Oct 182009

For various reasons, my first Sunday in my third placement isn’t until next week. I have had a couple of very fruitful meetings with my supervisor, so I have, in a sense, already started – just not been there on a Sunday yet.

Until today, when I decided to go along to get a pew-side perspective. My supervisor knew I was coming but had promised not to draw attention to me. It was mentioned in the notices that I’d be along from next Sunday, so the congregation were aware of someone new appearing in due course, but nobody knew who I was. That said, I do know a few folk at my placement church, so I was curious about whether anyone would give the game away if they spotted me.

The pew-side view is an interesting one when you’re in this position. You’re obviously conscious of how you are greeted, made welcome and generally treated. But I wonder how much more sensitive we are to it? By the same token, any newcomer is going to be very sensitive to the welcome they receive. It’s not quite the same, I don’t think, if you are visiting, say, on holiday. Anyway, I’m pleased to report that the welcome was warm and friendly and I was even ‘rumbled’ by one person. It’s an amusing story. About four years ago, during my first enquiry placement, I visited this same church and was greeted by this particular person in a way that I have, ever since, held up as a model of a good welcome. Rather than making me feel awkward as ‘the visitor’, they were the one who was apologetic for never having spoken to me before and now was a chance to remedy that. Today, they came to speak and said that they remembered, they were sure, having spoken to me before, but couldn’t remember when and that they had forgotten my name. Names were exchanged (only first names at the time) and I reminded them that they had indeed spoken to me, all those years ago and that I remembered their welcome. They then asked if I was doing the rounds of churches again and I had to confess that I wasn’t exactly doing that. At that moment the light went on, connections were made and my cover was blown.

Curiously it all fitted very nicely with the theme of the service today, drawing from Proverbs 5 and James 3, about how the things we say to others can, so often, dishonour God and how, with the Spirit’s aid we can put our tongues and words to better use. The welcome we give in church in almost certainly a visitor’s ‘first impression’. What a difference when the words of welcome we use are gracious and kind.

Oct 112009

I visited the last of my four potential probation churches today and I’m now certain I have my two out of the four. What’s no longer certain is which of the two is my preferred choice.

Today’s church was pretty local (a big plus in its favour) and the minister is someone I know fairly well. It’s pretty much a middle-of-the-road congregation, tending towards the older end of the age spectrum but with a fair smattering of other age groups as well. To be fair, it was a little difficult to get a sense of the ‘normal’ congregation because there was no Sunday school and a lot of visitors today.

I think I have previously characterised this church as a ‘safe’ choice, but that would suggest that I wouldn’t be challenged. After visiting today I realised that that would be an misrepresentation of the church and it would be ‘safe’ only in the sense that it would be a secure, welcoming and encouraging environment.

I’m now left with a difficult choice. One church would be very different to my previous experience and that would be a great opportunity to grow in other directions. The other would be a very positive experience under a supervisor who would, I think, be great to work with. My gut reaction, somewhat to my surprise, is to favour the ‘safe’ choice, but not because it’s safe, but because there is a sense of ‘rightness’ to it. But a part of me says that there is an opportunity for growth in the other as well and there is much that I find attractive in it. But I also have a sense of ‘over-reaching’ for that one. It’s difficult to explain. It’s like aspiring to something that you know isn’t entirely true to who you are. I think I said previously that my concern over visiting that particular church was that I had created an image of what it would be like. In a sense that image ‘bubble’ has been popped – but that’s not a bad thing. It means that I can now compare the two in a more realistic way.

Oh well, at least I have my shortlist to present to 121 in a few weeks and my reasons for choosing them. Deciding which one to go for though may not be entirely easy.

Sep 202009

It was a visit to the third possible probation placement church today. This was my ‘wild card’ one but it’s also the one I’ve been feeling drawn to. It was odd sitting in the nearby car park and feeling a sense of excitement and trepidation. What if I had created a ‘fantasy’ of what it would be like? What if my expectations were unrealistic? What if I ended up deeply disappointed? It was a useful corrective to the purpose of my visits. They’re not about where I want to be or where I would feel comfortable but about discerning where God wants me and where I can learn the ropes.

Anyhoo… this was a very different experience from either of the others and, for that matter, any other church I have been in. But I liked that. There was something about the worship that was very appealing: the choral music; the sense of ‘ritual’ or at least a sense of structure. I particularly liked the way the theme wove through all aspects of the service, where certain key words and phrases were repeated and emphasised and reinforced.

I was also struck by one part of the service in particular. There was a baptism today (two in fact) and the point where the congregation stood to respond to the responsibilities laid upon them was split in two. First of all the gathered Sunday school children were asked if they would look after the newly baptised infants as if they were a younger sibling, hug them when they were sad, pick them up when they fell and continue to love them when they were not so well behaved? They then responded with a, “We will.” Similar questions, in the more conventional wording, were put to the congregation who also responded with a particular formula (written in the order of service). I thought the extra kids’ bit was really good and a great way of making the baptism more meaningful (and inclusive) for them.

