Feb 242013

One year ago, last Thursday, I was ordained and inducted into my first charge.

One year ago today (Sunday), I had taken (actually, shared) my first service in that new charge.

I had also done a funeral visit, and was preparing to take it in just a few days time.

I’d sat in the car park on Kirriemuir Hill looking out over the stunning views of the glens and the southern reaches of the Cairngorms.

I’d been at a fundraising bash in one of the churches.

And we were about to head back down to Falkirk as we were still living in two places at that time.

It’s hard to believe that that was a year ago, and as I quickly survey my blog, you’d think little else had happened – well, very little has been written about anything. But there’s plenty that has happened during that time – it’s just not all been blog-able.

There have been small triumphs, huge-grin inducing moments, times of real challenge, the odd ‘dark’ moment when it all gets called into question. In that regard, it’s pretty much life as most people experience it – just in a very different context, and, quite possibly, with a variety not found in many occupations.

There is the strange position of being the one people look to for guidance, and yet thinking that those looking have probably more life and faith experience than I’ll ever have. There’s the challenge of finding the right words for people you know little or nothing about. (There’s also the challenge of getting to grips with names that are pronounced, and abbreviated, far beyond how they are written – no wonder I don’t know where anywhere is!)

But he truth is that that probably won’t change much in the next few, or many, years. There will always be a sense of inadequacy; of always wondering if that was the correct thing to say, or the correct way to say it.

There will still be the privileged moments when stories are shared and burdens eased. And there will still be the times when it all goes utterly wrong, and you realise it’s time to stop digging a deeper hole.

The blog has been somewhat neglected because much of my reflection on what’s happened is around situations which are much too identifiable. In some senses it’s now about others, and not about me. Up until this point it’s been about my journey to ministry, my steps into a charge, my grappling with new and challenging ideas.

This last year has been about others – getting to know them, understand their context, their dreams, their anxieties. It’s been about finding my place in their life, and in their community. Unless you’re born in Kirrie you’ll always be an outsider – you’ll be welcomed, but that’s your status nevertheless. As a minister, I’m very much aware of being even more of an outsider, and, in some sense, the ‘passing trade’. I could be here for 5 years (minimum sentence) or 25 years (theoretical maximum). That sense of impermanence both underpins and undermines what I do. I would like to effect change, but it needs to be sustainable beyond the potential of my moving on. There are long-term plans I’d also want to implement, but wonder if they’re just my passing interest.

Either way, being ‘trapped in the headlights’ is not an option and movement is necessary. Quite where that will be is not so much anybody’s guess – I still have plans and ideas – but it will, largely, depend on the enthusiasm and inclination of others.

Now that really is deserving of a blog entry, but it’s definitely getting a bit too identifiable.

Maybe next year.

Sep 242012

Oh look! A blog!

I’d almost forgotten this was here. Well, not really, but I have been neglecting it somewhat in recent months.

Once again, it’s not that there’s nothing to report, just that the time needed to get it sorted in my head and then formulate a suitable blog entry has always been a bit better spent on other things. But I was beginning to miss doing the odd brain-dump. In many ways it’s a great opportunity to sort out the mental clutter that accumulates when you have such a varied, and oft-times challenging, job.

So what has been keeping me occupied?

Bits of everything: a few new experiences, and some twists on some of the more familiar.

Since the last update we have finally completed our move to Kirrie, but we still have a stack of boxes to empty. The house in Falkirk is up for sale, but that’s not looking like it will come to anything any time soon – at least not for a price we’d be happy with. The downside being that it’s still a call on our time. I did get some time off over the summer, and that was much appreciated. But things have all started up again, and for me much of it is new as I wasn’t around at this time last year.

At the start of the school holidays I was involved in the joint-churches kids’ mission (or holiday club). It’s been a few years since I was last involved in one, and I’d forgotten how much I enjoyed them. We had a good-sized team, with plenty of teen helpers (for whom we ran a youth-cafe type event for 3 nights mid-week). Mixed feelings about the overall experience, partly because I wasn’t a main leader, and so wasn’t one of the ones setting the ‘tone’. A bit too much of the hard-sell in my opinion, with a not-so-subtle altar call on the last day. Not really my style with a primary-school age group (or any age group, for that matter).

