done as if by angelic means) and some are exactly the opposite. Often depends on a personality clash, but can simple be someone trying to change something after a long ministry. Having painfully experienced a ‘bridging ministry’ after the previous minister had died weeks after retiring, the predecessor problem is one to be aware of (and frequently taken with a serious pinch of salt !!).

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