Someone once suggested that “life is what happens to you while you’re planning it”; Etty Hillesum’s exceptional diaries are entitled, An Interrupted Life; and Henri Nouwen says: “I used to resent all the interruptions in my work until I realized that interruptions were my real work”.
Up to now, I have always quoted these expressions fondly. There is something in a planned life that needs to be, for one’s own good, perennially sabotaged by interruptions. I am less glib in quoting them now, given that my own life has just been derailed by a major interruption. I have been named a provincial superior for the religious community I belong to, the Oblates of Mary Immaculate.
The change in life and ministry that this will require of me is radical. It will involve leaving the work that I have been doing for 18 years, giving up my present position, network of support, house that I have lived in for many years, and city I deeply love (not even to mention giving up the last half of a very cherished sabbatical), to move to a new city and take up an entirely different ministry in a radically different kind of setting. Most of all, it will involve a radical shift in the type of work I will be doing.
Up to now my ministry has basically involved teaching, preaching, writing, and some sacramental work. As a provincial, my ministry will be almost entirely that of administration. Many close friends cautioned me during these past days: “You shouldn’t accept this. Your gifts lie more in the area of teaching, writing, and preaching. Somebody else can do administration. In good conscience decline the invitation to be provincial!” That logic makes good sense, but … in the end, despite this caution from sincere and loving friends, I accepted. Why?
Many of the reasons for my decision are connected with a dark inchoate ball of feeling which cannot gain entrance to the left side of my brain. These are compelling feelings of duty, of being called, of gratitude to the Oblates who have always trusted me, mixed in, I am sure, with many other hidden motives, good and bad. I’m an intuitive type, so I act more out of gut feeling than out of a rational algebra. My gut said: “You ought to do this.”
Some of the other reasons for my acceptance of this invitation, which will bring with it considerable grieving and painful displacement, are however available to rational examination. These have to do with a growing understanding, in my own life, of the importance of administration within the life of any community.
When one examines the priesthood a Christ, a priesthood all believers are baptized into, one sees in it three interpenetrating aspects: Jesus ministered as teacher, healer and minister of cult, and as shepherd (community builder). It is this latter aspect, shepherding, which proper administration helps keep incarnate in this world.
It is also a most vital ministry. Administration is, as Plato said, the basis for politics (in the best sense of that word). Politics, itself, is the ability of a community to, first of all, pull itself together and act as a unity and, secondly, to creatively shape its own destiny so that it is not a helpless victim before the random forces of fate. As such, politics is, singularly, the most important thing within a community. When there are no politics, there can be no community. And when there is no administration, there are no politics.
Hence a certain equation must be acknowledged: Good community depends upon good politics just as good politics depends upon good administration. Christ knew that and worked, first and foremost, at establishing a community. Administration then, when done properly, incarnates Christ the shepherd. It is this idea, more than anything else, that tipped the balance in my acceptance of this new challenge.
Beyond that, an administrative role will also, I hope, help keep me from a dangerous privatization. This is a gentler way of saying it should rein me in so that I don’t end up just doing my own thing! Which is everyone’s danger and certainly mine! In a shepherding role, one’s ministry is necessarily linked with the creation of projects bigger than one’s own. Private dreams and private achievement must be sacrificed to a communal dream. As well, administration is also the route, more direct perhaps than normal teaching and preaching, to help affect systemic change. For the gospel to be lived out, hearts have to change, but systems, ecclesial and civil, also have to change. Administration is the most direct access to affect that.
For these reasons, among others, I have accepted an invitation that will alter my life radically. I will continue, of course, to do some of the things I have done; some teaching, some preaching, and some writing (this column, among things). Yet, this is a new baptism. I enter it with fear and trembling, but confident of your prayers.