Jan 222012
 

I suppose that over the next wee while I will experience lots of ‘firsts’ as I take up the reins in my first charge.

But there can be few ‘firsts’ quite so special as being invited to officiate at the wedding of a family member. One of the slight added pressures of getting into a charge was the request to conduct the wedding of my brother-in-law and his fiancée. However, the charge has arrived in good time and so I will be able to do the honours in due course.

So, last night was an opportunity to sit down with them and go through the order of service. Of course, never having done one of my own before, it was an interesting experience working out what was to be included in the liturgy, and why (and where). I know the CofS doesn’t hold to a sacramental view of marriage, and I’m happy with that, but I’ve recently been wondering about how we lift a marriage service beyond the ‘legalities with frills’.

I was slightly surprised to discover that the couple wanted something solidly Christian and with ‘gravitas’ (not the word used, but fitting). I was also keen to create the liturgy in such a way that the ‘congregation’ were more involved, or ‘invested’ in what was happening.

I think what we’ve come up with works really well. I suppose it’s loosely based on the 2nd order in Common Order, but definitely only loosely and with other bits thrown in. Broadly speaking, after the first hymn, and a short preamble, we’re into a reading (1Co 13:1-8, nothing original, but by request). This is followed by a short reflection setting the context of Christian marriage in the bigger picture of God’s love and restored relationships (a bit of a hobby-horse theme of mine at the moment) – relationships we are all part of. This then leads to the unifying recital of the Apostles’ Creed. On this basis of God-reflecting, loving relationship, we move into the marriage ceremony itself, finishing that part with a sung Aaronic blessing. There’s then a specially written choral piece during which we may or may not go and sign the schedule, then it’s a prayer, Lord’s prayer, 2nd hymn and benediction.

I like the ‘shape’ – the way it establishes a Christian foundation that is inclusive. I like the way it encourages participation – this is not ‘just’ about two people, but of a much bigger set of relationships. I also like the way that it manages to combine a ‘high’ approach with inclusivity (well, I think it does).

Downside is that it is quite lengthy, but the view of the bride is that it is this part that is the focal point of the day and if that means shaving 10 minutes off the drinks reception immediately afterwards, then so be it.

I doubt that this will become my standard liturgy, but having had this first go at one, and ensuring that it is ‘special’ for people I particularly care about, it has been a very helpful ‘first’. I think it’s really only when you do your first liturgy for anything that you really question why something is there, and why you are using particular words, and why it flows the way it does.

Like I say, it’s the first of what, I’m sure, will be many firsts. Not all will be so pleasurable, but all will be a challenge to ensure God is properly ‘included’ and given His proper place.

Oh, I didn’t mention that the wedding is on the Saturday of the Easter Weekend. Hopefully that will be a first, and last.

Jan 162012
 

At least I’m beginning to know what to think. After the ‘confusion‘ of last week, I am pleased to report that that has now given way to a mixture of excitement and trepidation – and there’s no confusion; that’s exactly how I feel.

Sunday was the ‘big day’, preaching as sole nominee at Kirriemuir: St. Andrew’s l/w Oathlaw Tannadice (must program a shorcut key to type that lot) [oh, and I’d link to the website but it seems to have exceeded some quota or other and isn’t working – an opportunity to move it to some more reliable, free hosting {me, in other words} I think]. Did it all go smoothly? No! I had a few glitches, of my own making. Managed to skip a hymn, but that helped claw back some time since I’d gone on a bit long, and so we finished on time after all. Struggled a bit to connect with the kids on the second service. Forgot to take water to the pulpit so had a bit of a dry throat at one point. And various other little hiccups that probably weren’t really noticed, or if they were, people were too polite to say so.

But, in the end, none of that mattered. The votes were counted and a unanimous decision was returned. We heard the enthusiastic applause as the result was announced and received the same when we went out to say hello officially. I can say that I was utterly overwhelmed. The warmth of the welcome and the enthusiasm was obvious and I still couldn’t quite believe that they had accepted me.

