Chasing Rainbows: Pastoral Ministry in a time of Covid

Rainbows have sprung up everywhere. Some scribbled in crayon, others splatted in paint, and still more printed carefully and geometrically on an inkjet. Signs of defiant hope and deep courage in the face of immense change and loss.

And how quickly we were swept along by change. Watching the evening news bulletins felt enough to induce dizziness and disorientation. “The world’s gone mad” seemed to be a common sentiment, as new phrases and words tumbled into our everyday use: social distancing, self-isolation.

And as we, the Church, leaned into the storm, again and again I could hear the call in my mind, and in my prayers: “the Church is resilient”. Pastoral ministry has had to change more quickly and more substantially than (arguably) at any point in the history of the Church. Overnight, our tools were taken, but by day we crafted new ones. We are bent out of shape, but we are not broken. Incredible feats of community have emerged within hours. Entire communities of hundreds of people have moved their collective life online, or onto phone wires. As far as possible, we have endeavoured to leave no one behind.

And all done with a backdrop of rainbows, thanks in great part to the efforts of the nation’s children. Many have been, at times, anxious, confused and scared – and yet they, too, have shown deep resilience. And through their fear and anxiety has come hope, and kindness, and generosity. And one sign of this is the rainbows they have placed in their windows.

Together-apart

I spent some time reflecting with lay ministry trainees in Chester Diocese last week, on how their pastoral and listening ministries were being enacted within the present circumstances. We batted around words and concepts like “contact”, “reassure”, “afraid”, “worried”, “anxious”, “frustrated”. What was clear is that all of these men and women were still deeply engaged in pastoral ministry, as were their wider church communities. “The Church has not closed; the Church has been deployed” say various snappy Facebook memes.

Who would have thought that we could take away a capacity to meet face to face, to share physical contact, and food and drink, and sacred space – and that our pastoral ministry would actually be strengthened in a time of such denial?

Yet all around, I see strengthening pastoral ministry. I see connections being made, and company being sought out, and prayer being offered wholeheartedly, and love and encouragement shared: and all together-apart, or apart-together.

A people in exile

On being shut out of our buildings, the Archdeacon of Hastings, Edward Dowler, wrote a splendid article in the Church Times this week, (with which I disagreed almost entirely) arguing for clergy to be allowed access to their churches for prayer:

Similarly, what the clergy and other “worship leaders” (as the Government terms them) may be able to do in the current situation is to maintain the prayer life of their churches on behalf of the people of the parish as an act of service in the present, and in preparation for the day when, God willing, everyone can return.

There were holes in Dowler’s argument. The implication that prayer is more effective in certain places, done by certain people, is not problem-free. His assumption that empty churches might come to be seen as “spooky castles” by the neighbours denies the “thin place” atmosphere of these spaces. And his assumption that:

More prosaically, the presence of young children, the constantly ringing phone, and the internet mean that vicarages are not always havens of peace, conducive to prayer.

Raises its own questions about the nature of peace, and of prayer, and how those of us in pastoral ministry with young children might ever find it possible to pray in a sustainable way.

But more than anything, there is profound meaning in clergy joining laity in exile from sacred places. Together-apart. Apart-together. Together we have been sent, deployed, ensconced or shut out – depending on how one sees it.

And this is ever more profound because our buildings are so important, not because they are not. Sam Wells talks about the local church as being the place that holds collective memory for a community:

Often at the axis of the meeting of roads, the church building is also at the crossroads – whether consciously or unconsciously to the local inhabitants – of many singular moments of decision, change or transition… buildings in which ‘prayer has been valid’ are more like people than stone or brick, because of their vibrant association with the folk we and others have loved.

Wells (2008) Praying for England, 10, 12.

Our buildings are not empty. They are filled with memories both personal and collective, with prayers, with the still air that still holds the snuff of the candles and the damp of prayer books. They are filled, as Gilo has written so beautifully, with silence:

Silence is there. Praying in her many houses.
Clergy nor creed nor any religion own Her.

Walking the edges

I have found relief from the frustration of being unable to access our churches by walking the boundaries of the parish. A tradition that stretches back centuries, ‘beating the bounds’ is an ancient way to pray with movement and exercise for the wellbeing of the whole parish. We might be in exile, but still I can walk the paths of saints who went ahead, encircling, protecting, and committing to God. Prayer for my community has moved from the middle to the margins as, quite literally, I walk the margins and come to know my place of ministry from its edges.

