It has often felt like being a bitter and twisted retired Church minister is an occupational hazard. I have known many retired ministers who have stuck with congregational parish ministry who have ended up all bitter and twisted. For some reason they felt they have been treated badly in their life and work. Sometimes they feel like their obvious gifts were not recognised. I think too most of the people they know get substantial increases in salary and power as they become more senior, but for a minister there are often no opportunities for "promotion" nor of increased earning capacity. Our movement too is very democratic and the minister does not have much authority in Church life. Everything has to be agreed democratically before elders or congregation and this can lead to a sense of frustration. In my experience the happiest retired ministers I have found are those who left parish Church ministry and worked in chaplaincy, a church agency or a para-church organisation. As I enter my last nine weeks of my career as a minister I am struggling. I find it could be so easy to become all bitter and twisted.
I look back on my career and ministry and find many "if only" things. "If only they had let me do..." "If only I had more support for..." "If only they had decided to..." "If only we had better facilities..." "If only..." etc. etc. I look back and have reason to feel there have been lost opportunities, limitations placed on some things and disappointing support for others. So as I get nostalgic and try to evaluate my life and ministry I find it is easy to become bitter and twisted.
"Lord help me not to become like that!" I have often said to my wife, "Please do not let me get all bitter and twisted!" and my retirement from my current ministry is in part a preventative measure. - Three other things I need to do.
- Accept my part in the disappointments or lost opportunities. It is too easy to always blame others for such things, but I need to accept that often I have been complicit in the failure. Maybe I have been too afraid to rock the boat or really confront people? Maybe I have not presented things in the right way? Maybe I ought to have delegated more? Whatever it may be, I need to accept that I am not a perfect minister and say truthfully about some things "WE lost that opportunity." or "WE messed up that." In this I need to forgive myself for my mistakes.
- Secondly as I read Ron O'Grady's book I loved the line where he said, "The clearest fact about life is that what might have been is not what is." To avoid getting bitter I need to remember and just repeat that - and move on. There is no good looking back, it will not change the past, but it can make my future miserable.
- Thirdly I need to remember and celebrate the successes and achievements.
One other book I read while away was "The New Zealanders" by Maurice Shadbolt. In it was a short story that was set in the early 1950's about a guy named Roger. Roger was a close friend of a couple called Peter and Val. In the story Peter had been active in the communist party and trade union, writing and speaking trying to bring what he saw as vital change to society. He eventually created enemies even in the communist party and was excluded. He was killed in a drunken car accident and the basic story is about Roger visiting Val his widow, about a year after the accident. A conversation in the last paragraphs of the story rang bells with me and I report it from memory. Roger was trying to get Val to have a realistic picture of her husband's life. "He was a failure!" he said and pointed out that all his writing and speeches did not make one bit of difference. Val was understandably not pleased about the direction of this conversation, but eventually responded with, "It doesn't matter." "What doesn't matter?" demanded Roger. "It doesn't matter that he was a failure." she replied. "So you think that too?" "Of course he was." (a failure) said Val, "But it doesn't matter whether he was a failure or not. It matters that he tried. At least Peter tried." ... then to confirm her thinking she repeated, "It doesn't matter that he was a failure. He tried to make a difference. Most people do not even try."
However people view my career as a minister, (and I have many critics - I am out of step with much contemporary "Christian" thinking ) as I go through the process of leaving that career behind in the next nine weeks, I can honestly say, "At least I tried! I tried to give expression to how I saw the mind and spirit of Jesus." Many have given up, are half hearted in their involvement or do not care. At least I tried, and ultimately I can be satisfied with that. "Lord help me not to be bitter!"