Micro-choices

A few weeks ago, I was praying with someone, and I had what I believe was a prophetic word from God for them. While it was for them personally, it came back to me this morning as a much wider word for our times.

The essence was about seeking God in the “micro” choices. In the right now. Don’t worry about what’s going to happen in 3 months, 6 months, 5 years, or even next week. Just here. And now. What is God saying to you about the next 5 minutes, 30 minutes? How are you going to be aware of Him, and be full of Him right now? What choice are you going to make about what you are going to do right now.

I think this is a key question for our time, even before Covid-19, but especially since. It seems so much of our “go to” is a device – at least it is for me and my household. Switching on the TV, flicking through BBC News app, checking e-mail, Twitter, Instagram, … How easy to grab for the phone, or laptop, or remote when we have 5 minutes ‘spare’, and are not sure what to do. It’s easy to live live at a hundred miles an hour, and to try and cram as much as possible into every second.

“Devices” aren’t inherently bad – in fact they have been almost literally a lifeline for some people, and hugely important for society. It is astonishing to me that my working and church life has become virtual/online almost overnight. Never-the-less part of my Lent this year was giving up video games (Candy Crush, or Mario Karts, or whatever) – in part because I recognise that it easily becomes something I reach for when I’m bored, or tired, or feeling insecure, or anxious, or trying to put something off, or avoiding something, or there’s a “y” in the day, or it’s after 9am, or … The thing I really noticed was how much extra time and head space this freed up, even though I thought it was only 5 minutes here and there.

The truth is we are constantly faced with choices about how we use our time. Every minute, every second, every breath is a gift from God. Every day we have choice moments – “what am I going to do next?”. Perhaps it’s living with an extremely energetic 9 year old, but I get “What can I do now?” several times a day! Each of these moments, these cusps, are a chance to try and hear the Spirit’s whisper in our ears. “Do nothing for a bit”. “Why not go outside” (if you can). “Do the crossword”. “What about that TV programme you wanted to watch?”. “Pray for you family”. “Make a menu and shopping list for next week”. “Play a game of cards”. “Make that phone call you’ve been putting off”.

I’m not suggesting a super-spirituality – just a kind of walking with God throughout the day. The truth is that I know full well when I am doing something I shouldn’t, or wasting time, or neglecting my responsibilities. But I also have days when I am much more aware and present. Where I’m not reacting to the day’s events, or how I’m feeling, but making intentional choices – pausing at each moment, before each activity, and asking the question “is this what God wants me to do right now?”

The backdrop of this all is of course anxiety – even before Covid-19. Worry about the future. Constant activity. Jesus response to this is “Do not worry”. God’s gift to us is peace.

Some practical pointers, then, from my own experience:

Firstly – slow down! Rushing from one activity to another is a sure fire way to increase stress and anxiety. Just pause between one thing and the next. If you do have a fixed time for something – like a live stream, or a meeting – don’t try and cram in lots of extra stuff before it. Instead be ready for it a few minutes early, and be still. Even something as simple as boiling the kettle or going to the loo can be a pause point – resist the temptation to pick up your device!!

Secondly, make a list of everything you want to do, or need to remember. I am a huge fan of lists, and trying to remember everything in your head is another source of anxiety and stress. It also helps with living in the now. I’ve finished my crossword – look at list – ah yes I need to put the slow cooker on for supper this evening.

Finally when things start to feel overwhelming, when your chest tightens, and tears threaten,  you could try something like the “Apple” technique from AnxietyUK (and posted on BBC News). This seems to me to very close to prayer – or at least could very naturally lead into prayer.

Try practising the APPLE technique which encourages you to Acknowledge, Pause, Pull back, Let go and Explore..

Acknowledge – Notice and acknowledge the uncertainty as it comes to mind.

Pause – Don’t react as you normally do. Don’t react at all. Just pause and breath.

Pull back – Tell yourself this is just the worry talking, and this apparent need for certainty is not helpful and not necessary. It is only a thought or feeling. Don’t believe everything you think. Thoughts are not statements or facts.

Let go – Let go of the thought or feeling. It will pass. You don’t have to respond to them. You might imagine them floating away in a bubble or cloud.

Explore – Explore the present moment, because right now, in this moment, all is well. Notice your breathing and the sensations of your breathing. Notice the ground beneath you. Look around and notice what you see, what you hear, what you can touch, what you can smell. Right now. Then shift your focus of attention to something else – on what you need to do, on what you were doing before you noticed the worry, or do something else – mindfully with your full attention.

https://www.anxietyuk.org.uk/blog/health-and-other-forms-of-anxiety-and-coronavirus/

May you walk this day alongside the 3 mile-an-hour God, who Himself walked on earth.