The rest of the day passed in a bit of a blur. We had lunch with some folks from the churches and had a good look round the manse. I think my brain had shut down by that point and I was running on autopilot. By the time we got home I was absolutely shattered and felt totally drained.

It’s really only today that it has started to sink in that it’s time for a change. As messages and calls of congratulation hit the pone, txt, email and Facebook, the sense of joy and excitement gradually started to make its way into my own head and I’ve been going around in a mild state of euphoria for most of the day. There’s still a slight sense of unreality about it all. The whole process must be the most bizarre way of getting a job anywhere. There’s always one more ‘thing’ to happen it seems. For me now that is settling on a date for ordination and induction. That’s likely to be the 23rd of February, but the date’s not fixed yet. That’s far enough away to give me time to prepare, but scarily close to realise that real life, and real ministry, kicks in very soon. That’s the trepidation part.

But, for now, I can enjoy the setting aside of confusion and think about what an exciting next phase of life and ministry is about to begin.

Jan 092012
 

With less than a week to go until I preach as sole nominee at Kirriemuir: St. Andrew’s l/w Oathlaw Tannadice, I find my emotions and thoughts in a state of turmoil. In a very real sense I don’t know what to think.

There’s the natural anxiety of preparing for such an event (and all my classic stress triggers and reactions are there); yet the rational part of me is saying that I’m not doing anything different to what I would do any other Sunday morning I’d be leading a service. And of course that’s true – it’s just that’s there’s the added pressure of knowing that two congregations will be deciding if I am to be their minister for the next while. (And that in itself is a somewhat bizarre situation – voting based on an hour leading a service to determine who will be involved in their life for far more than that.) But leading services is what I have done, in large part, for quite some time and I know that I am perfectly capable of doing so competently. And so there is a mix of anxiety and confidence and that it exactly what I would expect, so, in a sense, it’s what I would expect to be thinking and is not, therefore, a problem.

So where does the problem lie?

Everyone has been enormously supportive and I have had all the usual ‘it’ll all be fine’ comments from lots of people. And there’s a big bit of me that says/knows that, yes, it will all be fine. And that’s the root of the problem, I think. I don’t want it to feel that it’s a foregone conclusion. There’s a bit of me that feels that that is almost arrogant (but not really), yet it’s born of a confidence, not only in my competence, but the unanimous decision of a nominating committee, the good references from previous supervisors, and even the words of encouragement from people associated with the vacancy itself.

Oh yes, there’s also the big issue of ‘call’. After all, that’s the very root of my being here in the first place. And even that all feels ‘right’, for reasons I’ve explored in other posts and for all sorts of other reasons I haven’t mentioned but all affirm this call, and this place, and this ministry.

When all these things are brought together it’s difficult not to feel confident and positive about the whole thing. But I don’t, as I’ve said, want that to tip over into arrogance. And I don’t think it will. There’s still enough humility there to hold me back (I think, and even though it doesn’t necessarily sound like there is) and there’s also a sense in which this confidence has its proper ‘place’.

I was praying about this very issue and about my conflicted emotions and as I did so, I sensed an overwhelming affirmation of being in this ‘place’, emotionally. It’s difficult to explain – it was, itself, a rush of ’emotion’ that was both uplifting and humbling; a sense that it was understood, and accepted, and ‘allowed’, and was, therefore, ‘right’.

So I will, no doubt, continue to walk my tight line of confidence and humility. And I will continue to feel conflicted about it. But I can stop over-analysing it. It’s not something to be picked apart and have a decision made one way or another. It is simply how I am and who I am. It’s also good to know that who I am and how I am right now is quite fine with God, who calls me. Now that does sound arrogant, but I can’t help myself.

Jan 012012
 

I’m not given to writing retrospectives, so this isn’t a look back on last year (which was, to be fair, eventful enough). Rather, this marks the start of a year (and more) of very new things indeed.

