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
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
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?