May you do no more and no less than He is calling you this day, here and now.

May you hear the Spirit’s soft whisper, saying “this is the path – walk in it”.

Amen.

Rude Awakening

It’s Easter morning – Hallelujah.

What a strange Easter morning it is though, stuck as we are in the middle of the Covid-19 lockdown. Much much more to be said about all this, about church, about community – but the inspiration for this post was when I was awoken at about 4.30 this morning.

You see, the more Easters I have, the more I feel that we jump the gun a bit. It took the first disciples a further 50 days before the joy and release of the resurrection took hold. Immediately after Easter, they continued to be in “isolation” – a frightened community hiding behind locked doors, unable to meet in public or understand what was going on, and most of all what part God was playing in it all. Our most reliable sources for Mark’s gospel end at verse 8 of chapter 16. “Trembling and bewildered, the women went out and fled from the tomb. They said nothing to anyone because they were afraid.”

In the early hours of this morning, an emergency vehicle siren sounded out over Harrogate. It may have been more than one – it was hard to tell – but it was very eerie, and unusual. As I lay in bed, in semi-darkness, listening, it struck me as being very close to that first Easter Sunday. The tomb was empty. It’s like going to put flowers on a grave, and finding it has been dug up and there’s just a hole. And surely word would have got back to the authorities pretty quickly about the empty tomb, and I’m sure they moved in.

My point is not to diminish just how extraordinary Easter Sunday was and is, and that it is a time of great joy of celebration. Of course it is.

But it is also an event within a much wider story, that ranges at the very least from Good Friday to Pentecost. To be unsettled, scared, in isolation, hopeful but not really sure what it’s all going, or where and when it will end is part and parcel of the Easter story.

To know that something extraordinary is going on, and God is on the move, yet to also have doubts and fears is the walk of faith. As followers of Jesus, we live in the “now” and the “not yet”. With the joy and certain hope of the resurrection, while at the same time living in the occupied (but defeated) territory of sin and death.

So as we continue in lockdown, under the shadow of covid-19, we also know this is not the last word. Easter Sunday of all days gives us hope for the future.

May you all know God’s blessing this day, whether in houses full of joy (and chocolate) or full of tears. May you know the hope of the resurrection, even in the midst of confusion, fear, boredom and isolation.

Blessèd Code

At my work we regularly have business development sessions, where we review performance, do some forward planning, and so on. We also usually do some organisational development – around teamwork, communication, that sort of thing. Last summer we had a session on culture, and the organisational culture in particular. Now I am lucky enough to work in a company that has a very healthy and positive culture – we have a high level of transparency, trust, encouragement, cooperation, and a low level of passive aggression, sabotage, negativity, secrecy, politicking, and so on.

All good stuff.

But then one of my colleagues observed that if we were talking about computer code then it’s sometimes a different story. It can be opaque, aggressive, trying to catch you out, kick you in the backside and laugh about it (metaphorically).

This notion was something of a revelation to me. He is absolutely right though – computer code does have a “culture”, and I don’t just mean the resulting piece of software. Ok, so most of us have used software that seems straightforward and intuitive – it does exactly what you want, and you get the desired effects without even having to think about it. And I imagine that most of us have also used computer programs that could have been written by Satan himself, seemingly designed to frustrate us and make life miserable.

A similar thing can happen with the actual source code of the program. It can be a helpful and co-operative; easy to understand and maintain, you can have confidence that changing one bit here isn’t going to break something over there. Or it can be obstructive and difficult. A spaghetti tangle of interactions, where it’s almost impossible to understand the logic, and you can be pretty sure that changing one bit is going to have a completely unexpected side effect in an unrelated part of the system.

Park that thought for just a minute, as we move to another thread.

Over the past year in particular, I have been thinking a lot about what it means for me to a minister (or priest) at work. This is absolutely not a liturgical or ecclesial role – I am paid to be there as a software engineer and application developer, not a vicar. Never-the-less, in common with all Christians I believe this 9-to-5 is a part of my calling and vocation, and therefore surely my ordained ministry must/should/could encompass this as well? There are a couple of ‘soft’ answers to this; about being a Christian/priestly presence, about building up my colleagues, about ministry to the structures at work, especially where there is injustice or inequality. About being a prophetic voice. While I absolutely agree with all of these; they would also all be true if I was a fisherman, or a management consultant, or whatever. There are also easy answers around the output of the work; if I were a doctor or a teacher, or worked for a Christian company creating worship software, these are all clearly directly working towards the Kingdom of God.

