May 302010

There are times when life seems to pass by so quickly. That seems never more true than when you are on a placement. Uni term times whizz past, but they’re only ten weeks. Holidays whizz past, but they’re only a couple of weeks tops. Placements though are 8 months and when that last Sunday rolls round, as it did for me today, then 8 months seems to disappear in a flash.

It never seems long enough to get to know all the people you would wish to. It’s never long enough to get to know those you did as well as you should. It never seems long enough to cram in all that you would want to do with the safety net of a supervisor to hand.

I’ve said it before, but finishing up a placement is a strange time. Although the time does seem to flash past, 8 months is still a long time. It’s plenty of time to begin to get to know people’s stories; it’s plenty time to begin to build up emotional bonds with people; it’s plenty of time to really start to care for folks. So when it’s time to move on, it’s a wrench. But behind it all is the knowledge that it is only a part of the journey. Knowing that the move is inevitable means, for me anyway, that towards the end of the placement you cannot help but begin to look forward, to a place beyond the current placement. It means that when you do hit that end point you are already a little bit disconnected. It all adds to the strangeness of the whole process of formation for ministry.

What I do need to do now though is begin to think through what I’ve done, not just in this placement, but in all the others, and begin to work out what I need to focus on for probation. On this placement in particular I have felt that inexorable march towards ministry. It has been an opportunity to tick a handful more boxes on the ‘should have done’ list. It has been an opportunity to refine skills and to keep working on the ones which are still very rough round the edges. It has been an opportunity to make mistakes knowing that, as a student, some allowances are made and that there is someone there to pick up the pieces if things went drastically wrong (which they never did, I think). It has also been an opportunity to experiment and test out ways of doing things, again knowing that an experienced voice is on hand to help analyse and critique in a positive way.

Of course, all of this means that a lovely bunch of people have to put up with a lot of the ups and downs as well. The congregation have been nothing if not supportive and understanding, gracious with feedback and encouraging in their comments. Many commented today that they too couldn’t believe 8 months had passed so quickly. (Perhaps that’s a blessed relief from their perspective.)

So now there is the small matter of a dissertation to write over the summer (now watch the time really disappear) with probation starting on the 1st of September. Given the speed with which time seems to fly by at the moment, maybe it’s time to start ringing those warning bells for when I get let loose on my own.

Oh yes, and there’s the ‘Not a licensing’ Service of Recognition organised by the presbytery on the 24th of June, 7pm, Larbert East Church, where Andy and I will be given a slap on the back in acknowledgement of putting up with it all thus far.

Jun 072009

This morning was my first (proper) visit to St. Andrew’s, Brussels. I was made very welcome and was bombarded with names that I will probably forget or get mixed up, but it was nice that so many people introduced themselves to me.

The service itself was an interesting ‘mix’. I think that the most striking thing is the robed choir (who sound amazing and really help lead and enhance the singing) and even a robed junior choir (who sang an introit). Yet this, very visibly, ‘traditional’ element of the service belied the more relaxed, almost informal, atmosphere for the rest. There was no ‘stuffiness’ in any other parts of the service. It was friendly, open and inclusive. There were lots of noisy kids, but that was ok, because that’s what families are like (and something I was glad Camelon prepared me for).

Perhaps the other striking thing, certainly as you survey the congregation, is the very obvious multi-national representation. It is, literally, gathered from all parts of the world. The African groups in particular strike a very eye-catching note with beautiful and colourful ‘Sunday best’ clothes. In many ways, such a congregation becomes a picture of the world church, gathered under one roof, as one family, praising God. There’s something quite ‘exciting’ about such an environment and it definitely merits some reflection on what it means to be ‘church’ and especially how that translates back into a ‘typical’ Scottish parish setting.

So, first impressions were overwhelmingly positive and there’s a lot of scope for exploring ideas about worship, about church family and about ‘being church’. I think that this placment is shaping up to be exciting and challenging and will also have an impact on my future ministry. I can’t help but think about how blessed I’ve been so far. Every placement, including the pre-acceptance ones have allowed me to learn something, to grow in some way and to ‘think bigger’. I know that that’s the whole point, but I can’t help but feel that the impression some others give (or indeed some others have genuinely experienced) is that placements are something to just get through. But there’s such a rich seam of experience and knowledge to be mined in them. It doesn’t matter if you agree theologically or stylistically, there will always be something that you can learn.

So, here’s to another 11 weeks or so of learning and challenge.

Apr 222009

At the recent Candidates’ Conference, Ministries Council outlined their revised plans for the ongoing assessment part of the training. Candidates are now encouraged to continue journalling to record their thoughts on situations and challenges encountered during training. Many will continue using diaries and the like, and I will continue to blog my thoughts (nobody forces you to read them).

