“Check your work.” As I was growing up, my parents said this phrase whenever I sat down at the kitchen table, ready to stumble through my next math assignment. I was happier when reading. My brain easily hopped, skipped and jumped into fictional flights of imagination. It could leap to new stories in a single bound. Math problems were my kryptonite; I did not like going slowly, taking careful steps through each set of numbers. I dreaded multiplication tables and wanted to throttle algebra problems. “Check your work,” my parents would say to me, whenever I threw down my pencil, frustrated by another wrong answer. If I actually followed those instructions, I often discovered that I went wrong around one simple mistake: a miscarried number, a wrongly transcribed integer, something I hadn’t noticed until I went back over it, slowly.
This all remains true: I still adore reading and I haven’t taken a math class since freshman year of college. I grab at huge concepts, while I trip over details that are glaring right at me. I’ve needed to repeat “check your work” at different phases of life, particularly with times like this past summer.
In June, our church’s senior pastor went on sabbatical for eight weeks, so I became the acting head of staff. Quickly, a hundred new tasks and details came across my desk, items to get into the bulletin or the newsletter, phone calls to answer, as well as the ongoing work of preparing for worship, keeping up with emails, following up with pastoral care.
The summer ended up being a good one – but not because I suddenly learned how to do all those new tasks adeptly by myself. Quite the opposite. This past summer was good because I never felt like I was on my own. I quickly learned, as an associate pastor taking on new procedures for the first time, how important it was to have others “check my work.” I frequently called on other staff or congregation members to hear their thoughts or double-check a detail. I checked with the clerk of session to make sure I followed correct commissioning procedures. I checked with a church member to see if my plan for a meeting made sense. I checked with elders and deacons to find out about pastoral care needs. I checked with other pastors to see how my sermon thesis sounded. I checked with the office administrator to see if I had all the announcements correctly dated. (Surprise: not always… those blasted numbers!) Again and again I needed to check my work with others and learn from their suggestions.
We all know what it looks like when passive aggressive digs come draped in a language of helpfulness. Phrases that begin “I’m just saying this to help” or “others won’t tell you this, but I just want to be honest” are rarely as insightful as they claim to be. The more we’ve heard such comments in the past, the trickier it is to open ourselves up for actual honest feedback. It is hard to ask, “What do you think about this?” and truly want to know the answer.
Yet, this summer I found that when I sought insight from people in the congregation whom I respected — not just colleagues, but people in the pews each week, people in the committee meetings, people who see the workings of the church up close — I felt more able to tackle unfamiliar tasks.
In a time when many are bored by bureaucracy and irritated by institutions, the machinations of Presbyterian polity get a lot of flak. Some part of us will always yearn to be swept up in the big ideas, past all rules of order and decency. Yet, as a non-detail person who was knee-deep in new procedures this summer, I became grateful for how polity forces someone like me to take small steps, to make sure I check my work. I couldn’t run the church off-course in eight weeks. Rather than being hampered by feedback, I began to feel buoyed by support. Others were involved each step of the way. The work of the church was never just up to me. Many of us were working to love this congregation and strengthen its ministry.
The summer is over, our senior pastor has returned and I am happy to be an associate pastor once more. Yet, as the phrase “check your work” still rattles around in my head, I am grateful for those church members who offer kind feedback while diving still deeper into the work of God’s ministry. Those are the people that make this job so much more fun than algebra.
KATHRYN LESTER-BACON is the associate pastor at Second Presbyterian Church in Richmond, Virginia.