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.

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.

Sep 192011
 

Since my last musings about identifying a possible charge, I’ve had a chance to have a wee tour around a few places. Not so much to meet the people, but more to get a sense of the geography and ‘place’. That said, I did have an opportunity to meet up with some folks on one of the visits.

It’s been a useful exercise. I guess I had a slightly idealistic image in my head about what certain types of places might be like. I was pretty certain I didn’t fancy a city centre-style charge, or even a large town. This is still the case (I think), just don’t ask me to justify it too much. It’s more a gut-reaction than a well-reasoned position. So I had moved in the opposite direction towards more rural charges, but knowing that ‘real’ rural wasn’t quite my thing either. Whatever, I decided to have a look around a few places which more or less ticked the right boxes.

As it transpired, semi-rural doesn’t really appeal all that much either. Without a doubt there are many attractions. Beautiful locations, often with a large manse with plenty of space. The church buildings also tend to be very nice and often occupy a central position in a community. I’m just not sure I’d be up for the relative ‘isolation’. And perhaps I’m just too lazy to enjoy the thought of all that mileage for visiting or funerals or hospital visits. Maybe it was a slightly rose-tinted picture I had in my head, but I still needed to see the actual ‘reality’ of a place to get a sense of whether I could settle there.

One of the places I considered was more along the lines of what I had in mind. Definitely more urban but still relatively compact and well-defined as a community. So that one is still bubbling around the list. Its big ‘plus’ was the light it shed on yet another visit. One that I had glanced at in passing previously but hadn’t seriously considered. Can’t remember why now, but it was simply noted and then passed over. Then its profile arrived through the post (unsolicited) and that prompted another look. This time the visit involved actually meeting people and an opportunity to view church and manse.

It wasn’t what I’d had in mind, yet it ticked so many of my notional boxes. There would have to be some manse work negotiated, I suspect, but there were no obvious big red warning lights. Not a ‘spark’ but a definitely discernible flicker. And a sense of ‘yeah, that would work’ – not in a ‘can’t think of anything better’ way, but in a genuine ‘I could see myself here’ way. Of course, there’s still the ‘other side’ to take in to consideration – will I be the sort of person they want?

The strategy now is to find somewhere similar and do a ‘compare and contrast’ exercise. And I suppose that’s where this initial foray into serious charge-hunting has been beneficial. It has helped clarify the sort of place I’d be happy in. And so that helps narrow down the short list potentials for a start. It also helps focus the mind on what to look for when turning a more critical eye on a place.

So, the search continues (that sounds familiar – maybe an Apprentice-style competition between congregations might help) but with growing illumination along the way.

Sep 072011
 

As of the 1st of September I have been allowed to begin applying to vacant charges. Of course I had being doing some preparatory work and had a not so short list of likely places. I confess it was a somewhat arbitrary collection, based primarily on my ability to access their parish profile from a website. As it transpired there were not too many gaps based on my other arbitrary selection criteria, including geographic location.

One thing I have become very aware of over the last few months is a growing understanding of what my ministry ‘style’ is and what my priorities would be. Interestingly, this also means that I now realise I have expectations of a congregation, rather than simply looking to meet (or otherwise) their expectations. That has helped further refine the vacancies I have added to my working list.

That list though is still too long and I have been working on getting it down to a more manageable three or four. That hasn’t been easy, especially as skeletons begin to emerge when you do a bit of digging. One potential vacancy I mentioned met with extreme reactions from two people, quite independently of each other. I guess that’s a pretty blatant ‘stay away’ warning. As other factors have emerged (information gathered through interim moderators or knowledgeable others) that short list has changed, although one has stayed live from the beginning and another, introduced a little later, has also survived the refining process.

What has been conspicuous by its absence though has been that sense of, “Oh yes, that’s the one.” Consistent advice from others has been ‘you’ll just know’, and I’d agree with that based on past experience. I didn’t really expect that feeling simply through looking at parish profiles, to be fair, but I had expected some sort of ‘spark’ that might give me a clue.

However, as I reflected on how I was feeling about that, it became clear that any of my short list would actually be quite fine. I’m quite sure I would settle in well and be able to have a fruitful and engaging ministry in any of them. So there was actually no need for the ‘spark’, at least at this stage. I am sure that it will come though, when I meet a nominating committee, or sound out a place, or whenever. But, for the moment, it’s enough to know that there are places where I believe that it would ‘work’ for me (and not just me – there’s family to consider).