Is there some way in which I, as a software developer, have a specific ministry?

So my thoughts turned towards the specifically priestly ministry, which Jim Francis draws out of the Ordinal in 3 distinctive strands: “bless”, “reconcile”,  and “nurture”. I get these three (and again, think they are common to all Christians) – but what might blessing, reconciling, and nurturing actually look like for me, in my workplace?

Hold onto that thought for a moment as well, as there is one more piece of the jigsaw.

Another colleague recently pointed out that when I write code at work it is not “my” code. I don’t own it. It is the company’s intellectual property, and it may have a lifespan well beyond my time at the company. It is likely that it will not be me who is the next person to edit it. So when I submit a piece of code for peer review, and they suggest some changes, I have to take that seriously because it’s not my code, or my baby (however much it might feel like it). Furthermore, the principal way that I interact with my colleagues (and indeed our customers) is through the code I write. If I write code badly, that causes pain for my immediate colleagues, as well as those to come. On the other hand, if I write code well, that can be a source of blessing to my colleagues. They can pick up a method I wrote, easily understand what it is doing, and why I wrote it that way, and make whatever modifications they may mean to.

It is at this point all these thoughts collide – that the code itself can be ‘nice’ or ‘nasty’; that part of my calling is to be a blessing to my colleagues; and that my code is principally consumed by those colleagues… and you are probably already way ahead of me.

Is it too much to leap to the notion that one of the ways that I can exercise a ministry at work is by writing blessèd code. I don’t mean consecrated, I mean code that it is means of blessing. I mean that when someone I work with opens up something I have written, it can be a pleasurable experience? A joy to see beautiful, well crafted, and elegant code that is a blessing to work with?

And we don’t need to stop there.

The end result (i.e. the piece of software itself) can also be blessèd – a joy and blessing to use. This is potentially a ministry to both our customers, and our technical support team.

Or to move the opposite direction, code can also be “cursed” – again not hexed, but rather a curse to work with, bringing pain and torment. I have certainly seen enough of that code in my career. But even “cursed” code can usually be ‘saved’. It can be re-written or refactored into blessèd code – and might this in turn be a picture of reconciliation and redemption?

And if we are working to create a blessèd environment within which to be joyful and fruitful in our labour, that is something of the Kingdom of God, surely? I don’t think anyone would question that turning a scrapyard full of stinging nettles and old tires into a wildflower meadow, or even an allotment, was bringing about something of the Kingdom of God – order out of chaos, life out of death. I’m not sure that it’s any different for code.

And it doesn’t stop at code either. If you write protocols or instructions, if you run the IT network, if you’re in charge of the laundry – all of these things, potentially never seen by anyone outside our organisation, can be the basis of a ministry to colleagues, a means of blessing and advancing the Kingdom of God.

Or they can be the opposite.

Anyway, apologies for such a long and unstructured post – this concept has been brewing in my mind for many months now, and I am going to write a proper article on it at some point, but I felt like I was going to explode if I didn’t put it out in some form!

Home Alone

Over Christmas I watched “Home Alone” with my younger son. I must admit I’ve always wondered why this gets categorised as a Christmas Film, as  the only thing Christmassy about it was the fact it’s set at Christmas (a bit like Die Hard), and has some nod to being apart from those you love. Home Alone (I would have said), was a film about at 8 year year old setting traps for hapless burglars (such as bowling balls dropping on their head) for 2 hours.

It turns out the film is not about that at all.

Not even remotely.

The whole “bowling ball on the head” thing (which doesn’t happen either, incidentally – it’s an iron) is about 20 minutes at the end of the film.

Instead it is a film about reconciliation and relationships. There’s an extended section on Kevin learning to live on his own, and making the transition from happy ice-cream eating slob finally free of the tyranny of his family, to scared and lonely child, to master of the house, doing the washing, shopping, cooking, and putting up the Christmas tree, to finally realising he misses his family and wants them back.

There’s a lot about Kevin’s Mum trying to find any means back to him – hours and hours solid on the road (including being stuck in the back of a mover’s van for 11 hours with John Candy and his polka orchestra – classic!)

There’s a whole running thread about the “psychopath mass murderer” neighbour, who of course turns out to be a sweet but lonely old man estranged from his son, and Kevin’s wisdom is enough to bring reconciliation and healing there.

Then – yes – right towards the end of the film, the moronic burglars break in, and fall foul of icy steps, tarred staircases, Christmas bauble shrapnel, glue and feathers, blow torches, irons, spiders, falling from a rope, nails through the feet – before finally capturing Kevin, only to be rescued at the last by the aforementioned non-psycho neighbour.

