How Not to be a Minister

how not to be a politician

This reflection  was written by Dio Principal Jesse Zink for this week’s Wingèd Ox, a weekly news digest distributed to the college community. You will find reflections from previous weeks here.

Dear colleagues,

Over the Christmas break I read How Not to be a Politician by Rory Stewart. Stewart is the author of a couple of earlier books I’ve admired about his work as a diplomat and non-profit administrator in Iraq and Afghanistan. His latest book documents the nine years he spent as a Member of Parliament and cabinet minister in Britain, through the tumultuous years of Brexit, turnover in the leadership of the Conservative Party, and much else. Like his other books, he is wry, funny, introspective, and a bit too self-serious.

What I was drawn to in How Not to be a Politician is the attention Stewart gives to the vast distance that exists between his expectations of what it would be like to be a politician and what it was actually like. He decided to run for Parliament because he thought that becoming a MP would be an effective way to make change in the world. What he finds instead is a Parliament consumed with petty gossip, jealousy, and the latest item in the news cycle. The result, he realizes, is that the people’s representatives are unable to meaningfully lead the country in addressing the many consequential and complex topics they should be attending to. Even when he becomes a minister, in charge variously of addressing plastic bag pollution, international aid, and overseeing prisons, he struggles with what democratic accountability means. His career as a MP ultimately ends when Boris Johnson becomes Prime Minister in 2019 and kicks him out of the Conservative Party in a dispute over Brexit.

As I read Stewart’s memoir, I thought of my own experience of the life of the church. I have sought and am making a career in the church because I believe it is a response to God’s call on my life. But I’m also here because I imagine the church to be a meaningful way to make change in the world. Like Stewart, I have often been disappointed. Often—too often—in my ministry, I’ve found the church to be overly consumed with itself, dysfunctional, incompetent, prone to focusing on the inconsequential, and indeed actively harmful to its members and those in the wider world. Yet, somehow, I am still here.

Although Stewart comes across as a bit jaded in his book, the reader also gets the sense that he loved being a MP, especially when he started figuring out how things work. I feel the same way about ministry. Part of the gifts we need for an enduring ministry, then, is the ability to sit lightly with the church’s ridiculousness without walking away, actively address the harms it causes, keep focused on the big picture, and pray for the grace to keep living this calling one day after another.

Faithfully yours,

Jesse Zink