Teachers, junior doctors and vicars – the precious value of vocations

stressed teacher

In the course of the past few months I have had a similar conversation with a number of very different people in a variety of professions. All have resigned from a profession they largely loved and felt clearly drawn to. And all have come to the painful and difficult conclusion that they can no longer continue in their chosen profession and remain themselves.

Of these, two are GPs. Both have spent huge amounts of time, energy and money and significant personal cost to qualify. Both have worked for a number of years in the NHS and yet both have come to point where they can no longer continue. For these two GPs the pressure to attend to patients at breakneck speed, ensuring that a quota of patients can be seen by lunchtime within the targets set for them by their practice managers, has simply proved too much. They are stressed, demoralized, almost broken. They are also heart broken, drive out by an atmosphere of systemic urgency which mitigates against the kind of time and attention required to really care for a human being.

Two others are teachers. Both have taught, quite intentionally, in schools with a challenging intake of students from disadvantaged backgrounds. And both feel they can no longer attend to these children as people because the system will not allow it. Their vocation to nurture the potential of these children has been crushed by the sheer weight of administrative responsibility, suffocated by an airless atmosphere of one-dimensional achievement and endless inspection.

Asjunior doctors strike I write junior doctors are in the midst of an unprecedented third strike. Whilst the strike is about a new contract, and therefore, in theory, about pay and working hours, at heart it is about value. It is about how much we value a vocation where intelligent people, invest huge amounts of themselves, often at great personal sacrifice, in order to tend to another human being at a point of need.  Junior doctors recognise, in the new contract soon to be imposed on them, not just something that is unfair, but something that ultimately devalues their vocation.

A vocation is something that will motivate the individual beyond the normal relationship between work and remuneration. GPs, teachers, and junior doctors already work far more hours than they are contracted to. They do so because something within them drives them to care, to nurture, to heal. We recognise it in them, we know that it is there to some degree in all of us. We want it to be there when we need it ourselves.

However, what we are witnessing, in all these professions, is the effects of a culture that has significantly lost sight of the value and beauty of vocation. In The Road to Character New York Times columnist David Brooks argues powerfully that our western culture has increasingly become infected by a ‘utilitarian virus’. This culture lives by a ‘the logic of economics’, in which:

Input leads to output. Effort leads to reward. Practice makes perfect. Maximise your utility. Impress the world.’

And it results in a kind of mean-spirited reductionism that distils everything down to what can be measured, what can be systematized, what can be reproduced and maximized. It is the world of economics translated into every corner of life. And now it is reaching those areas of life utterly ill-disposed to it, the care and nurture of our fundamental humanity, our health, our education.

In that same clutch of conversations I referred to earlier there were also two ordained ministers. I knew them both when, with myself and others, we arrived at theological college to train for ministry in the Church of England. Each of us had articulated our sense of vocation to a substantial number of people within the church and been accepted for training. We were a cohort of men and women, on average in our 30’s, passionate about our faith, hopeful for the future of the church, and committed to lead and serve the church in its worship and mission.  10 years later I happened upon two of that same cohort seriously considering leaving the ministry. Not for a loss of faith. Not primarily due to the demands of the job. They were on the edge of resigning from ministry for the same reason that my GP friends and teacher friends were resigning – the institution they had committed themselves to serving no longer seemed to provide the context in which their vocation could be exercised. Both spoke with a sad resignation at the conclusion they had come to. They remained motivated by their faith, and by the vision of church that is local communities of disciples living out their faith in a local context, yet could no longer see how this deep sense of vocation could be given space in an institution that placed such huge demands of administration on them. This burden of administration; managing graveyards, the paperwork associated with grade listed buildings, the responsibility of service provision across multiple churches over a wide area was becoming a tsunami of managerial drudgery that they saw no way out of – except by moving on.

It was clearly painful for them to come to this conclusion. It was a huge salutary warning to me to hear it. And it ought to be a salutary warning to the church, the Church of England certainly, but perhaps the whole church.

It is some years now since John Drane wrote about the ‘McDonaldisation’ of the church. He described concisely the economic dogmatism of the corporate world, a world which creates a tyranny of calculability, predictability, conformity and control. And he urged the church against these creeping tendencies, arguing instead for values of creativity, relationality, flexibility and proactivity as an antidote.

In an age of continuing decline in the mainstream denominations what Brooks calls a ‘utilitarian calculus’ and Drane ‘McDonaldisation’ can be a pernicious temptation. It can be a potential default mechanism for large institutions struggling to keep going. But the casualties of its dehumanizing tendencies are everywhere. Teachers choosing to teach abroad. Junior doctors striking. Young ministers reluctantly leaving a denomination and seeking a context somewhere else in which their vocation can be expressed.

church vocationsI can remember our college vice-principle warning us not to end up ‘cranking the eccelesial machine’, and yet some of us, despite out best intentions, have ended up doing just that. 10 years into my life as an ordained minister I find myself as a training incumbent, Anglican-ese for a minister with responsibility for the 3 – 4 year post-ordination training phase of a new minister. The cohort of curates of which my curate is one are a phenomenal bunch of young ministers with a passionate sense of their vocation for leadership and mission in the church. Will this young group of fresh ministers also end up turning the crank? If they do we will have failed them. And the danger is we will also have lost them.

