When social scientists model interactions, one of the first things they have to figure out is whether the interactions are iterated (i.e. repeat themselves) or not. Non-iterated games are rare (the classic “Prisoner’s Dilemma” is the one most people are familliar with; the game of “Chicken” is another… although even they can be iterated). One of the blessings of pastoral work (and most work that involves community) is that the interactions are iterated. This takes a lot of the pressure off of each individual meeting (minus first impressions; they are typically one shot deals); even when we are a bit off in our words or actions, we are pretty much guaranteed more opportunities to get it right later on down the line (unless we REALLY goob it up and it is our last impression!). Of course, the obverse is also true; a perfect response is worth little if the “average” of our words and behaviors are not up to snuff.
But for most priests, the fact that ministry is iterated is a good thing because it reiterates the best advice anyone could ever give to a pastor. This advice has nothing to do with tactics or strategies or agendas or vision. It has been said many times, many ways (sorry about that… I just can’t escape the Christmas music earwigs), but my favorite comes from the mouth of our Lord, Himself (Matthew 5:16);
“Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father which is in heaven.”
St. Seraphim famously paraphrased Him saying something like;
“Acquire a peaceful spirit and thousands around you will be saved.”
If we don’t have that, then all our best homilies, visions, and the like are like are about as useful as banging gongs and clanging cymbals (1 Corinthians 13:1). Our routines have to have the acquisition of God’s peace as its primary goal. Prayer rules, hesychasm, the study of Scripture and the Fathers, fasting, tithing, charitable actions, and all our ascetic disciplines have to be the habitual foundation on which the fulfillment of our other duties (to include our liturgical, homiletic, pedagogical, and leadership responsibilities) must be built. And all are, of course, grounded on the solid rock of faith in Christ (Matthew 7:24-27).
A peaceful spirit is something that we can fake for a while, but in an iterated game, the truth will out. Having a peaceful spirit does no guarantee that we will always make the best decisions, but it does weigh the dice heavily in our favor. And because we get to roll that dice over and over, our average performance will naturally be high.
Plus I think it’s pretty cool that we some of the things that bring us the most joy (e.g. prayer, meditation, studying scripture, spiritual and physical asceticism) in our job descriptions (that’s much better than most career choices, just ask Elmo!).
The fact that ministry is an iterated game does have other implications for ministry. Lord willing (and the creek don’t rise), tomorrow I’ll address one of these implications: the decision of whether we focus our efforts on the front end (i.e. on prophecy/risk management) or the back end (i.e. on healing/effects management).
Yours in Christ,