Over the last week I’ve had a very strong sense of moving into the last phase of my Education for Ministry Phase 1, the pre-ordination training for URC ministry. Now that I know where my ordained ministry will begin and when the whole process feels very much more concrete. I am no longer a student of theology who does placements in churches; I am the next minister of Potters Bar and Brookmans Park URCs in the final stage of my preparation for that new form of life and of ministry.
Early in this final year I wrote a post called “What on earth is a Christian minister for?” which I’ve just re-read and it still seems about right to me, so then the question is how ready am I to be the minister I describe there? How well is my training preparing me?
Well first of all I think it is a great tribute to those responsible for my formation, above all the Rev. Dr. Jack Dyce, principal of the Scottish United Reformed and Congregational College that I feel a degree of confidence in articulating my understanding of my vocation. It probably wouldn’t agree exactly with his but it is what I believe myself called to be. The SURCC has provided a fantastic environment in which to develop and understand it.
The process of living into a ministry is not one the can ever really be said to be complete, I would think. When I’m ordained I will transition to the Education for Ministry 2 phase of my formation and I will still have an immense amount to learn. Some of this will come from the formal training, some from formal and informal mentors, but I expect the largest part to come from those among whom I will be serving.
If the core of my ministerial calling is supporting the congregations in discerning the service to which they are called then how this is best achieved can only become apparent through really paying attention to them, both individually and collectively. This is turn is dependent on an ability to put to one side one’s own egoistic needs and concerns, something that is bound to be difficult while feeling one’s way into a new identity.
Here is where some of the elements of the training begin to come together. One of the great things about the concentrated study of theology has been the extent to which it has freed me from anxiety about “orthodoxy”. This is not to say I have become any less convinced that it is important to be orthodox, in the sense of shaping one’s beliefs ton the truths of the faith as revealed and transmitted. It is rather to say that I have come to see that orthodoxy can be generous.
A range of nuances and emphases are possible within the bounds set by the core tenets of Christianity. In conversation with those who formulate their beliefs differently from the way one does oneself it is important to remember that. Very often patience and good will enable us to discover and value both what we have in common and what we differ on and genuinely to learn from doing so. Too often people in the churches have some doctrinal, ethical or political position that they have made definitive of what it is to be a good Christian and which blinds them to the reality that different Christians have different vocations and that this means they express themselves differently.
The more one knows of the range of possibilities historically, or by tradition or culture, the keener one’s sense of the partial nature of one’s own knowledge and practice and the opportunities to learn from those who are different.
Similarly my experience on placement has shown me a variety of communities of faith living out their response to their call. In every case I have felt I could discern something of the purpose for which God had called them into being and the ways in which that purpose shaped their lives. Excitingly for me I have also felt I could discern ways in which I might be able to assist in clarifying and exploring that call. These ways have differed from place to place and have strengthened my sense of the situational nature of ministry.
Finally I have had the time and space to begin to sense the different way in which the ordained minister lives in the community. The minister is both within and without. I have only now begun to feel comfortable with this distinct identity, of someone who is called to a congregation from the wider church.
The minister arrives in a community that already exists and fits into a space within it that is already, to some degree, defined. To be able to occupy that space and then shape it to the person one is requires both a sensitivity to the legitimate demands put upon one and the strength to be who one really is.
I think I have begun to develop both of these and I feel greatly blessed that I feel such an instinctive comfort with the people among whom I will have to discover whether I’m right.