There’s really only one subject possible for me this week. After I “preached with a view” last Sunday at a joint service of Potters Bar and Brookmans Park United Reformed Churches the two congregations met on Monday evening and called me to be their minister. This is a very important moment for me and this seems an opportunity to reflect on a number of issues raised by it.
The first thing that occurs to me is how positively I have experienced the URC’s process for the placement of new ministers. The discernment of the right place to put me by the synod moderators feels absolutely right to me. I don’t know whether I would have identified this pastorate on my own but having been introduced to it I find it hard to imagine one more suitable for me to begin my new ministry in.
The setting and the people are sufficiently familiar and close to me to allow comfort, empathy and communication and the congregations strong enough to provide the support and assistance I will undoubtedly need. Their church culture is similar to what I’m familiar with but different enough to help both me and them see things in a new light.
I’m fortunate, too, in that when I start with them they will have had a year of ministry from two visiting Czech ministers who are both experimenting with new ideas and maintaining the pastoral life of the congregations.
In all I’m grateful for the assistance in settlement offered by the URC system, which contrasts sharply with what I see of the Church of Scotland process which makes finding one’s first charge very like a secular job hunt, to the detriment of both the new minister and the church, in my view.
This leads on to a more general thought about discernment of God’s will, that is central to my current view of what beginning pastoral ministry will be about for me.
This discernment cannot be, I think, a solitary matter of communion of the individual with God, or at least it can be that only rarely, for those with a hermetic vocation (the reality of which I would not deny). For most of us Christianity is a communal matter and our discernment of God’s will for us takes place in community. God’s love and God’s will are revealed in and through the people with whom we share our disciple journey, and sometimes through the structures and processes that organise our relationships with them.
Institutional religion is NOT the enemy of of our relationship with Christ. It is an indispensable enabler of that relationship. We meet Christ precisely in the Church. This, in fact, was the core message of the sermon (blogged here) I preached with a view. All the processes that have accompanied the various stages of affirmation of my call to the ordained ministry have strengthened and enabled the response to that call and I’m profoundly grateful to all who have participated (and of course to God who has sent them to me).
This view of how to hear God will extend to my approach to my ministry. As I have tried to explain to the congregations I see my main responsibility as enabling them to hear what God is already saying to them about what they have been called into the Church for. Every aspect of what I do will serve that, from preaching to pastoral care and from teaching to administration. These two congregations have been brought into being for specific purposes and our task is to find those purposes.
It is particularly exciting for me that I think the two will be very different and complementary. Potters Bar URC is one of more than a dozen churches in a medium sized town. It has a wonderful complex of buildings (I can’t think of a sanctuary built in the 50 years I like better than Potters Bar’s). It runs a nursery and the amazing event that is the Darkes’ Fayre. They have board games sessions (hooray!) and host Act 4’s work with children. (See their excellent web site for all this)
Brookmans Park by contrast is the only church in a fair sized village. Their more modest but still very good building hosts a wide range of activities and provides a focus for a community that might otherwise lack suitable spaces. It is clear that their fellowship is strong and that they have a strong sense of their responsibility to the people among whom they are set. The opportunities and calling of a community church are clearly central to the identity and mission of Brookmans Park, and this is a kind of Christian ministry I have no real experience of, with my history of membership of city churches.
I’m really excited by the prospect of immersing myself in the life of a relatively well defined and cohesive community like Brookmans Park (both the church and the village) and of being a witness to Christ among its people.
At the same time discovering and developing the distinctive mission of Potters Bar URC in the ecumenical context of the town seems like the perfect opportunity for me to explore some of the themes of vocation and diversity I have been developing (e.g. here).
In all I am moved to give thanks to the URC, the synod moderators, the congregations of the two churches and above all to God for opening up this exciting prospect before me!