Do You Actually Read Your Reports?
This anecdote from Eugene Peterson in Under the Unpredictable Plant is a classic (or at least it should be). I promise you’ll be amused (maybe appalled) by this story. It’s a picture of institutionalism and bureaucracy at its worst. It’s also a reminder to read the reports of those who report to us.
One of the duties I had as the organizing pastor of a new church was to prepare a monthly report on my work and send it to a denominational executive in New York City. It was not a difficult task, but it did take a day’s work. The first page was statistical: how many calls I made, how many people attended worship, a financial report of offerings, progress on building plans, committee activities. This was followed by several pages of reflectional on my pastoral ministry: what I understood of God’s presence in my work, theological ruminations on the church, my understanding of mission, areas of inadequacy that were showing up in my ministry, strengths and skills that seemed to be emerging. After a few months of doing this, I got the impression that my superiors were not reading the second part. I thought I would test out my impression and have a little fun on the side.
So the next month, after dutifully compiling the statistical data, I turned to page two and described as best I could an imagined long, slow slide into depression. I wrote that I had difficulty sleeping. I couldn’t pray. I was getting the work done at a maintenance level but it was a robotic kind of thing with no spirit, no zest. Having feelings and thoughts like this I was seriously questioning whether I should be a pastor at all. Could they recommend a counselor for me?
Getting no response, I upped the ante. The next month I developed a drinking problem which became evident one Sunday in the pulpit. Everybody was very nice about it, but one of the Elders had to complete the sermon. I felt that I was at the point where I needed treatment. How should I go about getting it?
Still no response. I got bolder. The next month I cooked up an affair. It started out innocently enough as I was attempting to comfort a woman through an abusive marriage, but something happened in the middle of it, and we ended up in bed together, only it wasn’t a bed but one of the pews in the church where we were discovered when the ladies arranging flowers for Sunday worship walked in on us. I thought it was all over for my ministry at that point, but it turned out that in this community swingers are very much admired, and on the next day, Sunday, attendance doubled.
This was turning into a gala event one day each month in our house. I would go to my study and write these wonderful fictions and then bring them out and read them to my wife. We would laugh and laugh, collaborating by embellishing details.
Next I reported some innovations I was making in the liturgy. This was the sixties, an era of liturgical reform and experimentation. Our worship, I wrote to my supervisors, was about as dull as it could get. I had read some scholarly guesses about a mushroom cult in Palestine in the first century in which Jesus must have been involved. I thought it was worth a try. I arranged for the purchase of some mushroom caps, peyote it was, and introduced them at our next celebration of the eucharist. It was the most terrific experience anybody had ever had in worship, absolutely dazzling. But I didn’t want to do anything that was in violation of our church constitution, and finding nothing in our Book of Order on this, could they please advise me on whether I was permitted to proceed along these lines.
These report-writing days were getting to be a lot of fun. Month after month I sent the stories to the men and women who were overseeing the health of my spirituality and the integrity of my ministry. Never did I get a response.
At the end of the three years I was released from their supervision. As pastor and congregation, we were now more or less on our own—developed, organized, and on our way. I went for a debriefing to the denominational office in New York City under which I had worked. They asked me to evaluate their supervision through the three years. I told them I appreciated their help. The checks arrived on time each month. I was treated courteously at all times. But there was one minor area of disappointment: they had never read past that first page of statistical reporting that I had sent in each month. “Oh, but we did,” they said. “We read those reports carefully; we take them very seriously.” “How can that be,” I said. “That time I asked for help with my drinking problem and you didn’t respond. That time I got involved in a sexual adventure and you didn’t intervene. That craziness I reported when I was using peyote in the eucharist and you did nothing.” Their faces were blank, and then confused—followed by a splendid vaudeville slapstick of buck-passing and excuse-making. It was a wonderful moment. I had them dead to rights. I replay the scene in my imagination a couple of times a year, the way some people watch old Abbot and Costello movies.