All of rabbit’s friends and relations

23 11 2011

20111123-093746.jpgWhat does ‘relational’ mean? It’s a word I used in my last post. It’s a word that gets bandied about a lot in blogs like this. I’ve heard it many times at the sort of church conferences and workshops I frequent. I’ve used it in conversation innumerable times. But is it just a buzzword? A sort of linguistic bandwagon onto which I have uncritically jumped?

Probably. A bit. But it has come to have some real content for me in recent weeks as I’ve reflected on our adventures in mission over the past two years.

Its meaning and implications really crystallised for me in a conversation with a drug and alcohol worker. I wasn’t the client, before you ask. I had been speaking at this person’s church. After the service they told me about their frustration with their work. Imagine yourself in their situation. You work three days a week. One of those days is taken up with paperwork. On the other two days you have a caseload of more than twenty clients. You can see how it would go. You’d never be able to do much more than a cursory monthly meeting with each of your clients. All you could do is to monitor progress, if there were to be any, any real support or intervention would be incredibly difficult, not to say impossible, to achieve.

Now imagine that you can work as this person really wanted to – relationally. Imagine your caseload is cut down to three or four people, maybe even just two or three. You can invest real time with people and build up a level of trust and understanding that are currently impossible to achieve.

The personal risk and cost are much higher, of course.

First of all you’d have to sacrifice your contact with 18, or 20 people from among your current clients. But what good are you actually doing for/with them? And in saying goodbye for now, you’re not necessarily saying goodbye forever. You’re focusing your energy on where you really might be able to make a difference and not spreading it so thinly that you can realistically achieve very little of value. And you might be able to get to some of those others in time.

Secondly, you’d be taking a much higher risk in terms of the potential for your efforts to fail to achieve a positive outcome. With a big client list, where you can achieve a very limited amount, you can at least spread the risk of failure and your measurable outcomes will, of necessity, be more modest. If you invest everything in a small number of people, you might expect (or at least your paymasters will expect) much more dramatic outcomes. The failures will be much more professionally and personally costly; professionally because your reputation suffers; personally because if you have any real empathy (and why would you do this sort of work if you didn’t?) your clients’ failures will really hurt you.

That’s the sort of approach I think has been developing in my ministry and in the life of the Sunday Sanctuary
. It’s less about trying to create something that will be a catch-all and draw in lots of people with whom we have minimal contact (if that were even possible) and more about investing focused time, energy and resources on a small number of people.

There’s much more to say about this. What does it imply about our motivation for befriending people? What are the implications for our community life? What does it actually mean? Or to use a well worn cliché – what does it mean where the rubber hits the road? These are some of the questions I’ll be pondering out loud on this blog in the coming days.

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