You were always on my mind (confessions of an introvert parish priest)

One way in which it is possible to discern truth is that it is something that sets you free. The peacock just can’t be kept down forever…

So I was listening to this song, shortly after a particular conversation about my ministry, and I thought ‘this is it!’

Maybe I didn’t treat you
Quite as good as I should have
Maybe I didn’t love you
Quite as often as I could have
Little things I should have said and done
I never took the time
You were always on my mind
You were always on my mind

Long term readers of this blog will know that I have struggled much with the nature of parish ministry. I think there are problems associated with the nature of the work itself; and then there are problems that are peculiar to me.

The problems that are associated with the nature of the work itself have been thoroughly considered elsewhere, and, really, that book needs to be read by anyone interested in the topic.

So this is about me. There are some things I’m good at, and there are some things I’m definitely not good at – and something I’m becoming comfortable accepting is that one of the things that I’m not good at is something close to being essential in a parish priest.

What is the difference between having a conversation with someone in the Rectory, who has come to discuss something important, and having that same conversation with someone in their own home? Well, one I find straightforward, I enjoy doing it (I think I’m reasonably good at it) and the other – well, there’s the rub. I find it difficult to go out and be with people in their own homes.

I realise that in order to go out I need an excuse and a structure. So, for example, I find it straightforward to take Holy Communion to the housebound. I enjoy that, I find it a very fulfilling element of my ministry, there’s never any ‘issue’ with this – because I have an excuse for going there, and there is a structure for what to do when I’m there. It’s as if I need a comfort blanket, something to fend off all the shyness and insecurity and fear of rejection. Something to hide behind.

Now this is a bit of a problem when you’re the parish priest and people have a natural expectation that the priest will be happy to just call in and talk. I wonder whether the George Herbert stuff was (in part) just a smoke screen – I couldn’t quite articulate what the deepest problems were and fastened on a superficial explanation as an interim place to stand.

It has given rise to some problems, and I’m sure it’s why there has been an “incredibly vicious campaign” against me in the town (not my words, although I don’t doubt the truth).

You always wanted me to be something I wasn’t
You always wanted too much, oh, oh
Now I can do what I want to – forever
How am I gonna get through?
How am I gonna get through?

I think if I was more of a natural people-person, someone who was able to press the flesh and talk the small talk and socialise and schmooze then many of the problems would have been dealt with more readily. I just can’t do that – even just thinking about it is exhausting, and I have enough of an issue with tiredness as it is. The fundamental issue is one of introversion (this is quite a good article if you’re unfamiliar with that jargon. Though I disagree that hell is other people. Hell is the school playground when you’re waiting for your children to emerge). I used to think it was deafness, and how that links in I’m not sure – whether one came first or whether they were formed together, I don’t know. I am quite profoundly introverted and… I’m OK with that. This is how God made me. What it means, however, is that there are always going to be times when the shoe pinches. Times when the expectations and desires clash rather strongly. Or to put it differently, I’m coming to accept that the answer to this question that I posed is ‘No’.

And there are implications to that acceptance.

And that’s alright.

I want to run, I want to hide
I want to break down the walls that hold me inside
I want to reach out, and touch the flame
Where the streets have no name

(By the way, the use of Pet Shop Boys videos is by way of extending a middle finger in the direction of a certain unmentionably awful tabloid newspaper that got caught up in the campaign and who thought that liking the Pet Shop Boys was conclusive proof of my general inadequacy. As one kind person put it ‘anyone who has been monstered by the Daily [Flail] is alright by me….’)

10 thoughts on “You were always on my mind (confessions of an introvert parish priest)

  1. Thank you for such personal searching and honesty. I’m annoyed that I can’t remember where I read something about it – though GinP on Twitter may recall?
    It was about the dichotomy of personality and vocation. That there are two types called to ministry, (my over simplification) extrovert and introvert. The first find socialising wonderful, introverts, as you describe, shrivel inside at the thought of parties etc. And yet, what parishes often think of as good priests are the jolly, socialisers who are at ease with people, when in reality what they need to bring them prayerfully closer to God is the quieter, socially frightened, inward looker. Something like that anyway? Perhaps it was Ken Leech? The problem really might be that it just isn’t possible for the introvert to throw themselves willy nilly into social encounters, without the huge personal cost that you describe (as tiredness) whereas it is easier for the jolly socialisers to quieten down and listen – though we all know priests, I’m sure, in the latter category who can’t embrace both….just as there possibly are some introverts who
    are just about able to put up the socially at ease smokescreen, but are exhausted both by the anticipation of the event as well as the energy required to survive it.
    I’ll stop.
    What I’m really saying is that I can identify with your feelings and thank you for articulating them so well.

