Pastoring the Pastors

Many years ago, I lived in a flat at the top of the Vicarage of a large church in Bristol. In those five years I saw and experienced first-hand the 24 hour a day demands, intrusions and joys of such a place.

From sharing Christmas lunch with the vicar and his family (during which their cocker spaniel ate the remains of the turkey) to making cheese sandwiches for Jack, the local, ex-merchant navy tramp who was a regular visitor day and night. From being ‘held hostage’ one Sunday afternoon by a couple and their young child demanding I found them somewhere to live to  answering the ever-ringing phone.

That experience instilled within me a lifelong concern for the clergy and an awareness of the pressures and the lack of support and understanding of their role that exists at both congregational and broader levels within the church nationally (the same will be true of other denominations, I’m sure).

It’s a concern that has stayed with me for the 35 years since. And then I actually became a clergy spouse when my wife was ordained in 2015. And not only that but our daughter is now training for the ministry!

As I found to be the case in my employment career, God often uses our experiences as part of the bigger picture of our lives.

I’ve written elsewhere about the church being behind the times and while the same is true in this case, it is good that the CofE is addressing the issue of clergy wellbeing. Work that started back in 2015 is now being discussed by local parish church councils. But this is a complex issue and in my experience it’s unlikely that such councils will know how to respond in ways that are truly informed and meaningful.

As also written about elsewhere, the Society of Mary and Martha (colloquially referred to by its location of Sheldon) has been pastoring the pastors for the same length of time since I left my Bristol home. A place of retreat, support and guaranteed anonymity, they have been ahead of the times in the provision of the online Sheldon Hub as a place of further consolation and advice.

The core issue for me, as I have observed and lived with clergy life, is that most people do realise the role of the clergy is not just about Sundays. Indeed, the reality is that that day and the preparation for it (in terms of time) is a relatively small part of the role. But I would be fairly certain in saying that the majority of people have no idea at all what fills the rest of the week. Drawing a topical, if somewhat imperfect, comparison, the working life of a footballer is not just about 90 minutes on the pitch – although there is many a penalty shoot-out…

For many clergy, particularly those working in parishes, it’s on call all day, every day, six days a week (seven if they don’t choose well…). Being anything from a social worker to a business manager, much of it without the relevant training. Being asked to look after themselves while being asked to do more (not least in this pandemic).

A fairly simple and straightforward action that any of us can undertake would be to at least increase the understanding of all that clergy are required to do. And the fact that each one has all the other ordinary (and not so ordinary) family and life commitments as well.

Like its Sheldon namesake, the story of Mary and Martha is helpful. To be like Jesus with Mary, to sit with, listen and understand; and with Martha, to encourage, affirm and support. There are those who do that, for which we can be enormously grateful, but all of us, including me, can do more.

 

A couple of days after this post was published, we received a welcome Wellbeing Pack from the Diocese of Exeter: good to know they are taking clergy wellbeing seriously.

Thank you for reading this post – please do share it with others, subscribe and contribute your thoughts at the WorkRestPray Facebook Group.

Making up our mind

The last couple of decades has seen many changes in the way we live and work.

The 2010s saw a significant increase in the number of people working from home. Now, there have always been people who could do elements of their job where they lived (teachers, for example) but the last decade saw the home becoming the location of choice – either their own or their employer’s – rather than going in to office or traditional workplace base. Technological advances have been integral to this development, of course, as has the growth in ‘agile working’ (where people don’t have ‘their own desk’ but use whatever space is available). Not always easy but it has been a part of this shift in how we work.

The last 20 years have also seen a welcome change in society’s attitudes towards mental illness. Whether royalty or celebrity, work colleague or family member, it’s become much more OK to talk about mental health (although mental ill health is generally what is meant by that term – the ‘mental health world’ has always had a problem with what language to use…). While the continued misuse of phrases such as ‘a little bit OCD’ or self-diagnosing PTSD just days after a difficult occasion show distinct lack of awareness, the fact many of us are able to be much more open about our experiences of depression, anxiety and other such conditions is a significant shift in the culture of how we live.

