When I was eighteen, my life changed unexpectedly. Since the age of five, I had been identified as a university prospect. I had a place (subject to A-Level grades) to read Computer Science at Imperial College, London. One month before the A-Levels, though, a sudden searing pain in my neck put paid to them. Although a consultant rheumatologist prescribed some physiotherapy that regained the movement in my neck and the pain reduced, it never completely subsided. I took a clerical job in the Civil Service and decided to review my long-term future. Ultimately that led to theological colleges and the ministry, but that’s another story.
Fast-forward to six years ago. My wife was pregnant with our first child, but I was still suffering from neck pain and frequent headaches. I didn’t want to be regularly out of action when a baby was around. My GP recommended the osteopath attached to the practice, and I began seeing Jamie regularly. One of the first things he explained to me was that my neck problems began with my feet. I could begin to teach my body a healthier posture if I based my sitting positions on how I placed my feet. Then the spine would start to move into a better position.
When we moved here three years ago, Jamie recommended a practice, and I now see Tom every six weeks. This morning I saw him. He is always full of helpful advice. I explained today that on my daily power walk that I take for fitness and blood pressure reduction, I regularly end up with a stiff neck. I had noticed that I tighten up my shoulders involuntarily. He showed me how I could help that by tightening my abdominal muscles in order to take some strain off my spine.
Afterwards, I went to a local Christian bookshop. There I bumped into a vicar friend. In exchanging the usual pleasantries, he said of his parish, ‘I’ve been here three years and I’ve only just learned the questions I need to ask. I don’t know the answers, but I do at last know the questions.’
Later, it struck me that metaphorically there was a connection with osteopathy. What I have learned from osteopathy is the general life lesson that the presenting problem is not necessarily the source of the problem, nor is it necessarily the place where the solution must begin. Healing my neck involves my feet and abdominal muscles, amongst other places. Likewise, it has taken my friend three years to get to the roots of parish issues. Clearly, the questions weren’t what he first conceived them to be. A good proportion of ministry is about people wanting us to ‘take the pain away’, but the best ways of doing so may not be what people want.
Richard Foster famously said that superficiality is the curse of our age. We go for surface solutions, for style over substance. It is especially tempting in the ministry if your long-term future in an appointment is not secure. In order to make an impact, you may find yourself leaning in the direction of doing something spectacular that does not have roots, in the hope that you might be able to stay longer. However, if you knew you were staying longer, you might take the healthier course of action – of exploring what the real questions and issues were, rather than leaping on the obvious.
While I am not sure I like the Anglican system where the incumbent is granted the ‘freehold’ of the parish and can stay as long as they like, provided they are not naughty, I do wonder whether the Methodist system should have further longevity built into it. Our present system allows for an initial invitation of five years. This is reviewed just under four years in – that is the real length of time in which a minister has to have an impact in order to win the vote. It used to be worse: the initial appointment when I was younger was three years. We do seem to have learned from other traditions that longer ministries are generally better, but I wonder whether we should increase that initial five to, say, seven.
We need to resist the crash-bang-wallop nature of our culture, where everything has to be instant. (Blogging and twenty-four-hour news channels only exacerbate the instant coffee and microwave food society.) Might it be counter-cultural to be slow, so that we might trace the root causes of problems and begin to apply treatment?
UPDATE: When I wrote this post yesterday, there was another aspect of osteopathy I meant to include. As I understand it, osteopathy is a therapy that doesn’t so much heal the body itself as put the body into a place where it self-heals. That, it seems to me, makes for an interesting pastoral analogy. Pastors don’t heal people, they equip them to find healing. In Psalm 23, the Lord as shepherd leads the sheep to green pastures and still waters – but there they presumably feed and water themselves. A pastor’s ministry includes showing people how they may access spiritual food and water, rather than simply putting it on a plate for them all the time.