I’ve also been a bit reluctant to blog about the most recent developments in my application process. The last time I blogged it was to note that things were progressing. Well, they have now progressed to the point where I shall be preaching as sole nominee on the 15th of January at Kirriemuir: St. Andrew’s linked with Oathlaw Tannadice. The main reason I’ve been reluctant to blog about it is that I don’t really want to settle into a sense of complacency about it, or to give any sense of it being a foregone conclusion. It felt that writing about it would be, in a bizarre sense, a betrayal of trust. However, it’s now public knowledge that I will be preaching as sole nominee and so, admitting it here isn’t a big deal. That said, I still don’t want to feel complacent about it, despite the reassuring noises from all and sundry.

As that date races into view though, and as phone calls and emails start coming in to make tentative arrangements for an ordination and induction, the reality of major upheaval in the near future is beginning to dawn on me. There’s the logistics of moving – but having to keep the current house going so that school can be finished. There’s also the daunting prospect of settling into a first charge – getting to know people, avoiding upsetting familiar routines (initially anyway), planning, doing, rushing around mad wondering why on earth I ever thought this was a good idea.

There’s a bit of me that wants to hold back and hide behind the idea that ‘it’s not settled yet!’ After all, I still have to be voted for by the two congregations. and yet, when I get a church calendar in the post, with the encouraging message that it’s for my new study, then it all seems a little less daunting (if still somewhat presumptuous) and I can let a bit of the excitement sneak through. And I am excited. I’ve met some of the people and, I think, made a good connection – one which I’m keen to develop. The area is beautiful. The churches are keen to develop. There’s some great work being done as part of a wider area ministry. School chaplaincy work. And the list goes on. All exciting and appealing.

In may ways it’s not what I had initially been looking for, but any so many more ways, it’s more than I’d considered. And perhaps the biggest clincher is that it has been received very positively by everyone in the family. That’s always been a big part in my discernment of the ‘you’ll just know’ advice that has come from many quarters. And that’s exciting too, because it is vindication of lots of advice and direction and prayerful consideration.

So, a new year; soon a new start. But, first things first – I still need to decide what to preach on on the 15th.

Dec 062011
 

I just realised that I’d updated Facebook, but not blogged about the latest developments in my search for a charge. Since my last post on the subject there have been some positive and negative developments. Well, not negative, I suppose, just not positive.

The interview that I had, I thought went well, but, as is my custom, I probably over-analysed the event. I could have been better in some areas, but overall I was happy with how it went. I felt I represented myself fully and honestly and that, as far as I’m concerned, is the crux of the matter. I don’t want to be accepted for a charge and I’m not what they expect. I don’t want to give the impression that I’m passionate about something I’m not, or have skills that I don’t. By the same token, I don’t want to miss anything that might be of use in a committee’s deliberations of whether I’m the right person or not. There were one or two answers that I could have dealt with more ‘slickly’, but they caught me slightly by surprise (and they probably shouldn’t have).

I also fired a number of questions at the committee and suspect I poked a few ‘sensitive’ areas judging by the reactions. When I asked that ‘catch-all’ awkward question, “What question are you hoping I don’t ask?” there was a muttered, “You’ve already asked them.” That said, the answers (or lack off) weren’t a problem, but simply highlighted areas where work would be needed.

The upshot though was that they did eventually get back to me with a ‘thanks, but no thanks’.

Which left me with one remaining ‘live’ application. That committee got back in touch to arrange to hear me take a service and that was duly arranged (and has now taken place). In fact, it was the day after the above-noted interview, so it was a fairly intense weekend. The visiting group stayed for a chat and although it wasn’t an official interview, these things are never really as ‘informal’ as they might be. But it was a good opportunity to sound each other out and form some tentative first impressions. On my side, I noted some potential ‘issues’, but nothing off-putting. I’ve also been able to have a chat with another minister in the area and that resulted in some good food for thought and some encouraging prospects.