In the end, Kevin’s Mum gets home, after 48 hours solid travel (or something), then the rest of the family turn up 5 minutes later having waited and got the next direct flight home. Peace is made, apologies offered and accepted. Although I did note that only Kevin and his Mum seem to have been truly changed by the experience.

What is extraordinary to me is that I would have sworn in court that the film was 90% about Kevin being at home on his own trying to thwart (and damage) burglars, and that first maybe 5 or 10 minutes of the film was set up. To be fair it’s probably 30 years since I last saw it – plus I think the sequels where much more heavily stacked to the pratfalls and traps.

So I stand corrected. Home Alone is absolutely a Christmas film – about the importance of relationships and reconciliation, how we are ultimately unable to save ourselves, and that our saviour may be someone quite unexpected. That and shooting intruders with a spud gun.

Scratchy Books

It is my experience that some books just scratch where I am itching. It might be the writing style, subject, or simply that it has come at the right time for me to “get it”. These are the books you read that just help things make sense, or put into words the things you’ve been struggling to vocalise.

The best example of this for me is Contemplative Youth Ministry – Practising the Presence of Jesus with Young People” by Mark Yaconnelli (SPCK 2006), which is a book that spoke deeply to my heart, and opened up contemplative spirituality for me properly for the first time. In particular I discovered Lectio Divino, and remember thinking at the time “Wow – how come I haven’t ever come across this before?”. The answer was, of course, that I had – I found some notes I’d made on how to do it from 10 or 15 years earlier, but at that point time I just hadn’t got it, and the notes just got filed away.

It’s not so much that these books answer the questions I’m asking  (although I am usually driven to read them for answers), but more that they give some insight to those questions, and the framework and vocabulary to explore them – and more often then not to realise that actually I’m asking the wrong question, or that living with an unanswered question is more important than The Answer.

I write this because there are two books I’ve recently read which have really hit the spot, as I continue my exploration/reflection/struggle with ordination, self-supporting ministry, work, and so on, the first of which is “Ministers of the Kingdom. Exploration in Non-Stipendiary Ministry” edited by Peter Baelz and William Jacob (CIO, 1985). While it’s a relatively old book, three really big ideas leapt out and grabbed me.

First of all, the whole question “why did you need to be ordained to be a minister at work” is starting from completely the wrong place. It assumes that parish ministry is normative (i.e. what ordination is for), and tries to make self-supporting ministry fit into that box.

The second is that it started to help me appreciate that being ordained doesn’t mean that ministry will necessarily look any different, but that it may have created more opportunities to minister to the people and structures at work.

Finally, the concept of being an amateur priest – not in the pejorative or unskilled sense, but in the same way you (used to) get amateur athletes competing in the Olympics or at Wimbledon, or you get amateur dramatics or photographers. That is to say those who don’t do those things as their profession/living. I think that even since this book was written “amateur” and “professional” have acquired much more of a qualitative judgement, so amateur now means “a bit rubbish”, and professional means “very good”, which in turn makes it a less helpful vocabulary. However,

“The better connotation is that the amateur is one who plays the game for love not money, and who may well possess a charismatic flair that evades the dour professional. … the amateur usually plays for and stays with his (sic) home tea, without touting his talents around to the highest bidder. He has as inbuilt loyalty to his town or county which he truly represents: amateur Devonians play for Devon.
Amateur clergy … are indigenous to an environment and/or comparatively stable. At least there is no professional ladder to climb, no career structure to follow or hope for. They are amateurs playing for the home team, whether situated in town, village, school, office or factory.” (Martin Thornton The Ministry of Prayer in Ministers of the Kingdom. p 66)

The other book is “An Altar in the World” by Barbara Brown Taylor, but I’ll do that next time…

Bivocational?

I’ve been reading a book called “Marathon: A Manual for Bivocational Ministry” by Doug Black Jr, which has raised some interesting ideas, and is making me revisit some of my assumptions around ministry.

The thrust of his book is that Self Supporting Ministry (which he calls Bivocational) is better than ’employed’ ministry in his case. Or to put it another way, that he has become a more effective minister/pastor since he stopped doing it as his employment and started doing it unpaid while in full-time (secular) employment.

This is quite a radical notion. (At least to me).

It seems to me that the often unspoken assumption is that ‘full-time’ ministry is the ideal or gold-standard. In my case, my presumption is that if I were stipendiary then I would be more effective in ministry than I am on my one day a week. Of course the key phrase here is “one day a week”, as this immediately limits ‘ministry’ to when I am in the parish. That aside, it otherwise seems self-evident – surely doing 6 days a week must be more effective than doing 1 day a week? But I think it is this that Black is pushing against; he argues that I might actually more effective in ministry (even if you limit it to just parish ministry) on only one day a week than I would be if I were full-time!!

