I came across this phrase recently in a workshop run by the Susanna Wesley Foundation in Birmingham. It’s a curious phrase that describes how I feel a good deal of the time in ministry. It’s a term borrowed from psychology and first coined in the 1970s as part of a model of learning.
In any new and unfamiliar environment, we, in the infamous words of Donald Rumsfeld, are confronted with a series of ‘unknown unknowns’ and well as some ‘known unknowns’. In other words, we do not yet know what we do not know, by and large, and only know some of what we do not know. Clear?!
Despite twenty years of experience, I still face conscious incompetence in ministry all the time. And my inner perfectionist screams at the thought of, not only my own ignorance, but that everyone else will see it too. There is still something about people’s picture of a presbyter that imagines we have, if not all, then most of the answers to life’s questions. For a recovering perfectionist, this can be lethal, as it plays into our own mythology that, unless we know all the answers, we are a complete and utter failure.
Over the next few months, I will be writing about the work I am doing with Methodists in Warwickshire in mission discernment. Each month, I will take an aspect of the work and try to reflect on it for the benefit of those involved and to invite others to offer insights and feedback. One of the principles our local processes are built on is that idea of ‘conscious incompetence’, that, through prayer and attentive listening to each other and our communities, we can become aware of our ignorance and seek to address it.
This is an anxious time for the mainline churches and there is a deep and abiding fear of demise. It is important to acknowledge our reality and our perceptions of reality if we are to move from unconscious incompetence to unconscious competence. But this is a journey into the unknown and there is a great temptation to stay with what we know. When faced with known incompetence, I can feel my soul shrink. At least one part of my brain shuts down and refuses to face up to it at all - avoidance becomes the tactic. It often takes many, many deep breaths to sit down and face my own ignorance in order to address it. This is as much about an emotional response as an intellectual one.
Facing up to conscious incompetence takes a huge amount of pastoral skill, the sort of pastoral care that is based on truth and honesty, not platitudes and ‘niceness’. It is a model taken from the Class Meeting, not the Consulting Room, a shared practice where we ‘bear one another’s burdens’, rather than treat people as clients and service users. Conscious incompetence becomes a shared experience and so we must find ways to help each other.
If you’re interested in reading more about what we’re trying to do, later this month there will be posts on the the Susanna Wesley Foundation website under the title Interconnexions. Or send thoughts and feedback to firstname.lastname@example.org.