I have now been an ordained minister of the United Reformed Church for a little over two years and find myself doing a certain amount of taking stock and reflecting on experience as well as looking forward and thinking about what comes next. This has not been particularly well ordered and has a mixture of feelings, positive and negative. I thought it would be helpful to me to record some of these reflections in the more-or-less public way that blogging here represents so here goes:
- The difference a minister makes is hard to assess, certainly in the short term. I’m not at all sure that I’ve made any real difference at all. I’ve introduced some new things (a closer partnership with an independent Christian Charity with offices in one of our buildings, consequent stronger connections with the Guiding groups in the other, an arts festival with elements of connection to a local secondary school, the beginning of a partnership with one of the local Rotary Clubs) and facilitated some others (the appointment of a new Director of Music and of an assistant/chorister, the continuing effort to establish Messy Church on a firm footing) but it isn’t clear whether these are or will make the difference the congregations really want, which is the reversal of the decades of numerical decline and aging they have experienced. These things all feel good to me but I’m not sure how, in the end, they should be judged.
- There is an inevitable tension created by the reality that ministers are never part of the churches in which they serve in the same sense that other people are. It is part of the point of ordained ministry, it seems to me, that the people so set apart belong simultaneously to the local church and also the wider Church. We come to the church from the denomination (in the URC) and remain firmly part of that wider communion, representing it in and to the local fellowship. In my case I have a cultural formation unlike anybody in either of the churches in which I serve. This is not necessarily a problem but sometimes I am struck by the reality that I have a distinct and possibly eccentric view of the significance of calling oneself a Christian and that this view cannot be assumed to be in any way superior to the variety of views held across the congregations. How to lead effectively given this something on which continuous self-reflection is required and it isn’t easy to maintain the discipline of doing this.
- There are particular difficulties associated with being in a denomination that is in undeniable decline but which refuses properly to acknowledge and plan for it. There is a rising tide of material and exhortation which declares that we can and must reverse the decline that has been a feature of our traditions at least since the end of the Second World War and probably for a decade or two before it. There is little sense of what might have changed in the culture or the denomination that makes this probable so my sense is that very few people really believe in it. This leads to anxiety and distress in which the reality is impossible to evade but also not properly recognised and therefore no real thought can be given to its significance and our best response. In the local context this same pattern is repeated, with people expressing a desire for growth without any credible way to turn that desire into action. I myself have no such way but am clear that I have to respond to the desire, since as the clear will of the fellowships it has to be taken seriously as a guiding of the Spirit. I find it more difficult to assert that this is the Spirit speaking at denominational level but in the end can see that I must do so.
- I remain convinced that goals and objectives are to be avoided in the spiritual life; that, as I have sometimes expressed it, being without point is the point of the Church. This is not easy to sustain day-to-day, though. I am reminded often, by feelings of unease, worthlessness and despair, that neglect of my prayer life will lead to disaster for me. Again this discipline is far from easy to maintain. I am sure, though, that tending to my own spiritual health and my own faithful obedience and attention to God is the only indispensable precondition to being a proper minister. Without a living and active personal prayer life no minister can possibly have anything worthwhile to offer.
- Leading worship is the core of my vocation. To a degree that I did not expect I find myself fed and sustained by the regular rhythm of worship leading. My personal prayer and discernment is driven, above all, by the need to prepare a service each Sunday. through the weeks I have to grapple with the texts and reflect on what I have to convey to the congregations. This is far from easy, sometimes I am misled by failing to distinguish what I need to hear and what I have to say, but it is the central thread of my life.
- I have observed throughout the period of my training and since that a common feature of clergy conversations with one another is a feeling that congregations are failing to be the fellowships that their ministers want them to be. It is not universal but it is very widespread. This is something I have been determined to avoid. Of course no congregation is quite what anybody involved would like it to be, since nobody is quite the person they would want to be, in this sinful fallen world. If any of us were as we ought to be then confession would not be necessary in our acts of worship, as I believe it always is. To the same degree that a fellowship is unsuitable or unsatisfactory for its minister then that minister must be unsuitable and unsatisfactory for it. It is an effort for me to try to shape my ministry so that it is both true to my vocation, as I discern it, and to the vocation of the congregations as we discern it together.