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.

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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Feb 202011
 

I’ve just had a week off and did very little – an ideal way to spend a break. The relative inactivity did give me some time to think though. In a few weeks I have my interim review and that reminds me that this final placement is hitting the half way mark. If the second half disappears as quickly as the first then I have the reality of finding my own charge hurtling towards me very quickly. That first charge is also becoming an increasingly dominant topic of conversation between probationers (and with those who have taken an interest over the whole period).

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Oct 252010
 

I hadn’t realised how long ago I’d last blogged anything. It’s not that I’ve been overwhelmed with work and it’s not that nothing interesting has been happening. But nevertheless, I haven’t felt terribly inspired to blog about anything. Somehow writing about the ‘normality’ of life seems to be contrary to what blogging is about.

When I started probation, I was asked what I hoped to get out of it. My stated aim (and it hasn’t really changed) was to get into the rhythm of ministry; to experience a ‘normal’ week (or several) so that I got a sense of what needed juggling, what needed prioritising and where, if anywhere, there was ‘slack’ time. I wouldn’t say I’ve experienced the true reality of that yet and yet there have been pressure points and slack times that, only with hindsight, could be seen for what they were.

Over the last fortnight we’ve been moving the contents of the loft around. Initially the loft was to be cleared for fitting new insulation. So the contents (and there were a lot) were moved to the garage. Then the garage had to be cleared to accommodate a birthday party. All-in-all about 5 days of moving and re-arranging stuff and, all the while, keeping up with worship prep, meetings and visits. So, a bit of juggling experience that more or less worked.

What didn’t work so well though was dealing with a distraction during that. I was preaching a week past Sunday and was fairly sure in my head what the topic was going to be. And then the Chilean miners’ rescue hit the headlines and I felt pressure to respond and include that in some way. Ultimately it skewed the sermon topic and I ended up approaching things very differently to accommodate it, even though it was only a passing reference in the end. But I was unsettled before the service and this was noted by my supervisor. In the end the sermon worked well enough and seemed to be well received, but I wasn’t happy about it. In hindsight the distractions of the loft move combined with a perceived pressure to be totally topical left me feeling that I had not ‘juggled’ well at all.

However, it will be interesting to see how that all pans out in the next 7 weeks or so. In that time I will be preaching 4 times, including taking a full service once and doing just over two weeks of pastoral cover. Add to the mix the usual round of meetings, visits and other stuff and perhaps that will be much more indicative of ‘normal service’.

It will also take me hurtling towards the end of my fourth month in probation. I’ve already mentioned that the time seems to be vanishing rather too quickly and there is already a sense of staring into a growing chasm of inexperience. The natural reaction is to say, “But I haven’t done anything like that! I need more experience!”

But I guess the real benefit of probation is not experiencing the extra-ordinary, but rather getting to grips with the ordinary so that, in many respects, the routine becomes just that – routine. When juggling the everyday tasks becomes second nature then one has lees to worry about when the extra-ordinary hits the desk or the inbox.

When viewed from that perspective, that chasm of inexperience is somewhat less daunting. There are bridges across is that are the routine, the mundane and the do-able. It doesn’t mean, of course, that the extra-ordinary is not challenging and it doesn’t mean that some juggling balls or spinning plates won’t be dropped from time to time. It does mean that normal service will resume with much less of a hiccup than it might.

Sep 272010
 

This past weekend has been the first or four probationers’ conferences. (The next one, including the candidates’ conferences, will be seven of nine thus establishing the uneasy link that we are being assimilated into the CofS collective. Apologies for the obscure trekkie reference. I am not a trekkie – my brain just makes these bizarre trivia links at times.) It’s a very different atmosphere to candidates’ conferences I’d say. It’s also quite a different ‘style’. That’s not really the correct word, but I can’t think of what I mean. Yes it’s a series of presentations, with discussion groups, tasks and so on, but they’re just ‘different’.

One of the key issues of course is that the sessions are not attempting to be relevant to such a broad range of educational and placement experience. Pretty much everyone at a probationer conference has done all their academic and placement training. So there is a more definable baseline for one.

I think there’s also the sense that this is the last lap. The reality of a charge is beginning to loom on the horizon (and I’ve already blogged about how quickly that point seems to be approaching, even here at the beginning of my fifteen months). That means there is a heightened sense of needing to accumulate and consolidate knowledge and ideas. The ‘been there, done that’ attitude quickly gives way to thinking, “Do I know this as well as I need to?” That’s combined with sessions that are (generally) much more focused anyway.

I also have to comment on the group dynamic. It’s quite a disparate group this year (moreso than in years past, I’m told). There is no one particular year group or university group which dominates. In one respect this is a good thing – there are fewer group ‘outsiders’. It does mean though that ‘close’ relationships are in much smaller groups. One of the things about the social time at candidates’ conferences is that you build up a network of trusted colleagues, who know each other well, are supportive and understanding and with whom one can share… well, almost anything. I’m not suggesting that such relationships will not be created, but that there is a slight sense of starting from scratch as each of us ‘susses out’ the others. Whether that will have any sort of knock-on effect on support networks later on will need to wait and see. I guess it’ll just take a little longer for that ‘comfort’ level to be built up.

Regardless, this weekend marked a milestone on the road – a road that is fast turning into an expressway towards a destination which, although still unknown in detail, carries a growing sense of excitement and purpose.

Roll on the next one and further assimilation.

Sep 222010
 

I’m beginning to get a sense of why those who are in probation begin to disappear from Facebook and the blogosphere. It’s not that I’ve been especially busy but it’s amazing how many things there are to eat into your time. I know it’s only been three weeks since the start of my probationary period, but when you begin forward-planning, a quarter of a year just seems to ‘disappear’ and you begin to worry about needing a diary with bigger pages to make reminder notes in. I recently asked a fellow probationer how they filled their day. I should just have been patient.

Friday brings the first of four probationers’ conferences and it will be good to catch up with people. But I then have the ‘real’ work of a week and a half of pastoral cover while my supervisor enjoys a holiday. The first funeral is already in for later in the week.

I’m very glad of having been allowed the luxury of a gentle start. It’s an opportunity just to catch the ‘rhythm’ of a place for the first few Sundays and to get to know those first contacts. That easy exposure helps to be able to stand back a little and get a sense of where everything fits together without getting overwhelmed by the details. But the details are now arriving and time is definitely beginning to fly.

Except when I look forward to getting paid. That, for some reason, always seems to be a long way away.

Sep 102010
 

Since I’m being allowed a gentle start to probation, I thought I’d take the opportunity to get myself organised ‘administratively’. I’m not a natural organiser. I have a bunch of notebooks with no order to them where jottings of meetings get put – along with to-do lists and ‘notes to self’ and contact details and reminders and… You get the idea. Basically, I need to find a system of work that… works.

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Sep 022010
 

Yesterday marked the last day of my final candidates’ conference: today marks the beginning of probation.

Endings and new beginnings are, I suppose, the very marks of a Christian’s story. That grand meta-narrative of scripture is a cycle of endings and new beginnings; enslavement and redemption, death and resurrection.

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