on the rights and wrongs of busy priests

There’s a trend for clergy to decry busyness and I get it. Being busy has become a badge of honour, especially among the middle classes. For some reason, lots of people also want their priest to be busy and they naturally assume that you are, so you go along with it, because it makes you feel important and worthy, and like stuff is happening.

But there have been dissenting voices to the busy priest trope: shouldn’t the priest be the person with time to stare at the sky, the person of prayer, the one outside the normal rushing madness? Short answer: Yes.

Being busy is not always utterly desirable, but I’ve had some weeks when I wasn’t busy at all, and it wasn’t that pleasant an experience.

During a recent non-busy week, I did all my emails, got on top of the housework, visited a few people and cleared my desk. Then I went shopping, looked at my emails again (no different from two hours previously) and got up to date with social media.

The next day when I still wasn’t busy, I didn’t know what to do. I did some laundry, wondered idly if any clerics still have a study day, and read a short novel. After polishing all the surfaces I went shopping again.

On day three of the same, after a few more emails and one short meeting, I felt numb with boredom.

However there was a deanery event that week, one where the agenda’s full of GDPR and Safeguarding, and then it’s finger food in a church hall and trying to avoid getting into too many competitive clergy conversations (‘we started a new family service with croissants and 60 people turned up’).

And at this event someone asked me how I was. ‘I’m fine’, I answered (actually sometimes I say ‘I’m good’, because it annoys more traditionally minded people who think in answer to the question, ‘how are you?’ you should reply ‘I’m well’, which is grammatically correct, but with language evolving all the time, now seems archaic, like something you might have said to your great aunt).

‘How are you?’ I returned. ‘Oh, BUSY’, came the reply. So far, so normal. And then I was asked a follow up question, or rather an observation, deemed to be self evident since I was a parish priest (my questioner was a lay person). I was told, ‘you must be so BUSY!’

This was the week I’d been polishing and reading a novel, so in answer to the question/statement ‘you must be so BUSY’, I just said ‘not really’ and left it at that. I might well have said ‘yes, so busy I’ve been running round naked through the village’, because the response to my ‘not busy’ answer was one of deep shock.

‘Not busy? Not busy? Oh, goodness. Well we’ll soon find you something to do!!’

Just churchy banter, but it vaguely unsettled me, as if being not busy was a capital crime of the clergy, when actually it could be the one thing other people might be attracted to, if you could just be not busy enough to listen and notice, which are two things most people cannot seem to do in these days of busyness.

So although I’m not about to sing the praises of busyness for busyness’ sake, and I don’t fancy being given stuff to do for the sake of it, sometimes being busy after a very quiet week can feel nice.

In a very different exchange a few weeks later, someone gave a beautiful reflection on how being busy in a certain way, was not only nice, but a wonderful thing, a thing linked to gratitude and energy and purposefulness and all the other wonderful attributes of the abundant life Jesus modelled.

When you’re in your late 20s and childless you think anyone who has teenagers must be as old as the hills. Twenty years back we knew this special couple in our church, whose teenagers attended the youth group we ran, in our youthful energy (we were only about 10 years older than the teenagers themselves, and not much wiser).

I suppose we were approaching 30 and this special couple were probably about 15 years older. Back then they were in that intense phase of middle age when you still have teenage dependents who are trying to become adults themselves, and you’re both holding positions of some responsibility in your own professional jobs, plus beginning to worry about your own ageing parents.

In other words they were, back then, very BUSY.

We caught up with this couple recently – now fully retired and children long gone – and they were still the nicest, most decent, faithful and joyful Christian people you could ever hope to have in your church.

They wanted to know all about our lives, and as we happened to have just both come from very busy weeks, and have ourselves known that middle aged phase of pressure and change from above and below, they understood how we felt, and actually rejoiced in our busyness, because they knew, as only people who’ve gone before know, that your dependent kids grow up….and so fast…

‘Enjoy your busyness – it’s so rich! It’s such a rich life – enjoy it while you can – it’s all so wonderful’. That was basically their theology, delivered with the warmest love and Christian friendship to a couple (us) now considerably older than they were when we so looked up to them in church twenty years ago (and thought they were so old)…

‘Enjoy your busyness!!’

Enjoying your busyness. In their enthusiasm, they commended to us a beautiful picture of the abundant life. Not busyness for busyness’ sake (that fear that a non-busy priest might not have enough to do) but a joyful affirmation that everything that takes up time and energy, especially when you’re juggling work and family life, is a chance to live out your vocation, and live it to the full.

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