Book Review: What Clergy Do, Especially When It Looks Like Nothing

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What Clergy Do: Especially when it looks like nothing
Emma Percy

ISBN: 9780281070244
SPCK Publishing, London





Clergy have a pivotal role in creating and nurturing church communities in which all people can grow up into Christ.  This book explores the nature of that role by considering key similarities with the essential but often conflicting demands of motherhood.”

Emma Percy draws on her PhD work and experience as a priest to describe how Church of England parish priests might function – using the model and language of motherhood. This is in deliberate contrast to the more business-oriented language of management and appraisal which others have also criticised as inappropriate for parish ministry.

As neither a mother nor a priest I was interested in finding out how this model would work on the page and in my head. I know plenty of priests, thanks to Twitter – I have heard to all the jokes about endless meetings, only working one day a week, resistance to change, and so on. On the whole, the book was interesting and gave me some useful insights into what the average vicar might be trying to accomplish when they are not standing at the front of a church in a frock. It wasn’t, however, particularly comprehensive: if you really did want a list of what it is that clergy do, rather than how they might approach it, you would feel misled by the title.

At times, the argument seemed a bit stretched – as if the idea just about worked as a model, but fell down in some places. Some of Percy’s examples of what might or might not happen in different situations felt very academic and impersonal – theoretical situations, rather than stories about real people. For there were some examples that were clearly about lively characters, three dimensional people – and they were all the more interesting. Perhaps this is a result of these being well anonymised as an academic thesis would need; perhaps they were fictitious illustrations. The ideas definitely came alive to me more when I felt that a real story was being told.

Several of the concepts Percy uses resonated with me. Her suggestion of the need to attend to people as they are not as we think or fear they are – the real person, not the type of person – touched a bit of a nerve with me. This is definitely something I have been guilty of when dealing with people in my working life. Trainee solicitors are not, it transpires, all the same type of person. In a previous relationship we coined the phrase ‘baggaging…’ as in, bringing your emotional baggage to a situation. That partner expected me to react in the same way as his ex-partner would have done (and vice versa) so we ended up borrowing trouble, or assuming a discussion would head in one direction because that’s what the baggage suggested would happen. And often being pleasantly surprised.

I thought this book would be challenging: as someone that struggles with lack of motherhood, I was concerned that the imagery would either be painful or make no sense, but I did not find this to be the case. I was more comfortable with the ideas of mothering around older children and one that particularly interested me was the parallel between home-making and church-home-making. Percy says that with her children now older, her role is to keep the fridge full and offer them a lift when needed. She describes the various ways that the fridge needs to be stocked: staples, favourites, treats & food for festivals – things that her children can learn to cook from or just help themselves to. Her role as mother was to make this happen. This was then a servant ministry – and a very helpful way of thinking about servant ministry when in modern parlance I think we tend to assume ‘servant’ is a synonym for ‘doormat’ or ‘will do exactly as demanded at all times.’ I found Percy’s reflection on ‘servant’ as someone who frees up the time of others intriguing. But back to the ‘food is in the fridge’ – I think this part of the whole book was the most meaningful to me. I could read through and see where my experience of being in church could be viewed through this framework. It’s not my vicar’s sole role to stock the fridge and cook every single meal for everyone. It’s more her job to select what goes in – to make sure there’s stuff that the different generations would want…to try some unfamiliar things…and the wherewithal to make a staple meal to fill and feed on a regular basis.

There’s something therefore about being able to feel at home in a church – I remember clearly being new to my current church and longing for it to feel as familiar, as much of an extension to my home as had the church I grew up in. When I was on the cleaning rota I usually did the kitchen because I was terrified of breaking something fragile, important or valuable in the sharp end of the church. Now I do feel at home in the building – but it took a trusted friend to make me feel that way.

Percy also highlights the tension between a focus on church growth as a marker of success and the need to ‘keep the show on the road,’ sustaining a congregation’s faith and community. That isn’t advocating church as cosy club, but recognising that much of the daily work is not measurable as an output – that the language of business does not have a way to measure the value of a chat or a funeral visit or a chance encounter. Her thesis is that the language of value needs to change, so that the unmeasurable – skill in comforting, for example – can be described and valued. This is much the same way that a parent of a small child can spend the whole day absorbed by his care, and yet feel they have achieved nothing.

In some places, this book is perhaps a bit too abstract, a bit too descriptive in terms of model ministry. If you picked it up looking for an exploration of vocation, for example, it would probably not help – but that is not necessarily the key focus of the book (and it could well give an extra dimension to reading). It certainly helps contrast the male-led model much writing, and presents new ways of thinking about 21st century church. It would be easy to read the model as mothering in terms of control, and power – that needed for small children – perhaps that is why the more hands-off mothering of the teenagers’ fridge resonated with me more than the ideas about nurture and weaning did, because the relationship described is more equal. I would imagine that actual serving clergy would find this articulation of a different model of leadership to be helpful as a counter to a target-driven culture, as much as curious lay people would begin to understand more of how their priest operates.


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