But I’ll still be watching out for the ‘spark’.

Aug 162011
 

The last one has been passed/jumped/got through. (Apart from the minor matter of actually finding a charge that is.)

I’ve never taken the view that the path to ministry is a series of hoops to jump through or boxes to be ticked. It is, rightly, a formation process. But it is, nevertheless, marked with critical points along the way. I’ve blogged about some of them in passing, ignoring others, but today’s was of some particular significance and is worthy of note. There is that minor issue of now finding a charge, but I would not even be in a position to begin looking were it not for the thumbs-up from today’s final review.

This short interview is the culmination of, for me, over six years of study, work and self-reflection. Five years of university, including enquiry periods (2-off), placements and then full-time probation. There have been ‘gates’ along that journey but that final review is the one that frees you to begin looking for the place where you will be let loose on real people, in the real world, without the safety net of an experienced supervisor.

Although it is a review, it is by no means a formality and ought to be approached with some sense of seriousness. I even dressed for the occasion – suit and tie – and proceeded to get a bit of a ribbing for it. But that’s OK, it all got swapped for ‘civvies’ soon enough when I got home. I also got a bit of a ribbing for the ‘tome’ I wrote for my final report – and that was just the edited highlights. I’ve just checked the word count and it was well on its way to being an honours dissertation. An intro and conclusion would have seen it pretty much there. But then I’ve had so much to reflect on and highlight over the past year – a sure indication that there is always more to learn and more to challenge.

The review itself was relaxed and chatty and seemed to be over in no time at all. My cup of tea was barely cold. Then it was just the brief pause of, “Can you wait outside for a few minutes?” followed by the happy words, “We’ve decided to sustain your probation.”

What that means in practical terms is that I will definitely be unemployed at the end of November. I had better get my act together, polish up my CV, and whittle down that vacancy short list.

In terms of ‘hurdles’ or ‘hoops’ for the Church of Scotland formation process, I have now passed the final one. In terms of challenges ahead, I get the feeling they are only really beginning.

Jun 172011
 

The past umpteen years have been marked by many milestones as I make progress towards ordained ministry. Today’s was a significant one – the end of the final probationers’ conference. Although there are further conferences and retreat days after ordination, this conference, in particular, is worth noting. This is the one where much of the ‘practical’ information is imparted. There’s almost a sense of leaving it until now, because if you knew then…
Well, not really. I don’t think there are too many who go into ministry these days wearing rose-tinted spectacles.

The focus on the practical brought it home, perhaps more than many other conferences, that it will get ‘real’ very soon. I was absolutely shattered today as I hadn’t slept well. I rarely remember dreams, although I suppose I must dream, but I had a very disturbed night having a classic anxiety dream. That said, in true, modest, presbyterian style, I did not find myself lacking clothing – maybe I wasn’t as anxious as I thought.

The dream has a pretty obvious interpretation. I, in the company of a number of my fellow probationers, was attempting to get to an airport, but I simply could not find the way in. The signs were all there, but they never seemed to lead me to a door. I somehow always seemed to find myself trying to wade through a crowd going the other way, or discovering shops and market stalls in my way. Or I would turn in to what was a dead end. I knew I was near the airport – I could see planes taking off overhead, but I just couldn’t seem to get close to it. My fellow probationers all seemed to make progress, but I just kept getting lost. But they’re a good bunch and some of them kept coming back to find me and point me in the right direction again. Again, they would make progress, but I never seemed to. I guess I’ll never end up as an airport chaplain, anyway.

My lack of sleep was probably a contributing factor to me picking an argument with a professor of theology who was delivering the last session of the conference (but only because he got his diary date wrong and didn’t turn up when he was expected the day before). The ‘confrontation’ was an interesting experience. The ‘prof’ has quite an intimidating style, spearing you with an intense, direct gaze while challenging, quite robustly, what you are suggesting. In many respects it was quite out of keeping with the rather more gracious engagement in discussion that tends to happen in conference sessions. This was not, after all, a lecture or academic debate. Nevertheless, my tiredness, or maybe just my woolly theology, resulted in me backing off (although the debate was rather a tangent from the main purpose of the session anyway). I did spend the car journey home rehearsing all the arguments I could/should have used – but hindsight is a wonderful thing.