I guess I didn’t make too bad an impression either as I have now been invited for an interview, which, as the post title suggests, is one step beyond where I have been getting to in previous applications. My interview experience with the other committee should now stand me in good stead, which is why I don’t view that experience as a negative one. Mind you, it’s unlikely they’ll ask the same questions, but the bulk of them should come up in some form or another. So, watch this space for an update in due course.

Realising that this is the last of my live applications, I have also decided that there is no harm in doing a bit of contingency planning either. If the interview goes well, and I progress with that charge, then I can always withdraw any other applications. But the thought of waiting to get the outcome before starting from scratch again would, I think, be foolish. That said, at this point of the year now, very little is likely to happen with new applications until into January. Hopefully by that time, I should have a clearer indication of how things are going. Anyway, one other application has been sent off and I’ll likely follow up with one or two more in the near future.

Oh, yes, and I’ve also signed on the ‘buroo‘. It’s unlikely that I’ll get any benefit money as I have gaps in my NI contributions from being a student, but we’ll see. First time I’ve ever signed on, but I’ve certainly carried my tax burden in years past, so I don’t exactly feel like a sponger.

Nov 132011
 

Today held an interesting ‘first’ for me – two ‘firsts’, if I was being pedantic. At last year’s Remembrance Service I was preaching, and that was fine. I’m on comfortable territory with that. And it was made easier by the fact that the usual gathering of British Legion and Armed forces representatives were at a different church in the town as part of their anniversary celebrations.

Having preached last year, it meant that it was my turn to take the Act of Remembrance this time – only this time with the full attendance of Legion, Forces and various local dignitaries. There are times when it has to be ‘right’ and I would suggest that this is just such a time. I know there are all the arguments about whether the church should be supporting such militaristic activities, but I would rather there be a Christian voice heard in these situations than a withdrawal and sniping from the sidelines. Hosting and participating in such activities does not imply that we condone war, but recognises that there is a distinct Christian voice which can be spoken into the occasion.

Not that that was the sum total of my involvement for the day. It fell upon me to lead the service at the war memorial too. Bigger crowd, very public and with all the burden of responsibility and solemnity of such an event. It generally went well, I think, with only a couple of minor hiccups as I tried to speak over the top of a parade-ground voice giving orders at times I didn’t expect them. (Oh, and a little argument with the local MP as he turned up early, complained about the service not starting early enough to give him time to get to the next one, laid his wreath before the service started, and legged it. Anyway, I was feeling bold enough to be in no mood for such drivel and told him to sort his diary more efficiently next time.)

Anyway, I thought I’d share the short reflection I gave at the war memorial. Spoken pretty much as written, with the odd, on-the-fly alteration (which I no longer remember exactly).

As the years pass and the memories of the two world wars become barely even a second-hand memory, it is often asked whether it is still appropriate to mark this day and time, at least in the way we do.

Quite apart from the fact that the legacy of those two wars still continues with us, the list of conflicts in which the British Armed Forces has been involved grows ever longer; and conflicts around the globe continue to exact a toll, both on those who are on active service and those who support them.

And so I would say that the Act of Remembrance has, if anything, become even more significant; even more crucial in our present day.

Remembering and honouring those who have died, those who have suffered, both military and civilian lives; remembering courage, and bravery, selfless sacrifice and duty are all part of this Act of Remembrance, and rightly so.

But such an Act is also an intensely political statement – and I use that term in its broadest sense: the exercise of power and governance in a country. And as a democracy, we all play our part in that process. We, all, help shape the country we would live in, and the ethics we would live under.

And so, when we join together in the Act of Remembrance, we are not simply paying tribute to those who have served in conflicts over the years. We are also saying that such events cannot be set aside; their significance cannot be diminished; they do not simply belong to the past, but are a challenge to our present reality.

When we forget, we trivialise.