I wouldn’t be comfortable going that far myself – but it has given me some serious food for thought. The notion that I might be as effective in the parish as I would be if stipendiary hadn’t even crossed my mind, if I’m honest.

Now, we need to tread carefully with words like ‘effective’ and ‘better’ in the context of ministry, not to mention the word ‘ministry’ itself. And there is also a translation piece to be done; as Black is writing in a North American context, which has many differences from the parochial context of the Church of England. However, there is common ground, and some of the principles and arguments have something to say to us on this side of the pond! I’m not saying I agree with everything he says; but it has made me stop and think, which is almost always a good thing.

Accepting the likelihood that I am misrepresenting his arguments, this is my understanding of what Black says in his book, which I’m putting in terms of time, money, and ministry. There is of course overlap between these categories.

Time

As an employed SSM you don’t have as much time available in the parish, that much is indubitable. However, there are some significant benefits this limitation brings:

  1. It is well established that work expands to fill the time available. If you have all day (or all week) to do a certain task, it may end up taking all week. If you only have 2 hours, that’s how long it will take!
  2. You can’t do everything – hence you have no choice but to identify and focus on the core, and furthermore:
    1. You have to delegate to and empower others.
    2. You have to disciple others.
    3. You have limited opportunity to view yourself as indispensable.

It is only fair to highlight some of the drawbacks – relationships (and pastoral care) take time, and this is something I feel keenly when it comes to visiting and funerals. I simply don’t have the flexibility or availability to go and visit someone at the drop of a hat. I suppose Black’s argument is that I would therefore have to empower, equip, and release a pastoral team to do this, but I am not convinced.

Either way, the fact does remain that procrastination and “wasting” time is in the human condition – and it is much harder to resist this when your working pattern is unstructured with little accountability or visibility, as is the case for most stipendiary clergy.

Money

The money thing is interesting, and doesn’t directly translate from the American model of ministry. Never-the-less, Black makes some interesting observations:

  1. If the ministers/staff are unpaid, it means the church has more money for mission (by which he really means helping the poor, it seems to me).
  2. Being paid is a right of a worker, therefore to not be paid is a spiritual act of service.
  3. Not being paid helps with the sense of “being” rather than “doing” – it’s hard not to feel you should be “doing” if you’re being paid.

The comparison breaks down a little, in that in Black’s context him taking a secular job was a cut in pay and security – whereas the opposite is likely true in the Church of England. Certainly it’s not normal for C of E vicars to fly around in private jets! So to cast not being paid for ministry as a spiritual service doesn’t ring entirely true.

But it is interesting to reflect upon the double impact of not being stipendiary on the church’s budget – not only am I not drawing a salary/stipend, but my regular giving is almost certainly greater than it would otherwise be.

Ministry

This is perhaps the more interesting consideration. I touched on this already above under “time” with the observation around empowering and discipling. This is foundational to Christianity and Christian ministry – we are called to make disciples. If the option to “just do it all myself” is removed, it sharpens the thinking somewhat!

However, there are further benefits, some of which you may find as surprising as I did:

  1. You spend your days actually on the mission field.
    So on my ‘parish’ day it is not unusual for me to have no contact with any non-Christians. The other 4 days of my working week, my contact is almost exclusively with non-Christians.
  2. You are modelling mission and discipleship in your life and work.
  3. You are also modelling it from a more comparable starting point to those in the congregation.
  4. It helps to challenge the secular/sacred duality.
  5. It gets you out of church, both physically and in terms of world-view.
  6. It helps bring the world-view into the church / church leadership.
  7. It takes “the church” out into the world/workplace.
  8. It is a better modelling of the priesthood of all believers.
  9. You understand first-hand the pressures the congregation are facing.

I was particularly struck my whole sacred/secular divide thing, and I haven’t completely grasped Black’s argument here. I think it’s around challenging the notion that you are either “a minister” OR “a worker”. That those “in ministry” work for the church and exist in sacred space, while everyone else has to get by in the secular space, and never the twain shall meet. To be both a minister and in secular employment explodes this fallacy.

There is also a bit of an assumption that the members of the congregation are themselves employed – but you can perhaps start to see how the benefits from a ministry perspective start to weigh up against the limitations of time and availability…

There is also something extremely powerful in the message that ‘ministry’ is something we do full-time, and the business of the church and the parish is something we do alongside it, to enable the ministry. It is an antidote to the ever present danger that ministry is something which is ‘done’ to the congregation by the clergy.