Combining those two aspects have, inadvertently perhaps, helped to enable our society to be more prepared for the effects of current pandemic. During these strange times, initially in the March-June lockdown and now again in some areas where there are restrictions, people were asked to work at home if possible – even though that brought its own many and varied difficulties. The impact on people’s mental wellbeing has also been acknowledged and the increase in the number of people now experiencing psychological distress for the first time or a worsening of existing conditions is of course concerning.

World Mental Health Day has been marked on 10 October every year since 1992 (I wrote about it last year too). It’s one of a number of occasions when we can focus on some of the pertinent issues (others being Time to Talk Day and Mental Health Awareness Week, for example).

But of course, as with any other specific ‘issue’ or ‘campaign’, one day a year doesn’t change the lives of those who suffer and support on the remaining 360-odd. Within the welcome changes of the last 20 years, there has been a degree of ‘jumping on the bandwagon’ but there are many, many individuals and organisations who work to ensure that we don’t lose sight of the reality of life for the many hundreds of thousands of people who experience the most distressing and difficult thoughts and feelings.

Although God can and does enable miraculous healing there is often no quick fix. Medication may help but isn’t always necessary. However, it will take time and effort – which is in itself part of the reason why so many people end up struggling for so long: simply because it takes so much time and so much effort. It’s hard work to make up one’s mind to be and to remain well.

Recovery from a period of mental ill health may not mean the complete absence of symptoms but it will see the return to a more comfortable level of day to day functioning. To once again live and work well.

Click here for some links that may be helpful in making up your own mind…

 

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All in a Day’s Work

‘Behind the scenes’ documentaries have been part of TV viewing for decades and, with the growth in streaming alongside hundreds of channels, there are a multitude of different settings for the cameras to spy on.

One series I’ve enjoyed recently has been Channel 4’s The Yorkshire Jobcentre. Given my own career of nearly 40 years helping people to find or remain in employment that may not be a surprise.

Up until 2003, I worked in a variety of settings of what is now the Dept for Work & Pensions including in Jobcentres. The programmes have portrayed both job seeker (often maligned as scroungers) and job advisor (often portrayed as unhelpful bureaucrats) fairly and respectfully, observing difficulties and progress, frustration and commitment for both alike.

I certainly recognised the spectrum of customers from the harder to help long-term unemployed through to the harder to help professional and well-educated, and from the unrealistically ambitious to the desperately lacking in confidence. Similarly, I was fortunate to work alongside very committed colleagues, rejoicing together when someone got a job – but yes, there were a few who stuck to rules as if they’d written them.

The series certainly echoed my experience of it being an honour and a privilege to have played a small part in the lives of so many. Watching people make progress is a wonderful thing.

This coming Sunday’s Gospel reading is the parable of the labourers in the vineyard (Matthew 20:1-16). Like many of Jesus’ stories, it’s based on events happening in his time. An employer recruits labourers to work in his vineyard but to our 21st century ears, this parable would raise the hackles of any business person or union representative.

Taken literally, the concept of people who worked one hour and people who worked a full day being paid exactly the same would not go down well – as indeed it didn’t with some of the labourers in the vineyard.

But that’s missing the point of the parable. And the point is not a literal interpretation of the story being told – beyond the fact that for those labourers, among the poorest in 1st Century Palestine, working in the vineyard was a gift, a welcome source of employment.

One common interpretation of the parable is that the owner is God and the labourers are us; the vineyard is God’s kingdom and the wage that is agreed is not only the provision of our daily bread but also our salvation.

Rather than being unfair or unjust, God’s generosity transcends our human ideas of fairness. God is not answerable to the people and can do as he pleases with his gifts.

God’s gift is that everyone – rich and poor, powerful and powerless – receives the same.

In God’s economy, all of us are equally deserving so the reward is equal as well. The reward is not based on each person’s merit or quality or quantity of work but rather from the grace of the one who hires, the grace of God.

As God’s people we are to be those who work in the vineyard because it is a good thing to do rather than because we hope to earn merit or greater rewards or greater recognition by others.

