A series of essays in the Episcopal Church
by Elizabeth Kaeton
As I write this, I've been blissfully on vacation for the past week, looking forward to the coming week away from the daily, unique challenges of what I've come to call 'pastoral multi-tasking,' or PMT.
PMT is hard to succinctly define, but it looks a bit like this: I'm sitting one minute with a parishioner in the midst of serious life crisis, my heart breaking along with his at the depth of his loss, the pain of his grief and the confusion of his soul.
No sooner do I emerge from my office than I find myself dealing with an irate church member who picked up two (imagine two!) mistakes in last Sunday's bulletin. And, she doesn't like the color or typeset of the print we've been using. Meant for younger eyes, she huffs. Everything these days is meant for younger people. What about the older folks, she demands? Why has the church abandoned the older folk in favor of all these young families and all their noisy children? In my day, children behaved in church, she says. And, another thing . . .
The phone has begun to ring off the hook ("Please tell them I'll call right back," I respond, suddenly and acutely aware that I'm beginning to sound like I'm trying to be chipper).
Someone is bobbing her head into my office doorway, trying to get "just this one question" in edgewise while the irate parishioner rattles on. She is looking for my Youth Missioner, even though his schedule, cell phone number and email address are posted on the door to his office - but I, only I, have the mystical powers to know how to find him.
Meanwhile, I spot the church sexton in the hall and scribble a reminder in my brain, now wilting rapidly under the irate onslaught, that I have to talk with him about the set up for the funeral this Thursday. The Parish Administrator has also motioned to me that he needs to check in with me. (I'm thinking "Lip Reading for Surviving Parish Life" would have been a very handy course to have taken in seminary.)
As panic seizes me that I'm two hours behind schedule and haven't yet begun to do the background study for my sermon, the children of the Day Care center emerge, out of nowhere, and the hallways swell with their joyful singing and chatter. Only a four-year old could find joy in the daily scheduled trip to the bathroom.
Suddenly, I find myself tuning out my present reality and listening to the playback, stored in the deep recesses of my memory, and recall the youthful voice of my eldest daughter who, when told of my plans to be ordained said, "Cool, Mom! You'll only have to work an hour every Sunday."
I love what I do. I love the people God has called me to serve and love, and I would do just about anything for them - and they would reciprocate in double measure. It's just nice to get away - preferab ly for a large chunk of time - and, at the beach. I find that nothing refreshes my weary body, restores my addled brain cells and nourishes my sin-sick soul than the sight and smell and sound of the ocean.
While PMT has challenges that are unique to my particular vocation, I suspect everyone these days, in every profession or job description, has multi-tasking challenges which are particular to their work. It's become the way of the modern life. A skill to be learned. Something in which some people take great pride. I've seen it prominently listed on resumes for priests, organists and receptionists.
As another ocean wave crashes on the shore and the sea mist rises, another memory, another image of multi-tasking comes into view. It is my grandmother - the original Queen of Multi-Tasking. My favorite image is that of her kitchen - she in front of her stove, from which she held court. She always had at least three pots of something, cooking, simmering or stewing. There was usually something frying in the pan, and something delicious baking in the oven.
As I see her, she has one of the grandbabies on her hip, and a wooden spoon held high in the air over one of the pots, like a master conductor in front of her own orchestra of culinary delight. That spoon could also swiftly double as a tool of discipline, so we kids always made a wide path around her, lest she suddenly remember a transgression from the day before and swat you one on the behind.
Not turning her back away from the tasks on the stove, she calls out to three other grandchildren who are in her bedroom around the corner, "Stay away from my bureau!" How did she know exactly what we were doing? This ability earned her the reputation of having mystical powers to see through walls and around corners - more than our mothers, mere mortals, who only had 'eyes in the back of their heads.'
It has occurred to me m ore than once that the best preparation I ever had for parish ministry has been my role as a parent. It occurs to me just now that good parenting prepares you for just about any multi-tasking job or profession you might choose. Parenting and family life open your heart to love and possibility, creativity and imagination, forgiveness and reconciliation, yes, but it also prepares you for the importance of credibility and accountability.
Teamwork always gets the job done, but someone has to be 'captain' of the team. It does take a village to raise a child, but the buck has to stop somewhere, and it's not with the teachers or the music or "the media." It's with the parents. So, too, in corporate life. There are always consequences for everyone's actions - good and bad - from the smallest detail to the heaviest responsibility. From the person at the top to the person at the bottom. I've also discovered that it doesn't hurt, as a leader and as a parent, to cultivate at least the illusion of having some mystical powers, even if it's just that nothing gets by without having been at least noticed.
Which is why I believe every multi-tasker of every order needs some time away. In large chunks of time. And, preferably, at the ocean, where the pull of the tides and the power of the waves and the magic of the sea mist help us to remember that we, each and every one, are but a small part, a sparkling reflection, of the Great Master Multi-Tasker.
the Rev'd Elizabeth Kaeton
The Episcopal Church of St. Paul
200 Main Street
Chatham, NJ 07928
973 635 8085
Please sign my guestbook and view it.
Statistics courtesy of