The sins of ministry: Sloth

Of all the seven deadly sins, sloth’ is the most archaic of names. The dictionary defines sloth as ‘laziness, indolence’. However, there is much more to sloth than being ‘lazy’. When the monks talked of sloth – the technical term is ‘accidie’ – they did not have in mind the refusal of one of their number to pull his weight in doing the whatever might have been his task. Rather this sin was related in the first place not to others, but to God.

Sloth was a term for spiritual apathy – a spiritual listlessness which had more to do with prayer rather than with work. A slothful monk might go through the motions of being religious – attending all the services of the day – but in face he had given up on the heart of religion, he had given up on cultivating his relationship with God; indeed, he might as well have given up on God himself. In other words, sloth is a refusal to continue to grow in God; it is a form of spiritual laziness.

In the light of the above, to what extent do pastors suffer from sloth? If sloth is defined in its more modern guise as ‘indolence’, then it was to be admitted that there are some lazy ministers – there are even more ill-disciplined ministers. But, many ministers suffer from the very opposite of sloth, viz. activism. Activism, however, is not necessarily a virtue. According to Richard Neuhaus, activism is a form of “decadence”:

Decadence is the decay that hollows out the forms of life, leaving them devoid of meaning and even more fatally, flaunting such hollowness as virtue.

But, as we have seen, sloth is more than indolence. Indeed, according to William Stafford, to call sloth ‘indolence’ is “like calling viral pneumonia a cold” In some ways it can be better likened to the’ mid-ministry blues’. Mid-life is a time when idealism meets realism. The former is well characterised by Ray Ragsdale:

Most ministers begin their careers with lofty ideals and high expectations. Their commitment is to serve God and humankind, and there is just enough of the messiah complex in the young to believe they are going to change the world before they are done.

But with the passing of the years such idealism normally fails to deliver the goods. Mega-status is not for most of us. The mid-ministry blues is often also linked with seeing one’s peers, some of whom apparently less gifted than ourselves, receiving the call to larger churches. To quote one cynical minister:

Thirst for career status, measured in terms of membership, staff size, and church location, makes for a subtle rat race in which ministers vie with one another under a smoke screen of piosity.

It can prove spiritually and emotionally debilitating when one fails to make it in this ministerial rat race. Alas, there seem to be a good number of pastors in Christian ministry who have succumbed to the mid-ministry blues. Although they may not have physically left the ministry, in their hearts they have opted out. Burnt-out and disillusioned, their earlier joy and enthusiasm for pastoral ministry has long since gone. Satisfaction, if gained at all, is found outside the normal routines of ministerial life – whether it be in some special involvement in the community, or in sitting on some denominational board, or engaging in some theological research project… Clearly there is nothing wrong with any such interest. Indeed, there is a lot to be said for pastors to pursue an interest beyond the local church. But if such interests dominate and become the all-consuming passion, then there is cause for concern: the health of the ministry is in jeopardy where pastors are no longer in love with their calling, however busy they may be.

Or maybe ‘mid ministry blues’ is not the best of descriptions. Maybe we should use terms such as dejection, despair, spiritual depression – which in turn cause ministers to fail to live up to their calling. They have lost their sense of self-worth – or in the words of William Stafford, “some clergy know that they are failures in the deepest sense, paralyzed by their own spiritual mediocrity”.

What can be done to help pastors to cope with the deadly sin of sloth? The answer is found in an address given some years ago to clergy wives by Norah Coggan, the sister of the former Archbishop Donald Coggan, entitled, ‘Who helps the Helpers?’ The title was taken from one of Juvenal’s satires, where Juvenal literally said, ‘Who is to watch over those who are doing the watching?’ In its original context this had something to do with a woman who comes to entice the guard. However, Norah Coggan applied this to those involved in pastoral work: “The times comes”, she said, “when we [the helpers] have lifted too many burdens and we really are worn down, exhausted, and depressed. Maybe our faith is cold and also our lives and witness for the Lord. Perhaps we feel we are in a dark tunnel. Depression comes over us. What then?” In this description of a spiritual sickness which we might call ‘sloth’ or ‘accidie’, the answer is clear: friends are needed who will provide help through the dark and difficult patches of ministry; friends who will strengthen their hand in God (see 1 Sam 22.15). Support can also be expressed through ‘peer’ groups, who support one another not least through holding one another accountable. Support can also be received through what Gordon MacDonald termed the ‘Very Resourceful People who ignite our passion for faith and for Christlike performance’ – people such as ‘soul friends’ or spiritual directors’.

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