When we forget, we diminish and devalue sacrifice.

When we forget, we dishonour those who served and who continue to serve.

In remembering, we do not condone war, but speak a word of challenge to governments, and to the people, that says, “We have seen, and we remember, what humanity is capable of.”

In remembering, we also say we demand a change, saying, “As it was, is not how it needs to be. Let that which has happened in the past guide us to a better future.”

“We will remember.”

Nov 022011
 

Not long after I posted about being back to square one I did actually kick off a couple of new enquiries. I was also fortunate enough to be able to arrange to visit them at fairly short notice. I did hum and haw a bit over which to apply to, but the upshot of those deliberations was to apply formally to both. Better, I thought, to have the headache of deciding on one, than extending the whole process unnecessarily (and potentially missing out on whichever I put into second place).

If it did come down to a choice I have a gut reaction for one over the other, but that’s not based on any sort of informed decision, merely a ‘feeling’ (it’s that discernment thing again). In many regards either ‘would do’. But expressing it in those terms gives a very negative-sounding spin. I mean it in the sense that either would offer a very fulfilling ministry with plenty of scope all the things I’m interested in as well as scope to grow the congregation’s gifts and community involvement. Although in that last regard, maybe that’s where one has a potential edge over the other.

Whatever, the story so far (and hence the post title) is that I have been offered an interview for one of them and the other meets this week to consider their response to my application. In the second case it’s my understanding that, as yet, I’m the only applicant. They are, however, relatively ‘new’ in their vacancy and so they may not feel that they need to grab the first ‘live one’ that comes along. We’ll see how that pans out though.

As for the interview for the first one, I really need to come up with a list of questions for them as well as preparing for what they may well ask me. So it’ll be a case of going back through the Parish Profile and unpicking some of the items in that, as well as looking for what they’re not saying. I also want to sound out their reaction to what I see as my own particular areas of interest. And, of course there’s also the killer question, “What question do you not want me to ask?” (Although I have my own spin on that one.) So, what are the ‘big questions’ worth asking?

 

Oct 182011
 

Having had a knock-back from my first (and only – so a 100% record so far) proper application, I am now kicking off a number of new enquiry/application processes. Obviously I’m a bit down at not progressing in an application for a place I was really keen on, but, as my supervisor said, now I know how it feels to really want somewhere. The side-effect of that ‘wanting’ has been to sideline another enquiry I had on the go. I’m unlikely to push that one too hard now as I now realise that it doesn’t quite hit the mark for me. It’s a good charge, and it ticked many boxes for me, but I don’t really want to settle for somewhere that seems to be, at the moment, in an ‘it would do’ category – at least not until I’ve explored some alternatives.

So, in one respect, it is back to square one. I have no other ‘live’ enquiries on the go. But it’s also not square one because of what I have learnt of the process so far and of my reactions to it. My previous reflections on discernment still stand, with only a little modification. I think I need to be a little more proactive in extricating information about a vacancy rather than ‘just’ listening. But that’s probably because I now know more of the sort of questions to ask and more of the direction I’d like things to go.

So although it may seem like square one, the move to ‘square two’ should be easier this time around.

Ho! Hum! Back to scouring parish profiles for the clues to the right questions to ask.

Oct 072011
 

On a previous post I was asked how the process of discernment worked for me.

Just to provide some context, just in case you’re reading this from scratch – it’s a reference to my process of determining and assessing a call to a currently-vacant charge (parish) in the Church of Scotland. It’s also worth adding a little bit of background for anyone reading who is unfamiliar with the CofS’s vacancy process. Ministers are never ‘sent’ anywhere by the CofS. One responds to a ‘call’, both in the sense of God calling a person to a particular ministry and also in the sense that it is a congregation’s jealously-guarded right to determine who their own minister shall be and not have one imposed upon them. (With the caveat that presbytery has a right of veto if the called minister’s life and doctrine are deemed to be inappropriate.) There are other ins and outs that can complicate things, but that’s the general idea.