That said, the work itself doesn’t have to be something highly visible or deemed to be more important than others – remember this parable features the poorest of society.

Whatever we do if we do it for the Lord and not for our own personal reward, we will bear witness to God’s kingdom and we will see God’s vineyard bearing fruit.

 

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Will we remember them?

On 8th May 1945, with the end of war in Europe, the country celebrated (or at least this country did – others did not).

The previous years had seen horrendous loss of professional and civilian lives. Medical services overwhelmed. Businesses disrupted and closed. The economy shattered. Public movement limited. Many were unemployed, homeless, injured and seeking limited food supplies. Politicians were ridiculed and praised. There were heroes and villains. Many gave their lives for the common good. The country, the world, was never the same again.

‘At the going down of the sun and in the morning, we will remember them.’

On 8th May 2020, 75 years on, we are called to commemorate (sadly, some say celebrate). While all around us… well, just read the second paragraph again.

75 years on from now, I doubt any will remember those who gave their lives for the common good in these current times. Indeed, apart from family, friends and colleagues, will any remember them in 25, 10, 5 or even 2 years time…?

At the going down of the sun and in the morning, will we remember them?

The last post reflected on a renewal of respect for those who serve the public in often unappreciated and oft-criticised ways. Public applause on Thursday evenings acknowledges the work of NHS and care staff together with others who are designated as key workers. As a society, we are, finally, recognising the essential role of refuse collectors, postal workers, telecom engineers, road repairers, supermarket assistants, domiciliary carers and care home staff, bus drivers and all whose work is often disregarded. Blessed are the meek.

Over 100 of those have died due to their work and many others have been attacked undertaking it. They probably knew the risks and took precautions but they didn’t set out to give so much.

Even in wartime, when many set out knowing they may not return, they and all around hoped they would. ‘My father had been killed in an air raid so for us the end of the war didn’t mean he’d be coming home,’ wrote one person recalling VE Day. ‘For many of us, the end of the war didn’t mean life would go back to what it was before 1939.’ (Radio Times 2-8 May 2020)

And so it is for many today, life will never be the same again.

In contrast, another contributor recalled the unexpected: ‘Before VE Day I had never been out after dark. The lights were on in all the windows, and, magically, I could see people inside… it was the beginning of something much more exciting – lights.’

And now candles burn in our windows from 7pm on Sunday. A light for those who work, who suffer, who grieve. ‘The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.’ (John 1:5)

At the going down of the sun and in the morning, we may or we may not remember them but the light of Christ shines on all for eternity.

 

 

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Saying the right thing

‘The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place.’

Those words, often attributed to George Bernard Shaw, demonstrate that whether speaking, writing, texting, messaging or emailing, we may know what…

  • we said
  • we tried or wanted to say
  • we said without actually saying it
  • we didn’t mean to say.

And yet Shaw’s words also perceive that the one with whom we have communicated may…

  • understand, not understand or not want to understand
  • hear only what they think is being said
  • interpret it to mean something else
  • have decided their response before we’ve said it…

Or, in other words… ‘A man hears what he wants to hear. And disregards the rest’, as Paul Simon put it (and, for clarity in this piece of communication, that’s the songwriter not the playwright).

Then there’s those occasions when we ‘read between the lines’ but it turns out we hadn’t read the lines in the first place. Or when we assume and it makes an ‘ass out of u and me’.

And take this e-mail from a long-standing friend: ‘Many thanks Richard…very much enjoying your book most mornings!’ Now, is it that they are reading my book most mornings and enjoying it? Or only enjoying it on some mornings and not on the others? Hopefully it’s the former – but it may not be…

I expect all of us (at least I hope it’s all of us…) have fallen foul of a miscommunication. I know I have – many times (and just last week, as it happens) – often unintentionally. Those times when I said or wrote ‘the wrong thing’ or the person I communicated with received it as the wrong thing. Times when perhaps I should have remained silent. It’s true of me as a listener and receiver too.