Finally, I love the prophetic/liminal edge here, in terms of both the secular workplace and the church. I have a real sense that just being an SSM unsettles and challenges both worlds (in a good way).

 

So, in conclusion, I am not disputing Black’s personal experience of being ‘better’ for going bivocational. But neither do I think it’s a blanket principle. So much of it hangs on what is meant by ‘ministry’ and ‘parish ministry’. Or more specifically which aspects of ministry you are talking about. I am very obviously nowhere near as present or available as the traditional parish priest, and this severely inhibits pastoral and occasional ministry. Likewise I am simply not ‘around’ for discussions, meeting, strategy, leadership. And lest we forgot, I have no  first hand experience of stipendiary parish ministry to compare with.

However, if  you are talking about the aspects of ‘ministry’ such as being Jesus to the world, and making disciples, the picture changes somewhat. I’m not for a moment doing parish or stipendiary ministry down. And I certainly not claiming that I somehow do as much on 1 or 2 days a week as stipendiary clergy do in 6. But I am perhaps starting to appreciate a bit more the contribution I can make as an SSM to the parish context, and how I think I may have been undervaluing it.

Self Supporting Ministry

Exciting times on the curacy front, as my training incumbent has now moved on to a new post, leaving us in a vacancy at the church.

We are blessed to have a “full time” associate minister, another training curate (who is “full time”), and several other “part-time” clergy kicking about, so in terms of both supervision and workload it’s not a insurmountable stress to have lost the vicar. Obviously it’s not ideal, but on the plus side it will be really good experience to go through a vacancy and appointment process, and I’m fascinated to see what happens both over the few months, and once the new vicar has started.

One interesting side effect, is that our SSM associate minister is going to take over my supervision. He has been ordained for 25 years, and has always seen the workplace as the main focus of where he is called to minister, and as an SSM myself this is a great opportunity to reflect together and for me to learn from him and sharpen my thinking a bit.

In case the acronyms don’t mean anything to you; SSM is “Self Supporting Minister/Ministry”, which is the current term in vogue for ordained ministers who are not paid by the church, and who therefore usually have a secular job to pay the bills. This is contrasted with both stipendiary ministry (which is typically parish based – a stipend is paid to the minister so they don’t need to earn money, and can therefore minister “full time”) and chaplaincy (where the minister either has a stipend, or is paid, to minister in a non-parish context; such as prison, hospital, airport, football club, …). In both these cases “ministry” is that person’s occupation and income; as opposed to the SSM, where it not their income, and usually not their main occupation.

There is a further distinction in SSM between those who feel their primary ministry/calling is to parish ministry, and those who feel the primary focus of their ministry is the workplace while they do their (secular) job – usually referred to as Ministers in Secular Employment, or MSE. An MSE is not paid for their ministry (unlike chaplains), and don’t usually have an official position as an ordained person in their workplace. In terms of job roles and function they are indistinguishable from the person in the next seat – i.e. paid the same amount to do the same job. Of course, it would be perfectly possible to be an SSM and also work unpaid in a voluntary position (e.g. for a charity, or being a house-wife or house-husband). The point is that you do not have any income from your ministry activities, hence you are – purely in the financial sense – “self supporting”.

So far in my curacy I have been mainly focussed on parish ministry and church life, and have not really thought too much about what it means to be an ordained minister at work. To some extent this is only right and proper – I need(ed) to “learn the ropes” of parish ministry, whether or not it ends up being my main occupation. But at the halfway point of my curacy – 2 years in, with 2 to go – it seems to fit very nicely to refocus my thoughts and reflections on the 4 days a week I spend in the office writing mapping software, and more widely what non-parish based ordained ministry looks like and means.

One of the things that has been tripping me up is that I have a high theology of baptism, and a relatively low theology of ordination and the priesthood. I have been a Christian and a minister at my work place ever since I joined 11 years ago – and I would hope that every single baptised believer sees themselves in full time ministry as Christ’s ambassador to whichever context they are called to. This incidentally is why I put quotes around “full time” and “part time” above. To that end, there is a sense in which ordination doesn’t change anything.

However in many very real sense it does change things, and it is part of ongoing reflection to try and identify and explore these. From the “better ask the vicar” office banter, to genuine questions of faith and church life, I have had conversations with colleagues as a direct result of being ordained that probably wouldn’t have occurred otherwise.

I’m also trying to develop a better theology of work as worship – that when I’m sitting at the computer writing code, or in meetings, or whatever, this is somehow good and an offering to God. It’s very easy to see that being a doctor, or a teacher, or a vicar is a godly vocation – I find it a bit harder to see this connection about writing mapping software, or being in banking, or mining, or being a pilot… I suppose I’m not willing to accept that office work is just about provision (i.e. making money), or even just about having opportunities to be good news. Both these things are good and true and important, but I think my sights are a little higher.

