My best subject at school was Mathematics. I hoped I would read Computer Science at university, and was absolutely certain that one thing I didn’t want to do with my aptitude for numbers was become an accountant. So when I went for one job interview and they said they’d like me to train as an accountant, I found reasons right in the middle of that interview to get out fast.
Thus it is that one thing I hate doing every year is my accounts. Most ministers are in the invidious position each year of having to complete a form of agony devised by Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs called a self-assessment tax return. On the television you see assorted celebrities from year to year proclaiming something jaunty about their completion. To me, it is dullness of the lowest order.
You see, our employment situation as ministers is ambiguous. We are not run-of-the-mill employees whose tax affairs are taken care of by Pay As You Earn (although our main stipend is taxed that way). Some in our church would like us to be their employees so they can boss us around, but legally we’re not. Nor are we self-employed, even though in employment law our employer is God and we lack protection against unfair dismissal – although the current Government has been looking to change that. Nor, obviously, are we company directors, however much we would like to tell people what to do.
No, we fall into that smallest of employment categories, along with Superintendent Registrars and a few others: we are ‘office holders’. And although most of our income can be covered under PAYE, we receive other fees that need taxing, and claim various expenses that can be set against tax. Thus we have to complete a return each year. Although I meticulously keep all my papers and receipts for the year (a challenge for a constitutionally untidy person like me), I have to put aside a whole day to enter data on a spreadsheet that I then send to my wonderful accountant in Glasgow, with his well-deserved fee. Anyone who can spend their working days dealing with these trees has the admiration of a woods person like me.
This year, I had been putting off the evil day, until today. I am typing this as I have just finished printing off the final sheet and covering letter. The challenge for me is to undertake this annual chore in a Christlike way. As I’ve indicated, the skills and temperament it requires don’t sit with my gifts and personality.
Here is how I see it. When I was considering whether I was called to the ministry many years ago, I once quizzed a speaker at Spring Harvest. I explained that I thought I was being called, yet I was by no means certain whether my gifts matched the calling. His reply was that there are some things God simply calls us to do as servants.
It was a comment I remembered a few years ago when a colleague explained how he came to terms with those parts of ministry he found uncongenial, or those where he believed the Methodist Church had got it wrong and should change, but hadn’t. “I regard some things as my calling, and others as my job,” he said.
Today, I’ve had to remember that this was job and not calling, but I am equally called to undertake this tedious task as an act of loyal discipleship (to Christ, not HMRC!). If I’d really thought about it, I would have practised the presence of God. Not that I would expect a wonderful spiritual experience while typing numbers into Microsoft Excel, but because I believe God is as pleased with the faithful fulfilment of these tasks as he is with those we find rewarding, or where others compliment us.
Right now, I’m just glad it’s over for another year.