Workplaces are notorious for unclear communication. You know the type of thing, I expect. Rumour becomes reality before the facts are stated – and when the facts are stated they’re not believed… because of the rumour. Cynicism also plays an influential role: ‘Oh yes, we’ve heard that before…’ and is in itself representative of disillusionment with efforts to communicate.

And it’s not just in workplaces, of course: churches, social clubs, families, any gathering of people experience issues with communication and miscommunication.

Language and communication are complex things.

Indeed, I’m not really sure what I’m trying to say through this blog post. And, in any case, who am I to try and say it…

But I do like what St Benedict said as one of the twelve steps of humility: ‘We speak gently and without laughter, seriously and with becoming modesty, briefly and reasonably, but without raising our voices, as it is written: ‘The wise are known by few words.’

‘Our authority to speak is rooted in our ability to remain silent,’ writes Barbara Brown Taylor. ‘Some of the most effective language in the world leads you up to the brink of silence and leaves you there, with the soft surf of the unsayable lapping at your feet… When we run out of words, then and perhaps only then can God be God.’

 

The next post will be on Ash Wednesday, the start of Lent. That will be the last full post until after Easter: so during Lent, Holy Week and Easter why not take a look at a series of short films, called Out of the Wilderness.

Humble Leadership

When Manchester City beat Watford in the recent FA Cup Final, I probably wasn’t the only one to  notice the reaction of Pep Guardiola, the City manager, as the fifth and then sixth goals went in. His head was in his hands. Was it embarrassment… or was he humbled by what his team had done for him?

And then, amidst the champagne, streamers and fireworks, as the victorious players held the trophy aloft and then ‘dancing’ in the way only professional footballers can, he simply stood back, watching. A time to let his team have the glory and the honour. ‘Hey, look at them, not me,’ he seemed to say. A sign of leading from within. A sign of humble leadership.

While we might long to see more humility in our political leaders, let’s consider another example of this exceptional gift.

A recent study of seven successful CEOs found they all identified a common theme: vulnerability. ‘Vulnerable leadership is humble leadership,’ wrote Catherine Llewelyn-Evans. ‘Able to acknowledge its own temptations, frailties, and limitations, it will not set itself above others, nor stand on its own importance (for example, when Jesus lays aside his robes to wash the disciples’ feet [John 13])… It is a kind of leadership which — released from its need to posture or impress — gives others permission to be vulnerable, and releases them from fear or guilt.’

Or as John Baldoni put it, ‘Humility is an approach to life that says, “I don’t have all the answers and I want your contribution.” Humility is… the acceptance of individual limitations.’

Humility is grateful for those contributions and expresses that gratitude. It also embeds the ability not just to say ‘I got that wrong’ but also to climb that sometimes elusive next step of ‘You were right.’

In the well-established daily pattern of readings from the Rule of St Benedict (reflections on which are in the book Life with St Benedict) on the day this post is published, 26 May, there begins a series of readings on Chapter 7 – a chapter which is all about humility.

In this longest chapter of the Rule, and using the imagery of a ladder, St Benedict helps us take steps towards what he calls ‘the highest summit of humility’.

Using paraphrases of what he wrote, let’s climb the ladder together, shall we…

  1. Revere God at all times
  2. Align our lives with God’s will not our own.
  3. Listen to our leaders.
  4. Do what God wants and listen to God when life is tough.
  5. Admit when we get it wrong and receive the forgiveness that comes from doing so.
  6. When we feel badly treated, insignificant, and no better than anyone or anything else, know we are always with God. And God is always with us.
  7. Humbling ourselves and being humbled by circumstances helps us know we are precious to God.
  8. Remember that the words and actions of others influence how we act and behave.
  9. Be careful about what we say to others and how we listen to them.
  10. Laugh – being respectful to others when we do so.
  11. ‘Speak gently, seriously and with becoming modesty, briefly and reasonably’.
  12. Be humble in our actions and not just in how we think and feel.

Joan Chittister writes that this chapter on humility ‘does not say, “Be perfect.” It says, “Be honest about what you are and you will come to know God.”’

