Book Review: Emma Percy, ‘What Clergy Do: Especially when it looks like nothing’

(Amazon link) (SPCK, 2014)

I picked this book up at the Modern Church conference last week where I heard Emma Percy speak. The book riffs off Naomi Stadlen’s book ‘What Mothers Do: Especially when it looks like nothing’, and is focussed around the mothering/clergy analogy. In her talk, Percy mainly used breastfeeding as the image; in the book, she uses mothering children at all ages, from breastfeeding through weaning to the teenage years, to consider all the complexities of parish work.

It’s always welcome when an author writes down something you’ve been saying for years. There are a couple of examples in this book of things I’ve been saying for year: one, which I think is applicable to all sorts of groups who don’t have clergy, is about outreach. ‘Mission’, as the church tends to term it, is often treated in a very reductive way, to ‘bums on pews’, but as Percy writes in this book, “growth is not easy to measure according to neat numerical scales” (p157).

I feel like I’ve had this conversation with Quakers over and over. We ran Quaker Quest, or some other outreach thing, and all anyone wants to know is, ‘Did any of them come on Sunday?’ Well, who cares. If people came to an event – a few people, people we already knew, people we never see again – and they learnt something, even if that thing was ‘Quakerism isn’t for me, actually’, isn’t that a success?

Linked to this point is the broader one, touched on in previous posts here, about not getting too worried about numbers. Much of the work which clergy do, much of what needs doing in a community or a family, cannot be expressed in numbers or targets achieved. Like the crafter who needs a big supply of ‘nothing’ in order to make ‘something from nothing’, much of what keeps us busy in building our communities will be ‘nothing’ from the point of view of the to-do list. ‘Had a cup of tea and a chat’ doesn’t tick off many boxes, but that doesn’t mean it’s not worth doing. If anything, we may need to find new language for these tasks so that we can explain to the tick-box people (or the tick-box focussed sides of our own minds) why we are bothering.

That said, I’m well aware that I’m terrible at this. I can’t remember people’s names, I lose track if I don’t speak to someone for a week or two, they can’t remember me and ask ‘so are you a student?’ fifteen times in a row, I get annoyed and walk out before tea and biscuits, etc. From that perspective, I found this book really useful, both as a reminder that those things are important, and a reassurance that even those people who are good at this stuff learn it and put effort into maintaining it. Like motherhood, pastoral and spiritual care are skills, not instincts, and anyone can get better at them.

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