There’s an old Irish story, about a tourist in Kilkenny asking directions from a local about how to get to Tralee, and the sage replies, “Well, I wouldn’t be starting from here.”
One of the most common questions asked of me since I first heard a call to ordained ministry is “How did you get here?” Each time I am asked I have moved further from where I began, with a journey resembling a dance – steps forward and back, to each side, often partnered – far more than anything else.
It’s far too simplistic to draw a straight line from a faithful family of origin, Sunday School (to which I remember having a distinct aversion), and later youth group and thence into ministry. It both misunderstands and misrepresents how God’s presence has been active throughout, and the particular roles of certain people and communities during that time. There were saints for a season, and those who have remained with me for longer; there were episodes of considerable significance, like College, and each of my five placements; there were the events – some glorious, some mundane and some destructive.
In many of those moments, there have been people who have taught and challenged and rebuked and nurtured me. At every step, in every story, God’s Spirit was breathing life and hope.
For the last several months, a team I have been leading has been looking at how we shape people for ministry, both lay and ordained. It is clear that a (quite appropriate) emphasis is placed upon the education process, usually through our United Theological College. But what about the shaping of the person, becoming ready for the wonders and challenges and risks of ministry? For far too long, much of the Church has expected those years of formal education to be the time when someone becomes “ready for ministry.”
What on earth does that say about the role of the congregation and the minister? What does it say about the role of those who lead bible studies and worship teams, or school chaplains, or ISCF leaders, or colleagues at work, or uni?
When I completed my first placement, one of the older members of the congregation, a retired railway worker with faith in the marrow of his bones, commented at the farewell dinner, “He wasn’t too flash when he came here, but he isn’t too bad now.” This was an honest reflection of a congregation which knew that its role was to work alongside me, to shape me, and to send me on.
What are we hoping for in our congregations? What are we expecting? Do we look to call people in our congregation to lead in worship, witness and service, or do we wait for someone else to come and look after us?
There are communities of faith in our Synod which are shaping people for all kinds of ministry: within their gathered life, in the wider community and in the wider church. There are people who are looking to encourage people into ministry, lay and ordained, and we need to expand this wonderful culture across our Synod.
Education is vital for ministry, but just as vital are the communities which shape us for our task, and the individuals who invite us to step up and then guide us as we grow.
One of the most vital mentors I have is a lady in her eighties, who has covenanted to pray for me every day; she reminds me when she sees me, to hold herself accountable and to hold me equally so. When someone approaches you about their sense of call, don’t let cynicism speak; encourage, bless, and support that one and see where God takes both of you.
When you are asked to be a mentor for a person seeking confirmation, don’t just support them for the weeks of preparation, offer time afterwards, for prayer and coffee.
Expect the Holy Spirit to move in your congregation; hope for people to find new gifts and to exercise them; believe that you will be surprised about how Jesus might use (even you!) in the service of God’s reign in the world.
How did I get here? God moved in many ways, so people asked and encouraged me, people challenged me, people taught me, people disciplined me, people rebuked me, people prayed for me and loved me – and people still do.
Shall we get started from here?