But, I decided to have a bit of a play so I set up a new website – Eutychus – for Candidates to start blogging on. It uses WordPress (because it’s excellent) in it’s multi-user (MU) guise. But it also adds some rather nifty social-networking facilities as well, along the lines of Facebook or Bebo.

I’d be interested in suggestions for improvements or ideas for other features. Or, if you’r interested in something like it for a group or organisation you’re part of, get in touch and I might be able to help.

Jan 052009

I haven’t blogged properly for a little while and so the beginning of a new year seems like a good place to pick it up again. But first the formalities – I hope those who may be reading had a relaxing and joyful Christmas and that you are blessed in the coming year.

I don’t generally do ‘looking back’ but I guess it’s been a year with some pretty momentous (for me anyway) events. I guess being selected as a candidate has to be considered a ‘biggie’ and I could add other things like conferences, placement and so on. And I suppose it’s only right to acknowledge their significance. But looking back at them I don’t feel any particular sense of achievement as such. Had I gained these things through my own efforts or my own hard work or my own diligence then I could rightly note them as achievements. However, that’s not how I look at them, especially in retrospect. All that I have done is tried faithfully to tread the path that I feel God is urging me along. I suppose that’s a pretty big ‘all’ when you think about it, but there’s a sense of ‘rightness’ about it that makes the events of the past year less momentous. That’s not to diminish their significance but simply to note that following God should be the rule rather than the exception and so such things become, in a sense, unexceptional.

Looking forward is a rather different matter. There’s the old joke that if you want to give God a laugh, tell Him your plans. I’ve given up on plans (sort of). Mine never seem to work out anyway. So, rather than plans there are hopes. There is the hope that I can continue to sense what that right path is. This is particularly true for when it comes to putting in place my options for future placements and, looking further ahead still, probation. There is a possibility that I might be able to do my summer placement in one of the European locations. That might sound like a ready-made holiday, but there are lots of family considerations to account for. There’s also the pretty major issue of what I’ll be doing after the summer. Do I go back for a Masters or do I push for a part-time, paid, post somewhere to get experience and cash? That’s actually something that will need resolved sooner rather than later as I’ll need, at least, to apply for a Masters place by the end of March, which means investigating options before that.

In the meantime there’s still the small issue of finishing fourth year.

And that’s just me. There are also some ‘minor’ family matters looming like my older daughter going to uni or possibly embarking on a gap year later this year.

Ah well, to take a liberty with scripture, I will not be anxious about tomorrow and let tomorrow take care of itself. Rather, I will continue to seek God’s Kingdom and allow it to add what it will.

Sep 102008

David and Stewart have both been blogging about the Paralympics and both making similar points about the lack of coverage. I confess I haven’t watched any but then I didn’t watch the Olympics either – only what I’ve spotted on the BBC News website. But what’s that got to do with Candidates’ Conference? Well, one of the more challenging presentations was from a retired minister by the name of Graham Monteith.

Graham is a wheelchair user and has uncontolled body movements. His mind, however, is as sharp as a tack and he has a great interest in theology as it pertains to disabilities. But the main points of his presentation weren’t theological but practical and they highlighted the many ways in which we inadvertantly discriminate against people. Simple things like moving around too much when speaking makes it difficult for anyone who lipreads to follow what you are saying. Or the bigger things like not taking into consideration who is likely to attend the funeral of a disabled person – other disabled people and not being able to accommodate the number of wheelchairs.

His main piece of advice was to look at the person, not the disability (something he readily admits isn’t always easy). From a Christian perspective this is not an unreasonable requirement. After all, we should be well beyond the idea that disability is some sort of punishment or judgement. Each person, regardless of physical or mental capacity is accepted and loved by God. We cannot presume to limit God’s grace based on a level of physical or mental ability.

But back to the points Stewart and David make. Why is the Paralympics given less coverage? I can’t say whether it’s an issue of embarrassment or awkwardness or some other factor. But it seems to me that each is about individuals and teams achieving their maximum potential and each should be celebrated. And that’s not about celebrating some sort of ‘second best’ either. All of the Paralympians display a far greater level of dedication and commitment than I ever do. They certainly achieve, in sporting terms, far more than I ever could.

Whether it is acknowledging sporting achievement or simply giving thought to how we ensure maximum involvement in church life it’s an issue each of us should be aware of. Most especially, those who are in a position to effect changes, in however small a way. Encouraging greater exposure of events such as the Paralympics can only be a good thing to break down the barriers of prejudice and ignorance.

Sep 042008

Sometimes the biggest thing that gets us into trouble, I would suggest, is presupposing a person’s position on something. Despite having been gently reminded of the dangers early in my field assessment, it’s still something which catches me out now and again (and again, and again). These pre-judgements are based on all sorts of factors – a passing comment, another person’s opinion, an assumption based on insubstantial rumour or gossip, an overheard discussion. These things often become the sum of what we think we know about someone before we’ve even had a chance to speak to them directly. And, of course, it then colours how we hear whatever they have to say to us. (I suspect there’s a legitimate lesson for Biblical interpretation in there as well.)