What then must the church do? First, we must listen. What is clear from my conversations with GPs, teachers and vicars alike is a sense in which the reality of the pressures of their jobs is not listened to by a distant and stubborn institution. The institution continues belligerently to eke out another year, another turn of the wheel, with staff constantly at the end of their resources. ‘Insanity’ as Einstein once said ‘is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.’ The church must listen to the vocations of those whose call it has affirmed, as they come into authorised ministry under their care. When I listen I hear people articulating a passion to make a difference, to lead in mission, to see the church change and be renewed. I do not hear a glowing endorsement of a ministry that will result in them wading knee deep in paperwork, or running from one service to another with hardly a moment for a meaningful conversation.

Secondly, in listening to these young ministers we must try to see that in them is a vision of what God is doing, a vision of the future of the church.  If we truly believe in the gift and divine value of vocation, as surely we do, then we must listen to what these vocations are saying, for they are the voice of God for what the church must be. We must be willing to take, in many cases, the bold risk of creating space for these vocations to flourish. We must stop forcing people into roles that give insufficient space for their gifts and call to thrive. This will mean tough decisions. It will mean that certain cogs in the ecclesial machine grind to a halt. It will mean investing in risky vocations, and creative individuals who don’t quite fit the mould. But it will, I believe, mean a shift toward shaping the church around its vocational future rather than its past.

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A song of the wild

Nightingale‘There is a tendency for us to flee from our wild silence and the wild dark, to pack up our gods and hunker down behind city walls, to turn the gods into idols, to kowtow before them and approach their precincts only in official robes of office. And when we are in the temples then who will hear the voice crying in the wilderness? Who will hear the reed shaken in the wind?’ Chet Raymo

I recently invited a group of people via Facebook to come and listen to nightingales. It was on a bit of a whim. I didn’t really expect anyone else to drive an hour from where I live to listen to a bird signing from the depths of a bush. I was also careful not to guarantee even hearing one at all. Nevertheless about 12 of us wandered into a wood in north Dorset at dusk and were treated to 10 minutes of a single nightingale unfurling his full and utterly fantastic repertoire. Some of his vocal acrobatics made us gasp with astonishment, others made us laugh. It just doesn’t seem possible for one small brown insignificant bird to be able to unleash such a symphony of sound.

It really was quite an evening. Most of us had never heard a nightingale before. The faces of most of the urban dwellers we were with opened up in wonder. It was magical and utterly life-giving.

And it reminded me of why I took up birdwatching 10 years ago. A counsellor I was seeing at the time asked me about life outside of work. The reality was at that stage in my life that time for interests that had sustained me at other times had been squeezed out. ‘So why not take up something else?’ ‘What would you do if you decided to do something you’ve never done?’

So I began birdwatching with a cheap pair of sports binoculars and it was one of the best decision I’ve ever made. Perhaps the greatest revelation in this growing passion was the world that opened up to me when I began to learn the songs and calls of birds. Suddenly the background sound world of birds that lies there unobtrusively but consistently in even the most unwild of environments began to reveal its secrets. It was like learning a new language. Like switching to short wave and discovering a foreign station suddenly making sense. It was as though this dimension of wilderness that had seemed so distant had crept closer and I was party to its presence whilst others carried on regardless. It was a transforming discovery.

Much has been made of the loss of darkness in our urban world. But less has been made of the loss of the sounds of the wild in a world increasingly noisy with the drone of traffic and the roar of jet planes. A recent article however argues for birdsong to be taught in schools as a means of trying to reconnect us with a wilderness we are increasingly estranged from. This is in response to a sense that we are losing the ability to hear, recognise and appreciate the sounds of the natural world. It argues; “We are conditioning ourselves to ignore the information coming into our ears, and as a consequence we are losing the ability to engage with the environment in the way we were built to”

I agree. It’s not just that those sounds are being pushed more and more to the margins, though that is part of it. There is still an abundance of birdsong in even the most intensely built environment, indeed some birds (swifts, gulls, even peregrines) have learnt to thrive in it. It is that our senses have become dulled to the point of deafness to these sounds that were once part of the very day experience and knowledge of most people. The sheer volume of noise we encounter everyday means that our ears and brains make a choice and our attentiveness to the irrelevant noises of birds gets unlearned.

And with it something else gets lost. Something of our humanity, something of our soul, that is made to engage with the natural world. All spirituality starts with attentiveness. It starts when we lift our attention away from our little universes, stop and pay attention to something beyond us, something which doesn’t need us, something that just is. For me learning birdsong opened up a world that helped me reconnect with the wonder and diversity of the natural world that had been there all the time if only I had stopped to listen. It also helped me enhance my ability to forget myself and my petty concerns and pay attention to something else.

As the world of birdsong continued to open up to me I was constantly reminded of those words of Jesus in concluding many of his parables; ‘He who has ears to hear, listen…’. It is not that we cannot hear the call of the wild, the invitation of the natural world, the beckoning of something sacred in creation. It is simply that we have stopped listening. And when we stop listening the danger is we actually lose the ability to listen at all. I wonder to what extent along with birdsong we are losing the ability to hear other things, our true selves, others, and even God himself.