I’ve also had a couple of baptisms to do since then too. A very special ‘first’.

A couple more weddings as well – both quite different, and one in particular prompting some additions to my pre-service questions and preparation.

And finally a chance to use some of the photos from my trip to the Holy Land last year. The Guild in one of my congregations, and another local one, were the recipients of my (over-long) “what I did on my holidays” slide show. It was good to revisit some of the places I saw, and to remember some of the sensations and thoughts they prompted.

Apart from that, I’d say it was pretty much the usual daily routine. But as there is really no such thing, then I suppose what it’s been is the usual mix of all sorts of things – from the mundane business activities, to the special moments.

May 282012

Yet again, I’ve been caught out with blog updates. And yet again, it’s not that nothing has been happening; merely that it’s all sorts of little things rather than any one thing that causes me to stop and reflect (and blog).

Perhaps most worthy of note though is the continuing ‘unsettledness’ as we’re still not fully ensconced in Kirrie. However, the and is now in sight and, due to other diary commitments, it now looks as though we’ll aim for a full and final move in July (followed by a holiday, I think). I can’t help but think that I’ll feel more ‘involved’ once that move happens. Not that I’m not involved at the moment, just that there’s a slight feeling of detachment still lingering.

However, one area I can’t complain about detachment is with one of my school chaplaincies. (I have three – two primary schools {one’s a shared chaplaincy} and chaplain to the 2nd years at the high school.) The smaller of the primary schools is keen to encourage my involvement with them (and I’m keen to promote it) so they arranged a day of ‘meet the minister’ classes. There were four main sessions (and 2 stints in the nursery) arranged where I was bombarded with questions. Everything from “What’s your favourite meal?” to “Are you good at maths?” to “Who’s your boss?” Of course there were also ‘ministry’ questions, so as well as an opportunity to get to know me, it was a great opportunity to speak about what ministry is all about. So now I have an open invitation to drop in to the school whenever I like – playtime, lunchtime, etc – as well as the promise of being involved in class activities and social events. Work in the other two chaplaincies is also growing. I had the P3 class from the other primary school along to the church last week to find out about what’s in it and what we do. Both primary schools use my churches for end of term services as well, which is great fun.

The chaplaincy work is also part of our ‘strategy’. Both congregations were asked at recent session meetings to identify short, medium, and long term goals. Top of the list was ‘more young people’. But for one congregation in particular, and for the other to degree, the best start for that is through the chaplaincy work. Once relationships are built through that, then other work can follow. So, one in particular has agreed that I need to be ‘freed’ to pursue that work.

It was in discussing these goals that it became very clear just how different the two congregations are. That’s not to say that they don’t have some common aims, but they certainly have distinctive needs which drive priorities. And both congregations, I think, need to be driven/directed in quite different ways.

But between them they’ve identified some very interesting and challenging projects. It’ll be interesting to see how they come to fruition and what the impact might be.

What else? Funerals have hit a quieter spell, for which I’m thankful. Not that it was ‘busy’, but I find funerals quite a drain on my energy. I think I place very high expectations on myself when it comes to funerals and I’m always conscious of there being only one shot to ‘get it right’. It doesn’t mean that they haven’t had their lighter moments. A recent one challenged me deliver a short anecdote that was borderline dodgy for polite company. Actually, it was a tad over the line, but never mind. But it was an important and meaningful story to tell and my sensibilities should not be a factor anyway. But it was a reminder that some of the best stories can be a bit ‘earthy’ and it’s not my job to censor them – simply present them in a ‘diplomatic’ manner.

I think I’ve finally got my timings sussed for each service – enough to leave me time for a coffee and chat after the first one, which means the second one isn’t open to complaints of being too long. More importantly, the ‘themes’ emerging from the services are beginning to marry up with the issues and needs in the congregations (I think).

Just on the horizon is the kid’s holiday club – a joint project run by (almost) all the churches in Kirrie. I seem to have volunteered myself to organise a youth cafe for three of the evenings. Messy games time!!

given that there is no one thing to be blogged about, then maybe what that’s saying is that life is beginning to fall into a more ‘ordinary’ pattern, where ministry isn’t a series of one-off, big-bang items, but the ‘routine’ of developing relationships, building on what can be done, and sowing the seeds for what needs to be done.

