I started this new blog as a way of holding a public dialogue at the start of a new ministry in a new place. Then life changed much more than I had imagined. I knew I was walking into a set of churches that might be looking to a clergy vacancy at some undefined point in the future. But instead, the Team Rector’s retirement was announced on my first Sunday, giving six weeks notice before his final Sunday. Then my other stipendary colleague left about 6 months later, with even less public notice.
This left the church members of our 9 weekly congregations (mostly traditional and priest-centred/eucharistically focussed) somewhat shellshocked and having to re-imagine a whole lot more than they asked or imagined. Many communities take the status quo for granted and find it hard to imagine a different shape to their shared life. Our churches were no different. Once we were thrusted into a new environment, the combination of anxiety and expectation created all the classic symptoms of bereavement – a rollercoaster of numbness, denial, anger, shellshock, relief, adjustment – often all on the same day or even in the same meeting. Piecing together a way forward needed a lot of imagination!
It also left me with a conundrum in the nature of my calling to this particular place and ministry – how much energy do I give to my calling and appointment (re-imagining the emerging church and ministry to our young families) and how much energy do I give to being something akin to “lead-priest-by-default” (or as friends have called it “Last man standing”).
The answer was bound to be an unsatisfactory compromise on all counts:
The family-based congregations and “emerging church” congregation got nowhere near their anticipated portion of my attention and ministry, having already been the group who were most affected through the vacancy period of my predecessor.
At the same time, our traditional congregations saw much less of a resident priest than they had imagined, as communion services were replaced with (very ably) lay led services or (equally ably) led by a range of visiting and local retired priests.
On reflection, there were times when it all felt inadequate, adhoc and uncertain, with little pastoral continuity from week to week. At other times and in other ways the experience drew out the best in people, new opportunities to serve, new images of how we can “be church” together and, in the midst of it all, God has been igniting and re-igniting imagination.
This is the bit that, most significantly at a personal level, has drawn me back to the question “what am I here for”. What on earth was God doing in sending me to this place, at this time, in this way. It’s far to early to fix the answers on this, but a few strands are emerging
For such a time as this. Ruth, in the Old Testament, discovered that God has a plan which he carefully, patiently and purposefully pieces together. His plan is far beyond our human understsanding of our abilities and limitations. This call us back to a prayerful dependence on God’s grace and timing. Through all the rollercoaster of encouragements and setbacks, it has been my sense of God going before us that have created the driven wheels of what we are about. At the same time, my personal sense of identity and calling have been the stabilisers in a precarious discovery of how to ride this particular bike. Some one I spoke to recently reflected the same dependence “God got us into this, he’ll get us out”.
Raising the right questions, not jumping to the easy answers. As I look to the ministry and manner of Jesus, I see that he often asks awkward but pertinent questions “Who do you say I am?”, “Who of you is without sin?”, “Who of you would not save an ass or an ox on the Sabbath?”. For our parish, some of those questions have surrounded the shape of ministry and pattens of worship, most of all not supposing that the future is just a cut-and-paste of our past. Some of our folks have found “What if” questions destablising, whilst others have felt the breath of fresh air. Some of the questions remain in the air – God still regards us as a work in progress, so it’s no bad thing that we regard our ministry in the same way!
Know Thyself. I’ve been more grateful than ever that some bright spark introduced me to the impact of “Emotional Intelligence” on parish ministry (a modern, psychological framework for the old adage “know thyself”). Handling our own emotions and recognising the emotional triggers in others in our teams has been one of the skills we’ve all been learning to one degree or other. We can only ask searching qeustions when we are in a safe and secure environment – when we know ourselves suffficiently to be secure enough to allow the unexpected answers to excite us instead of drive us into fearful retraction
Raising Capacity. When Jesus was sharing ministry with his followers, he said “you will do greater things than this” (or in another version “you shall do more than this”). One of the great Old Testament commentators of our time (Bruggeman for those who want to know) notes that God always deals with abundance, generosity and immeasurable capacity, whilst the culture of our age is driven by the fear of scarcity which drives acquisative self-protection. In the light of this, I’ve been relearning what it means to hold onto one of the core values of my own journey into ministry: imagining what gifts God might be pouring into his church, and (as a corollary) which people are given stewardship of those gifts. Believing that God’s church already has all the tools and people it needs to perform the ministry required of it today, and that God will grow his people and grow his church that he wants it be tomorrow often seems like a huge leap of the imagination. That may be so, but history – personally and globally – would bear testimony that the belief is sound.
One by one, side by side. Finally (for the time being). In 2006, I led some reflections for a small group of men in a church, based on the mentoring relationship between Paul and Timothy. The dual challenge was for each to be able to answer the questions “Who is your Paul?; Who is your Timothy”
- -who is mentoring you, supporting you, coaching you, guiding you, praying for you?
- and who are you mentoring, supporting, coaching, guiding praying for?
As I look back on the people I’ve served and worshipped with over the years, this single element seems to me to make the most signficant difference between a demoralised casualty and an inspired disciple. The 1-2-1 investment of time, energy and prayer, person by person, side by side. The public example is one I’ve over-used, but unashamedly re-use. A young man on a christian houseparty many years ago who had as his mentor and guide a man who was known as “Bash Nash”. Not many people knew Bash or his influence. But many people throughout the world have been influenced by the person he invested his time in, Rev John Stott, regarded as one of the most influential people in recent years in the evangelical wing of the international church. I’m imagining what might happen if the people in whom I invest my time, energy and prayers might have even a small portion of that impact in God’s service.
Just imagine ..