Humility in leadership – or any other aspect of life, for that matter – is an approach, a gift, which enables us to shout, ‘Hey, look at you!’ not ‘Hey, look at me’.

Consciously incompetent

“I want you to hit the ground running,” spouts the manager to their shiny new recruit. “Of course, that’s absolutely fine,” comes the ‘I’ve got to impress’ reply.

Many people have been in such situations. Where the expectation outweighs the reality… on both sides. But hitting the ground running can result in falling over.

Getting settled in to anything new, particularly in a job, can often take months before one really begins to get to grips with everything (well, most things). Change can be a very difficult. We need time to adapt, time to learn. And not just the tasks (that can sometimes be the simple bit) but people’s names and idiosyncrasies, the way people behave towards each other, where things are, the demands, the actuality behind the job description etc etc… And other people need to allow time for that to happen – especially if they want them to be any good.

The same is true with any new stage of life, new location, new home or even new hobby, like learning to play the piano or to paint. It all takes time… and it’s important that it does so.

Often accredited to the American psychologist, Abraham Maslow (he of the ‘Hierarchy of Needs’ theory, if you’ve ever come across that), when we learn new things we progress through ‘Four Stages of Competence’:

  • Stage 1 – Unconscious incompetence – “I don’t know what I don’t know”
  • Stage 2 – Conscious incompetence – “I have no idea what this all means or how to do it”
  • Stage 3 – Conscious competence – “Some of this is beginning to make sense – and I can actually do bits of it!”
  • And ideally end at Stage 4 – Unconscious competence – “I’ve learnt what to do and I can do it ‘without thinking’”

So, for example, when it comes to learning to paint (and piano playing for that matter), I have taken up semi-permanent residence in Stage 2 with occasional forays in to the heady lands of Stage 3…

As humans, we have the, at times unenviable, task of residing in all four stages of competence at once… and that’s because we are all learners.

If you are a Twitterer, you may have seen some Tweets quoting from an excellent Lent book by Paula Gooder, a down-to-earth, easy-to-understand Biblical scholar and writer, and on the leadership team at St Paul’s Cathedral.

Writing in Let Me Go There, Paula Gooder reflects on the disciples and what they learnt in their time with Jesus: ‘The disciples that Jesus chose may not have been the ones we would have chosen, but they were the ones he chose… They demonstrated that they had done what disciples need to do – they had learned. Being a good disciple is not about being perfect from the outset, but is about being someone who can learn. Perfect I can’t do, learning I can.’

God knows that we are not perfect.

That’s the point of Good Friday and Easter.


Gifts, Service & Faith

Writing this during the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, a time when churches of all denominations across the world come together for joint services and events. A week to voice a common belief, albeit expressed in different ways.

Earlier this month, I had the privilege of attending an event for healthcare professionals (albeit I’m not one anymore) organised by the Catholic Bishops’ Conference (albeit I’m Church of England).

Arising out of their mental health project, this day of reflection and recollection took as its theme, ‘Gifts, Service and Faith’.

We reflected on the talents, skills and abilities we all have. “What is our motivation to use our gifts?” asked Bishop Paul Mason. “Some think ‘If I do this… God will look after me’ – but that is not the way. If we are always doing the good we feel we should be doing, we may be missing out on the good God wants us to do.”

“God loves, knows and serves us so we might love, know and serve him,” he said. “We are to express the exuberance of our love for God in how we live.”

This exuberance can be expressed in part through our love for and service of other people. But as another speaker recognised, what we practice doesn’t always equate to what we believe. “Theology isn’t written, it’s lived,” said Jim McManus, as he drew our attention to the words of St Paul in a letter to the 1st Century church in Thessalonica:

‘But we appeal to you, brothers and sisters, to respect those who labour among you, and have charge of you in the Lord and admonish you; 13 esteem them very highly in love because of their work. Be at peace among yourselves. 14 And we urge you, beloved, to admonish the idlers, encourage the faint-hearted, help the weak, be patient with all of them. 15 See that none of you repays evil for evil, but always seek to do good to one another and to all.’ (1 Thessalonians 5:12-15)

In using our gifts in the service of others, Jim’s challenge was to ask: How true are St Paul’s words in your team and in your workplace?…

  • Respect those who labour among you (colleagues) and have charge of you (managers)… and admonish you (everyone & anyone, maybe)
  • Esteem them very highly in love because of their work
  • Be at peace among yourselves
  • Admonish the idlers
  • Encourage the faint-hearted
  • Help the weak
  • Be patient with all of them
  • See that none of you repays evil for evil
  • Always seek to do good to one another and to all. 

