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  • Writer's pictureRoss Moughtin

When told to do the impossible

An encouraging email this week: “A big thank you for the support through MDR. You are one of the few clergy I feel instinctively understands our ministry.” This was from a clergy person following their annual Ministerial Development Review with me, an appraisal scheme now mandatory for all CofE clergy.

There’s always the temptation to see this yearly evaluation simply as a jumping-through-hoops exercise, ticking the right boxes while formulating some worthy goals for the next 12 months (soon to be forgotten). However, as a reviewer my aim is to support a colleague in their work for the Lord, affirming them in what they are doing and to gain a sense of where God is leading them in their ministry. Above all, to be real. It helps that as a retired vicar holding no office in the Diocese I have neither influence nor patronage, so that the reviewee has no need to impress nor conceal. Careful listening is the key. I’ve come up with some surprising outcomes over the years. I recall one MDR in which we formulated that the main aim for the forthcoming year was to get the Bishop to change his mind. (I found out some months later that he did!) However, one MDR sticks out, even from some five years ago. I had forgotten it, except that sometime later I bumped into the reviewee who told me that my MDR had changed his ministry! Very simply, having read his preparatory comments and the submissions of three of his church members I came to a stark conclusion which I shared with him: “You are being asked to do an impossible job!” At that point a huge burden lifted from his shoulders. It was not he they faced certain failure through their inept or incautious ministry. As far as I was concerned, as a disinterested third party, what they were being asked to do by those in leadership simply could not be done. And that made all the difference. Sadly many people find themselves doing impossible jobs: disheartening, draining and demoralising, a sure recipe for burnout. And when they leave (if they are able), they count themselves as failures when the real failure lies with the person or system which placed them in the first place. I recall how Jacqui as a nurse faced a daunting assignment which she shared with her line manager, who simply responded by saying: “You’ll cope.” We weren’t sure whether this was a word to encourage or an imperative to be obeyed. Thankfully we were soon to move to another part of the country with my ministry before Jacqui hit that brick wall. However, Christians have problems with the word impossible. After all didn’t the pioneer missionary Hudson Taylor declare that “there are three stages to every great work of God; first it is impossible, then it is difficult, then it is done.” Even more, we are challenged as disciples of Jesus to thrive in the impossible. As revivalist Armin Gesswein observed: “When God is about to do something great, he starts with a difficulty. When he is about to do something truly magnificent, he starts with an impossibility.” They’re right, of course, but notice who is the subject here: God himself, his initiative. As the angel Gabriel informs a somewhat startled Mary. “For with God, nothing is impossible.” (Luke 1:37). When the Holy Spirit is involved, we are in a different ball game in which the impossible fades away. So Jesus himself wants to increase our faith in God, even as his disciples faced failure: “For truly I tell you, if you have faith the size of a mustard seed, you will say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there’, and it will move; and nothing will be impossible for you.” (Matthew 17:20) But this is faith in God himself rather than faith in ourselves or in our Christian leader or organisation. Which means that the Big Question at the commencement of any project, any ministry, has to be “Is this of God?” This is why it is so important, right at the outset, to discern what God wants us to do. Necessarily, the more daunting the task, the more rigorous has to be our guidance. God can take hard questioning – too much is at stake. Sadly it is so easy to project our ambitions onto God. And as frail human beings we so readily fall prey to pride and prestige. For we relish stirring tales of Christian deering-do while filtering out those stories of set-back and disappointment. And certainly it is a responsibility for those in Christian leadership not to shoe-horn believers into difficult jobs, giving them a false-confidence. In fact, once my MDR reviewee realised that what he was being asked to do could not be done, strangely he decided to stay and see it through. From then the pressure was off and a different dynamic came into play. And it is now upto God how things work out. For you never know when he is invited into your MDR! #guidance #stress #MDR

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