But it did serve to remind me of who I am and how I am. I don’t do well in such ‘up front’ debates. I like time to consider things; to work them through more slowly and carefully. As I’ve discussed before, I would consider my theology to be ‘restless theology’. I am happy to exist in the tensions of theological opinions. I can accept the ‘contradictions’ of scripture without having to find convoluted ways to reconcile them. I can even, graciously and with some sympathy, understand the reasons and rationale behind deeply held theological positions, even to the point of granting them acceptability. But my theological outlook (or maybe just the weird wiring in my brain) doesn’t allow me to stop at any of those positions, however well-argued and justified they may be, but insists that I give due weight and consideration to other views.

Such an approach may come across as indecisive or too accommodating or even just downright contradictory, but it works for me and allows me to reconcile such things as the ‘difficult texts’ (which that particular session was on) or the ecumenical interactions which take place in communities. I should point out that I still have limits and boundaries – they’re maybe just a little further apart than many.

So, if I’ve discovered nothing else at this particular milestone, I do at least acknowledge who I am and what I know of myself. Even if that means that I can’t figure out how to get to where I need to go.

Jun 032011
 

We arrived in St. Andrew's Church of Scotland, JerusalemJerusalem at around 4.30 this morning and, after an all too brief catnap, were up and breakfasted at 8.oo am. I think it’s fair to say the the group looked tired, but all weariness was soon forgotten as we set off for a morning exploring the Old Town of Jerusalem within the city walls.

It is, without doubt, a fascinating place, with its narrow lanes crammed with market stalls and shops. There’s all the tourist tat, of course, but you soon find the ‘real’ shops, selling everything and anything. The spice shops announce their near presence with pungent aromas, and do the herbs and fruit sold from stalls or by individuals sitting to the side of a densely packed alley. And for those who are selling goods which do not announce themselves, their voices vie for attention, making the place seem strangely reminiscent of the, now gone, Barras in Glasgow.

We spent a fair bit of time in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, a sprawling building which lays claim to the sites of Jesus’ death and burial, as well as some other places of religious significance. it’s quite a place – at once gaudy, yet magnificent; a place of obvious veneration, and yet also a place which, at times, can spark a riot.

Our walk around took in views of the Dome on the Rock, the Aqsa mosque, the Western Wall (wailing wall) and so many other sights of historical significance. We walked through the ancient city gates and stood on paths laid down countless generations ago.

It’s difficult to describe the feelings such places engender. There is the sense of history made real, a greater appreciation of where events (probably) took place (and, perhaps surprising, is their proximity – it’s not a huge place) and a growing realisation that our Westernised faith is, in a sense, the tip of an iceberg. Well, maybe not the tip – more probably just one little jaggy outcrop.

I also struggle to express my reaction because, in many ways, buildings don’t do much for me. Yes, I like to look at them, appreciate their art and architecture, but it’s ‘just’ a building. Where it becomes more real for me is where it connects to people and many of the buildings we saw today didn’t rally connect me with people. This might sound a little strange, given the history of the people, but I struggled to connect this morning, and not just because of the tiredness of travelling. It might also sound strange from someone who loved the visit to the archaeological dig below St. Peter’s Cathedral in Geneva. But, in that instance, it plotted a history of worship on a site, from pagan hero worship through to the Christian Cathedral today – and, for me, that was a story of people sensing something of God and attempting to express their worship.

It was only as we were returning to St. Andrew’s Scottish Guesthouse for lunch that there was an extra spark. Looking across the valley we could clearly see the path of the Separation Wall as it snaked its way across the countryside. In that strange juxtaposition, gazing past the ancient city walls to this new concrete barrier, the sense of a people’s history and story began to come together. Buildings are all very interesting, but when the ancient history clashes with the contemporary we realise that there is an enormously complex story to hand. And that is a story of people, with all its challenges and history and prejudices.

Just as a little aside, the photograph is of St. Andrew’s Church and Guesthouse. The valley in the foreground is Hinnom, or Gehenna (otherwise used as a reference for hell). It was suggested that the Church of Scotland is perched precariously above Gehenna. Depending on your views of the recent general Assembly decisions, you can decide whether it is teetering towards or away from the brink.

We’re having an afternoon to catch up on our rest, after our long travel time and then heading out to observe the start of the Sabbath at the Western Wall. That’s for another post later I think.