… Umm. Marks out of ten for where you work?

The late Catholic Archbishop Basil Hume once wrote, ‘The motive for service must be love’and the 17th Century priest and theologian, Ignatius of Loyola is accredited as writing that we are ‘To give and not to count the cost.’

Fact is, though, such service and giving is often very costly. You probably know how it is: those times when it all gets too much – and all we can do is count…

Or as St Paul wrote in a letter to the church in Corinth, ‘Love does not keep a record of wrongs’ (1 Corinthians 13:5). This love doesn’t keep a record of rights either…

It is an honour and a privilege to use all we have been given (for everything is gift) to love and to serve other people. By using these gifts and through faith in God, we can demonstrate the exuberance of God’s love for all people.

“Living faith works through love,” added Bishop Richard Moth at the event. “Faith is a gift: a living relationship with God. The Lord does not force it upon us nor are we to force that gift on someone else. We are to witness – often it may be silent: but it is often in the still, small voice that we hear God speak. Christ has shown himself to us, so we are to show him to others.”

What an honour and a privilege.

A Case of Mistaken Identity

Shakespeare’s comedy, Twelfth Night tells the story of twins, Viola and Sebastian. Shipwrecked, they become separated. On reaching land, Viola dresses as a young man, calls herself Cesario – and falls in love with the Duke Orsino. However, Orsino is in love with Countess Olivia. But Olivia falls for Cesario (who’s really Viola). And then Sebastian arrives. A flood of confusion and mistaken identity. Spoiler alert… Sebastian marries Olivia; Viola reveals she’s really a girl and marries Orsino. A tale of hilarity and heartbreak amidst the end of the Christmas season.

With Christmas now past, we recall another tale of mistaken identity. January 6th is known as The Feast of the Epiphany. A day to remember the visit of the three kings… not that we know how many they were (it’s three gifts, not people)… not that we know exactly who they were either (kings… wise men [and women too perhaps]… the Magi [a Greek word meaning astrologers])… and, sorry all you Nativity Play lovers, they weren’t at the manger in the stable either (not that it was a stable…). Jesus was probably a toddler by the time they arrived.

Nonetheless, whatever their identity, they are important figures in the Jesus story. Bringing gifts of gold as a symbol of Christ’s kingship on earth; frankincense (perfume or incense) as a symbol of his deity; and, foreshadowing the significance of his death, the embalming oil of myrrh. They had searched for the Messiah and they had found him. It was their Epiphany moment – and their gifts reflected Jesus’ identity as the Son of God.

In a previous post, we considered making time in the Christmas period to think about what you’ll be searching for in the year to come. Maybe you had an epiphany moment? (OK, maybe not… sometimes they do take time to find.)

‘New year, new job’ is a widely used mantra. Indeed, January is the most popular time of year for both vacancies and job searching. For many people, work is a large part of life and integral to their identity. Work  occupies many hours, weeks, months and years of our lives. Having a job provides something to talk about and perhaps impress others with. We often define ourselves by the job we do. (By the way, do pray for workplaces using the new feature on this site.)  

Yet, for people without paid employment, those hours, weeks, months and sometimes years are often very empty. There is nothing to talk about. If we have no job we may feel we have no identity. Instead of being a somebody, we are a nobody.

‘In the world around us,’ writes Tim Chester:    

Activity (what we do) -> Identity (who we are)

‘In other words, who I am is based on what I do.’ He continues, ‘The grace of God turns the world’s ways upside down:          

Identity (who I am) -> Activity (what I do)

‘In Christ I am someone who does good works. My good works don’t make me who I am.’