Anyway, what really prompted this post (500 words later!) was an article in this week’s Church Times about worker priests. The worker priest movement is slightly different from SSM, in that with worker priests there is the definite sense of being a priest in manual labour and the working class. Never-the-less many of the principles still apply. One quote in particular grabbed my eye:

“The expression of religion in daily life is not an extra, but is of the essence of Christianity. It therefore seems right that some clergy should be fully in the strains and stresses of daily life to the extent of earning their living in secular work.” (Worker Church Group Statement, 1959. As reported in Church Times 8174, 6 September 2019, p. 20.)

My thinking so far has probably three aspects:

First, there is no doubt that working in an office 4 days a week gives me a different perspective from my stipendiary colleagues in all sorts of ways. And equally, perhaps I can relate a little more readily to people in the congregation who are out at work all day? To my mind there is immense value in this, and one I am still learning to recognise.

Second, Paul in the New Testament used secular employment (tent-making) in order to fund his missionary endeavours. The SSM tradition therefore is as old as the church itself.

Third, there is also something about being – and being known as – a priest in the secular workplace. It is this aspect which perhaps most intrigues me, especially as I am not prepared to accept SSM as just being about the above two aspects.

Hump

Just in the last few weeks, I’ve realised that I think I’m over the “hump” of my curacy.

Curacies are strange beasts – perhaps even more so as an SSM curate doing one day a week (cue “but vicar’s only work one day a week” joke) – in that so far I have spent the vast majority of my time doing new stuff. Now, I love doing new things, and learning new skills, starting new projects, and so on, but it’s also an exhausting place to inhabit.

The upshot is a huge sense of being de-skilled, and a very low return on investment. So, for instance, I might spend hours and hours and hours preparing to lead a Book of Common Prayer communion (with all the “Thee”s and “Thou”s) for the first time, and the result is something which is fine, but nothing special – and certainly what I would normally expect for the amount of effort I put in. Similarly baptisms, weddings, funerals, pastoral visits, leading other services, civic occasions – the list goes on.

It ends up being a bit of a double whammy – not only am I not doing things which I can easily do (and do well), but I am doing things which I don’t know how to do (and therefore don’t do especially well, despite having spent ages preparing).

The sense then, at least at times, is of a bit of an uphill slog in the early days. You don’t really know the people in the church, you don’t really know how things are done in that culture/context, and you’re doing new stuff, a lot of the time from scratch. There is no shortcut; you just have to go through it.

To be fair I have also probably been trying a little too hard! But I am very conscious of having to cover all the bases on only one day a week. Obviously the goalposts are different to a stipendiary curate – I am unlikely to go to lead a church straight from my curacy for example, but the basics we have to cover in terms of ministry bread and butter are the same.

Anyway – just in the last month or so, thing have started to feel a bit different. With my recent wedding I’ve now ‘done’ at least one of everything. And when I led our big family service the other week, I was actually quite relaxed and even enjoyed it! There’s just the earliest inclination that I’m starting to get the hang of this vicar thing, and that it’s not perhaps going to be quite such hard work all all the time.

The other interpretation is that it’s all downhill from here!!

Wedding

I had the amazing privilege of solemnising my first wedding a couple of weeks ago. I genuinely could not have asked or hoped for a more lovely couple and congregation, and it was a joy to play a small part in the new life were were choosing and vowing to start together.

I am still slightly coming to terms with the fact I actually married them – that I pronounced them man and wife, and signed the registers and certificates. I feels like the first “proper” legal thing I’ve done as a Clerk in Holy Orders (aside from Ordination and Licensing).

Anyway, before I met them I took a straw poll about whether or not I should mention that it was my first wedding. There seem to be two schools of thought here.

The first says “No – what the couple want and need is a confident and competent presence, who will guide them through a major life event with a minimum of anxiety and stress.” This is the same argument that applies to pilots on their first flight, or surgeons on their first procedure. It’s not necessarily helpful for people in your hands to know you haven’t done it before.

The other school of thought says “Yes – be completely honest, and recognise that it’s (hopefully) the first wedding for all 3 of you, and you’re in it together. Take the whole thing lightly, work through it together without feeling the need to have all the answers.” This is a similar argument to a magician or stand-up’s first gig. It can help bring people on your side, and release any pressure or tension, allow for some humour and of course makes any little hiccoughs part of the occasion. It is meant to be a joyous as well as a serious and solemn affair.

