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 262011

Today I had another cross-country jaunt to check out another possible vacant charge. My primary purpose was to ‘compare and contrast’ with the one that it currently bubbling away as a distinct possibility. I had various reasons for not being too interested, but its ‘c&c’ role made it a potentially useful visit.


Now it’s top of my list!

And it still has some of the issues that put me off it in the first place.

And one of the main reasons why I was being advised against it (sort of) is the very reason I like it.

All this ‘discernment’ stuff is really doing my head in. Just when I think I’ve got somewhere more or less sussed, along comes something to muddy the waters. (s’pose that’s why it’s called discernment.)

Actually, it’s not really a muddy-ing of the waters, to be fair. Either of the two places currently attracting me would be good charges. Both are quite different from each other and both have, I’d say, quite different challenges. The issue is less about how unclear a call is, but rather making a decision between two clear, to me, calls.

Mind you, I’m somewhat jumping the gun. As far as I know, one of the charges only has me interested. The other appears to be fairly popular. A little bit of me is saying, “Well, you’ll not get it anyway. There are loads more ministers out there who are better than you. You don’t deserve such a great place.”

It’s hard to ignore those thoughts and turn the focus on the apparent ‘certainty’ of one of them. But that doesn’t feel right either. But I don’t want to get my hopes up on what might only be an outside possibility. And I feel a bit guilty about appearing so keen for the first one and now I’m looking elsewhere.

And all that makes me feel confused. Probably not the best state of mind to be making decisions and a definite sign of needing more time in contemplation and prayer.

In the meantime, two applications will be getting put out and I had better stop looking for the moment until some of the confusion clears.

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’.