In his reflection for the New Year, Martin Gee also challenged our sense of mistaken identity: ‘It matters a great deal how we work; perhaps it matters less what our work is.’

Or as Pope John Paul II put it, ‘The basis for determining the value of human worth is not primarily the kind of work being done, but the fact that the one who is doing it is a person.’

Our identity is a complex thing. At times, we may feel a bit like the Epiphany travellers and not sure who we are. Or like Shakespeare’s Viola, we try to be someone we’re not. I know my sense of my own identity is different now to 40, 20, even 10 years ago. Our identity develops as we grow and mature – and diminishes if we’re always trying to be the person we used to be… or think we ought to be…

Maybe there’s an epiphany moment in there somewhere.

Being Honoured

“I don’t want to get to retirement and think, ‘Was that it?’”

Well, that was 20 years ago. Today, I got to retirement. That was it. And that was good. So good.

For most of the intervening 20 years, I’ve worked with the most wonderful team of colleagues. Caring, supportive and one with a common purpose. A team with a default answer of ‘yes’ – or at least, ‘let’s think about it’. Rather than the demoralising ‘No, we can’t do that’ attitude common in so many workforces. It’s a team which values each other for who they are, not just what they do. I know I have been very fortunate. It has been a privilege and an honour.

For many people, the only reason they know they’re doing a good job are the times when they’re not being criticised. Not that I’ve never been criticised. Far from it. I’ve upset people. I’ve trampled over some. I’ve poached staff from others. I’ve worked with difficult people. I’ve made mistakes. I’ve been bullied, shouted at and disrespected. Everything that happens to everybody at some point or other. That’s working life. 41 years of it.

Yet many people are never thanked for the work they do or honoured for who they are. For me, though, these last few months have been humbling – and somewhat overwhelming. Nominated for a NHS 70th Anniversary Parliamentary Award (which I didn’t get) and a Lifetime Achievement Award from my employer (which I did). And then there was: ‘Urgent – On Her Majesty’s Service’. A letter from the Palace. Six weeks of silence. Nobody could know. When they did, the congratulations were overwhelming. 153 emails. 21 cards. A real honour and deeply humbling. All too much, though. I’ve only been doing my job.

Buckingham Palace last Friday and farewell lunch today. And it all happened again. Cards, congratulations and compliments. Both amazing days. Quite surreal at times. Asked by Prince William if I (me!) thought he (him!) was making progress in supporting employers regarding mental health. The farewell lunch gathered together over 50 people who have supported and taught me so much over the years. Another honour and privilege.

A generous farewell gift pays for a specially commissioned icon to be written (the technical term for icon painting) by Brother Michael OSB, Benedictine monk at Mucknell Abbey. It will be based on the famous 15th century icon by Andrei Rublev. The Trinity.

The icon depicts, from left to right, God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Spirit. The embodiment of Love. Seated around a table. At the front, an empty place. A place of honour and privilege – and not just for the honoured and privileged. A place at which anyone can sit.

Working or retired. Happy at work or not. Employed or unemployed. Parent at home, student or volunteer. Well or unwell. Feeling loved or unloved. Of faith or no faith. Whatever your situation. The place awaits you.

A place of honour and privilege.

A place to which you are invited.

Invited by Love to be honoured for who you are.

Love bade me welcome. Yet my soul drew back
Guilty of dust and sin.
But quick-eyed Love, observing me grow slack
From my first entrance in,
Drew nearer to me, sweetly questioning,
If I lacked any thing.

A guest, I answered, worthy to be here:
Love said, You shall be he.
I the unkind, ungrateful? Ah my dear,
I cannot look on thee.
Love took my hand, and smiling did reply,
Who made the eyes but I?

Truth Lord, but I have marred them: let my shame
Go where it doth deserve.
And know you not, says Love, who bore the blame?
My dear, then I will serve.
You must sit down, says Love, and taste my meat:
So I did sit and eat.

Love (III) by George Herbert