May 192011
 

We had a meeting today to go over the itinerary for the trip to Jerusalem in a couple of weeks. There’s a lot of stuff crammed in there, but all worth doing and we also have some excellent guides with us. So, what are we up to? Here it is:

Thursday-Friday:

Travel – and somewhat tedious it is too.
Depart Edinburgh 13.35, arrive Tel Aviv 2.30, Friday morning!!!!
Arrive St. Andrew’s hostel, 4.30/5.00am !!!!!!

Friday:

After a whole 3 hours kip, it’s up and out and walking round the Old City, taking in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre.
Lunch and siesta (or whatever the Israeli equivalent is).
Early and late evening, more Old City walking and the start of the Sabbath at the Wailing Wall.
Dinner.
Worship.

Saturday:

Early start, heading for Hebron, Herodium and Bethlehem, including a visit to the Ecumenical Accompaniment Programme in Palestine and Israel (EAPPI).
Dinner.
Worship.
Sabbath worship in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre.

Sunday:

Long lie – breakfast at 8.00.
Worship at St. Andrew’s, Jerusalem.
Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial.
Thinking time.
Dinner.
Worship.

Monday:

Early start, heading to Masada, the Dead Sea, Qumran, Jericho.
Tiberias and a swimming pool!
Posh dinner.
Communion at St. Andrew’s, Galilee.

Tuesday:

Early-ish breakfast.
Sail on Sea of Galilee with morning worship on the boat.
Mount of Beatitudes, Tabha.
Caesarea (not Philippi).
Head back to Jerusalem.
Worship.

Wednesday:

Haram (Dome of the Rock, Aqsa Mosque).
St. Anne’s / Pool of Bethesda.
Mt. Scopus, Mt of Olives.
Worship.

Thursday:

‘Flexi-day’. Time to explore on our own or to revisit sites.
Communion.

Friday:

Outrageously early start to head home.

May 102011
 

I’m wondering what has happened to the month that has passed since I last posted anything. Once again, it’s not a case of nothing happening; more just a case of lots of little things which eat away at the time and are, in and of themselves, not really worth a blog post. But I suppose that’s a reminder of just how quickly time slips away when there’s constant activity. And that’s a reminder in itself that things come around all too soon and before you know it it’s a bit of a panic to get everything sorted that needs done.

I was speaking with someone recently who was asking what I was up to in the next wee while. By the time I’d rhymed off what was definitely in the diary I realised that a chunk of May had been accounted for, June was a complete goner and July signalled the time for my final report in anticipation of the review in mid-August.

Time, it seems, is not willing to stand still to allow me take stock for a bit. And when I do snatch a moment, I keep thinking in terms of, “But I’ve still to do…” or “I’ve never done…” And, of course, there are all the things that I’m blissfully unaware of that will hit me from out of the blue. But when I snatch a moment and look back at all that I have done, I realise that there has been a lot packed in to what seems a ridiculously short time. And it will soon be time to start dredging it all up and putting it together for a report.

It also came as a shock that I had passed that halfway point and the second half of probation looked an awful lot shorter than the first half. I’m really not convinced that time is constant at all. I think there is some bizarre warp effect that comes into effect the moment you take your eye off the clock to do something. Or maybe time is just downright sneaky.

Anyway – a couple of tangents.

I’ve been reading Eugene Peterson’s,  The Contemplative Pastor and have decided that it should be required reading for all ministers. More to the point, it should be mandatory reading for all vacancy committees.

I’ve also been getting agitated reading recent postings and comments on many of the US-based theology blogs I subscribe to. The issue, of course, is bin Laden. I can’t decide whether to be irritated or saddened by much of the rhetoric that passes for ‘Christian justice’. The, generally, triumphalist attitude is really quite sickening and when respected UK voices are pilloried for daring to question the tone and the actions then I do begin to realise just how vastly different US and European culture actually is. I don’t particularly want to unsubscribe from some of the blogs, because it’s mainly commenters I take issue with, but I see very little response from the bloggers to gainsay them. I’m generally quite happy to read stuff I disagree with, but this recent activity has just left a particularly sour taste.

Apr 112011
 

About this time last year I happened to be reflecting on the idea of ‘privilege‘ when it comes to funerals. Well, since starting probation, I’ve had the privilege of taking 17 funerals and participating in one other. Not that I’m keeping score, but I’m beginning to see truth in the old adage that where two or more ministers are gathered, funerals quickly becomes the topic of conversation.

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