I think part of the problem is that it’s very easy to equate “I haven’t done it before” with “I don’t know what I’m doing” – whereas in reality this relationship doesn’t necessarily hold at all.

In the end, I opted for the first position. Be a calm, non-anxious presence who would instil confidence in the bride and groom, and enable them to relax, enjoy the day, and fully enter into the solemn vows being made – no need to let them know it’s my first one.

It all went beautifully well at our meeting – I answered all their questions, went over the vows with them, etc (they had already done marriage preparation, so it was more about getting to know them and planning the service)… Until I was just standing up to leave, when the groom asked “So how many weddings is this for you?”

BUSTED!

It all worked out for the best; I was actually quite relieved they knew, as I felt it took some of the pressure off me, and they felt that it made the day even more special, knowing that it was a special day for me too (if that makes sense).

In the end it was a lovely service, which I’m certain was legally correct (which was my top priority!!), I was able to share something of the love of God with those present, and it went more or less according to plan.

Just as a postscript, as the mother-of-the-bride arrived at the church before the service, she took me to one side and said “Don’t worry – I’m sure you’ll be absolutely fine.” 🙂

Confidence

One of the main aspects of the curacy for me has been about growing in confidence – but not perhaps in the way one might think.

When I first started leading services at St Mark’s (especially the informal ones) to be honest I hated it – I felt like I had no idea what I was doing, I didn’t know any of the people I was leading, I didn’t know how services we’re “supposed” to be done. It didn’t help that on the very first service I led the projector screen fell off the wall 10 minutes before the start of the service!!!

The strange thing is that, by the time I was ordained, I already had quite a bit of experience of preaching, leading worship, and so on, and my outlook generally is to go for stuff and learn from my mistakes. I’m not particularly phased by standing in front of a large crowd and doing my thing. I’m confident in what I’m good at, and I know what I’m not so good at.

What I do struggle with though is when I feel like I don’t know what I’m doing (the “concious incompetence” in Bradwell’s terms), especially if I believe that there is a “right” way to do it, or that there are expectations I might not meet. This can create a lot of  anxiety and insecurity for me, and was very definitely my initial experience of being a curate. I felt hugely self-concious and exposed, and that I was a fraud who was going to be called out at any moment.

What I think I might be starting to finally get is that isn’t actually about me at all. I did already know this, but there’s knowing and there’s knowing.

The extraordinary privilege I have, as a Christian, and especially as an ordained representative of the church, is to offer an alternative narrative. To be a reminder of what’s actally important. To be the non-anxious presence, who can say “It’s ok – God’s got this”.

I’m learning to be secure in who I am in Christ, as a person and as a leader. So that I don’t need to think about myself at all, much less what other people are thinking of me. Instead, let’s all of us think about Jesus. The measure of if I am doing my job well is not “did I say all the right words”, but “was it all about God”. Within that context, I think I’m learning to trust my own instincts and experience a bit more. To be comfortable with the part I’m playing, even if I get that wrong sometimes. So that when I’m thrust into a new situation, rather than panicking or fretting about the “right” thing to do, I can do my best, listen to the Holy Spirit, and make it all about Jesus. In short, to look outwards, not inwards. My experience so far of being ordained is that you never know know quite what’s going to come at you next, and I suspect the feeling of “winging-it” never fully goes away. But that’s ok – God’s got this.

Please don’t get me wrong – I’m not talking about being complacent, or not preparing properly. I’m not saying we need to give any less than 100%, or that we don’t need to learn from our mistakes, or stop trying to improve. But I am saying that our “performance” (for want a better term) isn’t actually the important metric.

Of course it can also be nerve-racking to do something new. I remember the first time I lead (musical) worship outside my home group. It was an Alpha 2 day, and there were maybe 200 people. I was absolutely terrified! My legs were literally shaking, my hands were sweating so much I could hardly play the guitar. I strongly suspect that it was as painful for everyone else as it was for me! But, 25 years on, I just love leading (musical) worship, whether it’s with 5 or 500 other people. And part of why I love it is that it’s not about me – I am just helping us all give Jesus his worth. I do also think a little bit of stage fright is no bad thing – after all it is the King of Kings we’re talking about here!

Part of the joy of serving Christ is the freedom it brings. Freedom from anxiety. Freedom from being self-concious. Freedom to have fun, enjoy ourselves, and – yes – to sometimes completely stuff things up. Freedom to laugh at ourselves and give glory to God.

So the confidence I’m growing in is not primarily self-confidence. If anything the opposite. I’m learning to be more confident in God, in who He is, and what He’s calling us to be. It’s ok – He’s got this.