May 072012

Those who’ve heard me rant about dualism in contemporary theological understanding need not worry. This post is nothing to do with my usual witterings on the subject. Rather, it’s a reflection on how I am finding my ministry developing.

My charge is a linkage and I’m perfectly happy with that. I very much enjoy the variety and differences a linkage brings to ministry. But perhaps in my naive and unprepared way, I wasn’t expecting to deal with two such quite distinct ministries. A union, even one with two centres of worship, has the ‘advantage’ (and I use that word very advisedly) that the office bearers are generally heading in the same direction for the ‘whole’ charge. Perfectly understandable when it’s the same body of people. Linkages, I am discovering, don’t work that way.

I suppose I should have realised. After all, why shouldn’t each congregation be quite distinctive? Each serves a different community. Each has an entirely different make-up of congregation. And each has an entirely different group of people determining the direction they are headed.

Like I said, that’s great in terms of offering a broader scope of activity and challenge to any minister than they might find in a single congregation, or even a multi-site union. But it leaves me feeling ever so slightly schizophrenic. I am the same minister in both places. Indeed they get the same service in both places. And yet I feel like I’m two entirely different people at times.

In part that is due, I think, to the different focus I think each congregation has. That difference is, I’d say, down to the quite different demographic of each congregation; and so it’s natural that each would wish to do things that meet the needs of the particular congregation, and are supportable by the abilities of each.

That then means a mental shifting of gears when making suggestions or offering direction to whichever congregation I’m engaged with at the time. That welcome variety though also means an increase in workload. And maybe that’s the root of the feeling. In trying to optimise my time for both congregations, I’ve started off on the wrong basis. Perhaps if I had acknowledged the different starting points from the beginning then I would be feeling this ministry dualism now.

But, better late than never, and it is, to be fair, early days. Maybe over time the split personality feeling will disappear and it will simply be ‘natural’ to be doing different things with different groups.

One place that will begin to tell, I think, is in the preaching. In the past, as I’ve built relationships, my preaching has become more ‘pastorally sensitive’. (Although, in the past that’s also often been because of the slow come-down from academic mode into placement mode.) That, I think, is beginning to happen again, so it’ll be interesting to see whether I can sustain the same sermon in each place.

That all said, there is a good lesson to be drawn from the local team ministry (WAAM – West Angus Area Ministry): do together the things that make sense to do together, do separately the things that make sense to do separately.

Over time, as I get to know both congregations then it will, I believe, start to become a ‘whole’. Not in the sense of everyone doing the same thing, but in the sense that it all fits together. I’m reminded of a phrase oft-used in a slightly different context: unity doesn’t mean uniformity; diversity doesn’t mean division.

Feb 262012

Well, rather a lot has happened since my last post. I’d been meaning to slip in a few little updates since announcing my ordination and induction, but it always seemed I had so much to say and never quite enough time to sit down and order my thoughts into a coherent blog update. Now there is just so much to try and condense into a few thoughts it feels like a bit of a mammoth task, but one that I feel I ought to do to make note of the significant events of, well, the last few days at the very least.

Since I intimated the ordination and induction date almost a month ago, life has been a bit of a whirlwind of preparation and decisions. Stuff for the service, for the move, for the ‘job’ – it has often felt like the time passed in a complete blur. Some of it was frustrating – knowing that something had to be sorted but couldn’t be until something else fell into place. It also meant that there was a growing ‘intensity’ of activity as the ordination date loomed. But, one by one, pieces fell into place, things were decided upon and arrangements were finalised.

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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.

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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Jan 312011

I was tempted to post this early last week after our presbytery meeting but it’s probably just as well I waited and calmed down a little.

Discussing reshaping the presbytery and dealing with the ‘1000 ministries’ issue was always going to be an emotive subject anyway, but that didn’t stop it being a frustrating discussion. Actually, that’s not entirely fair. The discussion was generally impassioned, but gracious. At least once it it was beyond the attempts to delay it all yet again.