So this splurge of thoughts is ‘call’ and its discernment from my perspective – that of someone seeking to determine where I shall be ‘ministering’ for the next five years at least (you are expected to stay at least five years in a first charge).

I suppose I should also say that whatever I write here is probably a much too neat description of what, for me anyway, is a far from tidy and obvious ‘process’.

I guess the process started a few years ago. A large element of the ministry formation training and preparation is about knowing your self (and I’ve become a huge advocate of the professional journalling/reflective practice ‘thing’). But that’s not about self-centred, navel-gazing. It’s a genuine process of understanding the type of person you are, your strengths (without the false humility that we Scots seem to revel in), your limitations (genuinely understood), your passions, your challenges, and so on. There was much grumping at times during the preparation stage, but let me say (and I say this from only a personal perspective – I can’t speak for anyone else) that it is now that the various activities and exercises and self-reflection all become enormously useful.

When I first started at university (and wasn’t yet a candidate for training), a number of my fellow students who were candidates had a very clear picture of where they would be ministering and of the type of ministry they wanted to do. I didn’t have that and it caused me to question my call on a number of occasions. Now, I don’t know if those people just happened to know themselves really well (I’m not convinced) or had simply been given a different form of call from me (a more convincing explanation) but it is now, knowing myself so much better, that I have that sense of call to a particular ministry.

So that is the first element of discernment for me – knowing ‘me’; the gifts and talents I have, the passions which enthuse me, the challenges which don’t, the people I like to work with, the environment I can flourish in (again, not in a self-serving way, but simply being able to live and work effectively so that I can serve others). It is knowing that piece of the jigsaw that enables me to see if it might fit into the various ministry opportunities which are available. I suppose it’s not really any different to anyone else who is job-hunting, but I suspect there are more and different factors at work than come into play when one is simply ‘looking for a job’.

But that also opens up the question of whether the available ‘job’ has appropriately-shaped jigsaw ‘holes’. There’s only so much information to be gleaned from parish profiles and mission statements and ministerial profiles. And much of it has to be taken with a degree of scepticism; a nominating committee is not in the job of making their charge look unattractive. So that means other avenues of research need to be opened up. Talking to people works wonders. There are times when the Church of Scotland seems like a very small world. Everyone seems to know someone who knows someone. And there are even a few people who seem to know everyone (and every congregation, and every minister who has been through the door, and where they came from and where they went). So word gets around about places. If I’ve learnt nothing else over the last several years, then I’ve learnt that it is very often through what people say to me, almost unintentionally, that I can often hear a prompting from God. So I listen carefully (or try to) and try and pick up the clues from what I’m hearing. This makes the informal chats and emails with interim moderators interesting. They seem to expect me to come laden with questions about a place. Actually, I just want to listen to what they have to say and pick up what’s being said and not said. I may then be prompted to ask a question, but often I’ll just take time to reflect on things.

What else is in the mix? Visiting a place; seeing it in context and seeing what its context is. Simply stopping, in a place, and ‘listening’; feeling its ‘vibe’ (the church building, the manse, the town, the churchyard, whatever). There’s more too, but the more intangible it gets, the more difficult it is to put into words. There are also very personal considerations around family which are part of the discernment process but are not appropriate to mention here.

You’ve maybe wondered why I haven’t mentioned prayer. It’s there in the mix, of course, but, as I’ve said, I’ve learnt to listen for God through what others say more than anything and so the riposte “have you prayed about it?” tends to grate on me a bit. If ‘praying’ is about listening out for God’s guidance then the answer is yes. If it means closeting myself in a quiet room, getting on my knees with an open Bible in front of me, then the answer is no. All of the above ‘methods’ or process elements are, for me, a form of prayerful, spiritually-reflective activity.

So, is it working? I’ll let you know when the call comes and it is still coming 5 years into ministry.