On the negative side, although the welcome was friendly enough, no-one was in any rush to speak to me, even over a coffee in the halls afterwards. It would be a relatively easy place to remain ‘anonymous’ given the size of the congregation and the number of visitors it probably attracts. But then it’s probably not fair to make that judgement on the basis of one visit. Mind you, I did happened to bump into one of my former lecturers who sussed out that I was probably on a ‘recon mission’. They did promise to stay silent on the issue but it was a chance to get a little bit of insider knowledge (and I may well speak to them again if I decide to include this on my short-shortlist).

So yes, an overall positive impression but I don’t want to jump the gun just yet. I have one more church to visit before I turn my thoughts to narrowing down my choice to two. It’ll be interesting to see how I feel visiting that fourth possibility.

Sep 132009

I visited the second of my prospective probation churches today. A little bit further afield but perfectly do-able from my home. This one was very different from the first. More traditional but nevertheless keeping up with the times in many ways. Again it had a good age profile and everyone was very friendly. I felt I could easily fit in with the place and not feel that the 15 months of probation would be a burden. In many respects it comes across as your ‘typical’ parish church (and I say that in the awareness that every congregation is different, but often you will find that they are addressing the same needs, have similar organisations and so on). Its socio-economic profile is maybe a little more educated and affluent, but I’d hesitate to make that call just yet.

Of the two visited so far, this would be my preference. But then if my assessment is correct and it is a ‘typical’ parish church then it may make more sense to choose the other, more local, ‘typical’ parish church on my list. I guess I’ll need to wait and see. I may well make that one next week’s visit so that the two are relatively fresh in my mind and more easily compared. That just leave my wild-card outsider as my fourth visit. I still feel a tug towards it despite my ignorance of it and I’m wondering if I should have gone there first to see if the others then ‘measured up’. By the same token, if, when I go, I just don’t get that sense of ‘rightness’, then I’ll know that there was something in one of the others that I need to go back and find then pray over.

At least it keeps me out of mischief on Sunday mornings.

Sep 062009

It’s nice to be back home after my stint in Brussels. I have a week or so before the business of university kicks in and my next placement doesn’t start until the middle of October. In the meantime though I have to visit four churches will be potential probationary churches. The first was today.

It’s a church I know fairly well, as much by reputation as well as having been several times. It’s got a great age profile, is one of the friendliest I’ve ever been in, is very active in the community (and beyond), has a passionate and committed ministry team and appeals to my geek side in so many ways. But is it the place where I could spend 15 months of my training?

There is, as I’ve said, much to commend it and I’m not jumping the gun and ruling anywhere out until I have been round them all, but I have to say, at the moment, there isn’t that sense of ‘tug’ towards the place. Maybe I need to experience all of them before I’ll know for definite, but at the moment it’s still a maybe.

As I’ve gone through this whole selection and training process, one of the biggest changes in me is how I listen to and hear God. I wouldn’t say I ever get clear and unambiguous instructions, but I’m getting a much better sense of when something is the right path and when it’s not. One of the ‘warnings’ we were given at conference was not to go with what our gut reaction said was the good choice. Yes, sometimes our positive gut reaction is because it’s what makes us feel good. But sometimes it’s deeper than that. Sometimes it’s being able to touch our deepest spiritual senses and know that God is with us, supporting and guiding.

Aug 132009

I was going through my diary for the next wee while and realised that many of the items appearing on the horizon are after my placement in Brussels. Twelve weeks, a time that seemed so long before the placement, has simply flown past. I also realised that I haven’t blogged for a while but that’s not an indication that I haven’t had much to do. But, in a sense, it’s been the ‘same routine’. Like doing laps, the routine can seem repetitive, but there’s always some little nugget tucked away that sticks with you and lifts any routine task out of the simply mundane. So, for the sake of future memory jogging, here are some ‘nuggets’. Continue reading »

Aug 042009

One of the things you notice when you visit people is that you will often hear the same stories on subsequent visits. With many people you’ll get a ‘but I’ve told you this before’ comment, but what happens when it’s someone whose memory isn’t what it once was? My supervisor asked me the question a while ago about whether such visits continue to have value or whether there is better use of a minister’s time. It’s especially pertinent when the person visited has little or no recollection of you even having visited previously. It may sound a little callous but it’s a legitimate question (and especially when time pressures come to bear).

I’m not sure I have any kind of answer and I expect that whatever thoughts I have now will almost certainly change when the reality of ministry hits. I believe that stories are important. They define, in many ways, who we are. They are our condensed memory of an event, an experience or a relationship. They are coloured by our prejudice and edited by our ego. But they are important to us and telling them to others allows our stories (and ourselves) to have a place in a bigger story. By hearing stories we give a sense of value and worth to the teller. By bringing their story into our story we grow our own story and allow it to grow and change. And of course, by integrating our story, and the stories we hear, into the ongoing ‘narrative’ we have with God and our faith, then we also grow. And, of course, we have an example in Jesus who ‘unravelled’ people’s stories and opened them up to allow the gospel to become part of their story.

So, when we visit and hear a story, we continue to affirm the life of a person, the importance of their story and their continuing place in the broader story of the church family. When we hear the same story over and over again it may try our patience and we may doubt the use of our time, but it is a way of showing we value the person who is a loved creation of God.

All well and good, but can the reality be sustained in ‘real ministry’?