Conversations on the Way – Investing in Relationship

Richard Baxter, Transition Minister Glasgow Wellington

Many adaptations have been required in moving from parish ministry in the West Highlands to Transition ministry in the West End of Glasgow. Maybe an element of culture shock is unavoidable. For me, one big mental adaptation related to timescales. For twenty five years I worked as a parish minister on unrestricted tenure, with the privilege of taking time to build up relationships and areas of work, knowing I did not face a set cut-off point. In my current role, I have a five year timeframe (four and a half now) and I am very aware of the clock ticking on the role I have to fulfil.

That thought could easily dictate an urge to jump into action as quickly as possible. I arrived just as presbytery planning got fully underway, there were negotiations to progress about the building and whether and when to move from it, and a need to identify options for the congregation’s future development and form. In the midst of all those concrete demands, it would have been very easy to neglect the importance of building good relationships.

I work in a very mixed team of staff and volunteers. Although I’m the only person paid from parish ministries fund, the team includes locally paid staff (part time administrator, part-time church officer, organist, Café manager) and volunteers (OLM, session clerk, treasurer, international welcome club leaders and countless others.) Just to complicate matters, we have an orthodox congregation worshipping in part of our building with a priest and abbot living on-site, an Ethiopian orthodox congregation worshipping in our halls, a small independent student congregation, and a developing relationship with the University of Glasgow, who now use our premises for lectures five days a week throughout the academic year, giving us contacts with university employees and a footfall of about 6000 students per week through the building.

It would be easy to miss out on time to build good relationships. However, it became apparent at a very early stage that there were a few tensions, and differences of expectation. In the absence of hands-on leadership, and with no easy way to resolve small problems, little issues could become big issues quickly. Some communications seemed fairly terse, and patience could be in short supply.

There were no quick fixes to the need for better relationships to be developed. I have lost count of the hours spent and coffees consumed in getting to know the roles, challenges and concerns of our internal team members and the external partners as well. Time to listen which is not rushed or dominated by practical agendas is vital, as is seeing the various priorities of different people in context.

Here, for what it is worth, are my fairly simple insights into things that I think matter in relationship building. They would be too simple to need saying, were it not for the fact that too many of us have seen or experienced church settings were some or all of these were missing.

  1. We don’t work with staff and volunteers, we work with people – people with needs and priorities, good days and bad days, people whose lives don’t stop at the places where they interact with ministers and church staff.
  2. Listening matters – hearing personal concerns, spending time and sharing stories when there isn’t a work agenda builds community. Time without business is not time wasted.
  3. Kindness is non-negotiable – our urgent agendas, deadlines and immediate actions never excuse a lack of kindness and consideration for those who work alongside us.
  4. Business can be expedited. Relationships can’t be rushed.