  2. This post rings so many bells with me. I love visiting when there is a good and obvious reason for it – communions, baptism, wedding and funeral visits. But small talk is not what I am good at. And I can’t help feeling that God is telling us that the George Herbert model of ministry is unsustainable in a modern benefice.

  3. There’s the irony too. Jesus’ commanded his followers love each other. Jesus loved his disciples in their huge diversity of personalities.

    People can believe they own you and you must operate how they see fit. What a load of bullshit. You are in a vocation of great emotional pressure and should be supported and loved. End of.

    People need to stop being so self-righteous and embrace your strengths and realise as a ‘community’ others can take on areas which you struggle with. That’s the point isn’t it? Community.

    *Breathes deeply* Sorry to rant, but I hate it when gifted people are made to feel less because their gifts don’t fit into a stupid little box created by others.


  4. It’s your own fault for killing George Herbert when you met him on the road.

    Back in the days when I was a priest it was obvious to me that, like it or not, in the mind of most of the visited the priest represented the church and, through the church, Jesus Christ, in a way that a lay person did not. When a priest visits, Jesus is entering the home. This makes even the most casual visit a sacramental event. Every visit is an outward sign of the incarnation. That was enough reason for me to visit.

    As for structure, for goodness sake, Sam, remember your birthright. We have God’s wonderful gift to the English people, good manners and etiquette.

  5. You don’t need to be told that you are not alone?
    Over six decades, I’ve lost count of the incidents that I’ve witnessed of this kind. I think that you are being too hard on yourself, and that you might be conflating two completely different issues, and you’re emphatically not alone in that’s a huge problem that “small-talking” and “pressing the flesh” has become widely perceived as a criterion for pastoral ministry.
    2. This is possibly the reason that a dispute between a pastor/priest and a parishioner has come to be seen as a pastoral fault, rather than a problem that needs to be tackled and resolved by the whole community
    3. This is really difficult to express, and I know that i will get it wrong for somebody, no matter how hard I try to make the point objectively
    There has always been a problem about how we express individual and personal faith publicly and liturgically. That won’t go away.
    What we have to be firm and clear about is that public worship cannot and must not be an expression of personal talent.
    It doesn’t matter how gifted or knowledgeable an individual might be – musically or liturgically, laity or clergy. What matters is that liturgy is an expression of the whole community, and it’s the community that’s at fault, not the individuals, if there is a serious dispute about the conduct of the liturgy

  6. TVM for the click through, Sam. In exchange, we need a time for a pint together. I’ll look at my shoes and you can look at your shoes, and we’ll do it in companionable, silent, introversion.

  7. Thanks for the comments, some very helpful stuff there. I should say that this is the end of a process of discernment, not the beginning! I feel as if I should wear a shirt saying ‘out and proud’ but it would probably be misunderstood.

    MP you’ll be a priest until the day you die, and probably beyond. If you don’t believe that, then your argument in the comment above doesn’t work…

  8. Probably most exceptional people are introverts, or put another way, how many extroverts that you know, would you call exceptional? I suspect I have the same personality traits as yourself, so I understand exactly where you are coming from. As long as there are at least some people who recognise your talents, and as long as you sincerely do your best with those who don’t, do not worry that you cannot please ‘all of the people all of the time’. So here comes the unsolicited testamonial:-

    Very many thanks Sam for your quite exceptional wedding service and spiritual guidance for my daughter Penny and her partner Matthew. The service was ‘edgy’, bang on target, and perfect ministry to us quasi-Christians and semi-believers. If you were not an introvert you would not instill your ministry with all the literary and artistic references that make it so relevant to the present day.

    Your service set the scene for a perfect day including a wonderful speech by the best man Dave, aka local author ‘Ronnie Thompson’, who (if you read his books) is another unlikely introvert, but who overcame his nerves to give a perfect performance on the day.

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