One of the pleasures of a Christian community and, especially, a reflective community, is that you can throw ideas around and test them against different understandings. There is a danger though that when we participate in that, our opinions are not seen as being put out to be tested, but being up for challenge, vehemently. And thus our presuppositions come into play. We hear with bias and we respond gracelessly. We attach labels, all too often with superglue.

I had a conversation with a person one evening during the conference which was heading towards a bit of a fankle until we stopped and cleared away the presuppositions. That’s not to say we suddenly saw eye-to-eye on everything, but what we did discover was that we had very much more in common that perhaps we had previously realised. Perhaps the significant thing was that we were both prepared to step to the side of ourselves for a while and listen to the other. Not just the ‘I hear what you’re saying’ listening, but the genuine ‘I want to understand you’ listening.

But there was more to be had from the conversation than just the satisfaction of knowing a bit more about someone. What I (we?) got was a bit more of the excitement that can be found when we hear of how God works in others. Whether it’s sharing experiences or sharing ‘academic’ insights, there’s always the sense that God is so much bigger than anything we can think of.

Our presuppositions not only put inaccurate labels on people, they also put God in a box. Perhaps one of the most important things we can do during Candidates’ conferences is take time to really know others and through them, learn a lot more about God.

But it’s also fun to play ‘the game’ – the one, that seems all too prevalent, of pigeonholing people. The ‘fun’ part is to play the game by confounding expectations and refusing to accept the label or fitting neatly into the pigeonhole. I’m looking forward to the next 4 conferences and continuing to play the game with spoilers. Maybe we’ll stop playing the game and just start talking.

Sep 032008

Returned about mid-afternoon, absolutely shattered. The lunchtime coffee hit has worn off and my eyes are drooping.

Absolutely loads to blog about and I’ll be doing that over the next few days as I get my thoughts sorted out. Only problem is that I suffered a bit of a brain error and left my notebook behind. Hopefully someone has spotted it and picked it up or I can fetch it when I’m up in St. Andrews in a couple of weeks again.

Was it what I expected? Yes and no and so much more of both.

Was it challenging? Absolutely!

Did I learn anything? Loads!

Would I go again? Trick question, but, yes, I’m looking forward to the next one.

Aug 272008

On Friday morning I head of to my first Church of Scotland Candidates’ Conference. This is the first of five I am required to attend as part of my training for full-time ministry. I’ve heard mixed reports about them but, on the whole the general impression seems to be that, often, they’re just something to be put up with and that I’ll soon learn the tricks of looking interested while doing/thinking other things. Now, I suspect that this is a generalisation and there must surely be parts of it which are genuinely interesting. I think it probably also depends on the attitude one takes to it. I must endeavour not to be cynical or jaded.

One aspect I am wary of though is the ‘fellowship’. Not through any reticence about getting to know people. I already know a fair few candidates anyway. What concerns me are the groups or cliques which inevitably form – including the clique of those who refuse to be part of a clique. Now, it may be surprising that this happens, but it does. I’ve witnessed it at New College where, for some, being a candidate ‘is something’. There’s a ‘status’ attached to it – at least in the eye of the candidate. I doubt that it’s actually deliberate (for most anyway), but there is a tendency to pal around with fellow candidates. That’s only natural. After all, there’s a group of friends at New College I tend to keep company with. But when that starts to introduce ‘exclusiveness’ then it’s quite wrong, even if it’s done unconciously. I’ll be curious to see who wants to talk to me now I’m ‘a candidate’.

The conference is at St. Andrews, but there’ll be no golf (not that I golf anyway). The programme is pretty packed and the theme is ‘Caring and Community’ with lots of stuff from Social Responsibility and workshops on social and pastoral care. There’s also one I’m looking forward to on the “Role of the sermon in the 21st Century”. Which reminds me – I’ve got to do some preparation for that.

I’m guessing that there’ll be good internet access, so I’ll try and blog when I get a chance.

Oh yes, and another thing. I was speaking to one of the New College lecturers today and he was extremely helpful with some ideas for my dissertation. That was on the back of a conversation about course choices for 4th year. I had been trying to duck out of Biblical Interpretation since I did a similar course in 3rd year. However, this particular course is one of the few required courses for a BD so I’m stuck with it. My other courses for this semester are Hebrew Prophecy and Doctrine of Creation. Next semester I have Church, Sacraments and Ministry, another required course. And the dissertation of course. And a placement. And church assesment work. And a family life. And anything else that crops up that I’ll find impossible to say no to.