And that’s really my bugbear. There is still a small, but vocal, group who seem to think that it will all go away if we keep ignoring it. Actually, what is sometimes said is not for public airing here.

But one person stood up and reminded everyone that there was a need for a ‘reality check’ and if they couldn’t see that, then they really had to take a think to themselves. It’s interesting, having been in industry for so long, that such issues and such ‘reality checks’ are not any surprise and there is the understanding, over many years, that such situations need to be managed and not simply given a knee-jerk reaction. But it’s easy to say that from the benefit of a bit of distance. I was also struck by a comment that ‘turkeys don’t vote for Christmas’ in reference to some of the hard decisions needing to be faced, and yet I had several bosses who, when redundancies were announced, always felt it was their place to put themselves in the firing line. They did it out of a sense of loyalty to those who who worked for them – both as an indication of solidarity and as a way of ‘sacrificing’ themselves in order to possible allow one of the ‘workers’ to retain their job. Sometimes their offer was accepted, often it was declined. And, of course, there were others who would never dream of doing such a thing and looked for ways to ensure their own survival.

Within the church, that whole situation is compounded. The minister is probably involved in, or at least aware of, a greater part of a parishioner’s life than a work boss might be. And so there is a greater sense of care and concern at the thought of a congregation being left without someone in the position of ‘shepherd’. And there is the whole issue of a congregation’s attachment to the building. However much we may say that the church is the people, the deep-rooted reality is that that ‘people’ are deeply attached to the building they worship in. It has a history and a sentimental attachment we cannot easily dismiss.

So what then is to be done? I think the reality check is definitely needed and probably long overdue. But it has to happen at the very grass roots levels. That, of course, is what the presbytery plan is aiming to encourage – dialogue about how to tackle the current issues. And that means both within congregations and between congregations. The problem is that the ‘between congregations’ part is seen as the most threatening and so it will inevitably loom larger in people’s minds. But I hope, and pray, that there is sufficient time and application given to the former. If a congregation is much more confident and aware of what its own (realistic) purpose and calling is, then it can engage far more effectively with others. And that might mean a long hard look at what it does and is able to do and ought to be doing. That, quite frankly, is a far more difficult and challenging task. It requires an honest look at every part of the congregation, asking hard questions of itself. It also needs to be looking outwards, asking how it is (or isn’t) engaging with the community it serves. In many ways, that’s where the reality check really needs to happen.

I can post this with the relative luxury of distance and no strong ties to a congregation. But it’s a situation I may well end up having to pick up the pieces of in due course. A daunting, but not unexciting, prospect.

Jan 142011

Probation conference number 2 finished today and it was one of the best so far – I’m including candidates’ conferences in that too. All the sessions reinforced one another and the whole was challenging and encouraging. The theme was ‘Mission’ and the overarching idea was that the church is not called to ‘do mission’ but to ‘be missional’. Mission, in whatever shape or form it takes in any particular context should suffuse and shape the life of a congregation.

We heard some amazing stories of what can happen when people are empowered to follow through their vision of God’s purpose for them and for their community. Lives turned around through the witness of others, the simple expressions of love shown to the outcast and stranger.

There was so much to process that I’ll need to take time just to sort it through in my own head, but there was one particular, personal ‘urge’ I can identify, albeit in a fragile and immature form. The single biggest message was that mission takes time – years – to grow from the initial seeds through to even just the first tentative shoots. As I look ahead and begin thinking about where I might sense a calling to, I am beginning to sense that I want to be somewhere for the long haul. I want to be somewhere I can commit to. The first charge has a minimum time limit of 5 years and I know people do move on after that point. I sense that I don’t want to do that. There’s something that is telling me that wherever I go I want to be there for the  duration, so to speak.

In some respects that’s been the pattern of my previous employment. I was there 21 years all told, albeit working under different owners at different times, but any urge to move on was overcome by new challenges from within the company. Maybe a pattern for ministry? Who knows? And, of course, who knows what might happen when I get to that point. Sowing and reaping are not necessarily done by the same people. Either way, I feel it’s a step closer to knowing what shape my ministry might be.