This crisis will challenge our entitled clericalism and will hone our collaborative skills. Together, as clergy and lay, we pray, we minister, we rest – from a place of exile. As the priest of this place I have given a lead on some of this togetherness. But other leaders have emerged too. Those who quietly phone one another to offer friendship. Those who have led the way in establishing a daily collective prayer time in the parish. Those who have shared photos on social media to encourage and cheer each other up. All have been led, and all have led. None of it from our buildings. Together apart. More signs of an emerging, growing, strengthening pastoral ministry.

The eerie lull of liminal space

As a church (and a Church) we are now in the eerie quiet of liminal space. The initial shock of this crisis has worn off. We have mobilised and established new ways to be. We seem to be operating efficiently: resources are being developed; structures put in place. I am wary about too much structure; too much organising.

An eerie quiet has descended after the frantic chaos of the change we faced a fortnight ago.

What comes next? We don’t really know.

Perhaps more shock, more loss. Maybe we will have to dig even deeper, to find innovative ways to process our grief and live in this strange new world. Maybe there will be a new normal, or a return to the old and familiar.

We are becoming adept at living with the uncertainty.

And this is why pastoral ministry is a little like chasing rainbows, at present. We probably thought it couldn’t be done, without buildings, without food, without physical togetherness.

But here we are, doing it.

We chased the rainbow and we found we could go on.

In Christian tradition, the rainbow comes after the disaster. A promise that something new will come after something awful has happened. God’s sign that God will not let us go.

It is too early to tell sense-making stories and to find reason in the uncertainty.

But we can go on chasing rainbows, a day at a time, as our pastoral ministry thrives and evolves and something even more meaningful and profound emerges from the unknown, even from this place of exile.

Sent. Displaced. Formed.

The Lord appointed seventy others and sent them on ahead of him in pairs to every town and place where he himself intended to go. He said to them, ‘The harvest is plentiful, but the labourers are few; therefore ask the Lord of the harvest to send out labourers into his harvest. Go on your way. See, I am sending you out like lambs into the midst of wolves. Carry no purse, no bag, no sandals; and greet no one on the road. Whatever house you enter, first say, “Peace to this house!” And if anyone is there who shares in peace, your peace will rest on that person; but if not, it will return to you. Remain in the same house, eating and drinking whatever they provide, for the labourer deserves to be paid. Do not move about from house to house. Whenever you enter a town and its people welcome you, eat what is set before you; cure the sick who are there, and say to them, “The kingdom of God has come near to you.” But whenever you enter a town and they do not welcome you, go out into its streets and say, “Even the dust of your town that clings to our feet, we wipe off in protest against you. Yet know this: the kingdom of God has come near.”

Luke 10:1-10

Last Sunday’s Gospel reading – the sending of the 70 to share the good news of God’s love – has stayed with me through this week, not least as I spent Wednesday morning with colleagues who have recently been ordained: their own response to being called and sent.

What Luke gives us here is a wonderfully real account of being sent into ministry (and by “ministry”, I’m using the widest sense I can: anything that we do as a response to a higher calling – in any sphere and for any reason). With the curates I was with earlier this week, I spoke of feeling displaced. Either geographically, for those who had moved into new homes and parishes, or at least spiritually, for those who had moved into new roles and taken on new identities. I was mindful that within a Diocese that gives curates 3 year contract, we were a room full of people in transition. Displaced people.

My own experience of becoming a curate was deeply unsettling. We had a new home (which we’d not been able to see prior to moving into it), a new place (we’d moved 186 miles North), and a new context (we’d moved from a working class dock town, to a wealthy suburb with a village feel). I had a new role and identity, with new clothes and responsibilities and expectations and colleagues. Despite the love from so many in the place I moved to, I felt completely inept when it came to speaking the language and reading the culture of the people around me.

I felt displaced.

The ordained life is one of exile, of displacement: of longing for home and of pointing others towards a homecoming that is more than simply belonging in a place. But of course, we have a rich heritage – in scripture and tradition – of this nomadic wandering. If we feel displaced, if we feel like we don’t belong, then with the saints before us we are in good company.

And if the ordained life is one of spiritual wandering, then this is only because we are modelling the calling placed on every disciple. Perhaps it is just harder for us to avoid the journey once we are ordained. Perhaps those of us who are ordained are just better equipped and better encouraged to start placing one foot in front of the other.

In the Judean desert, which was of course the context for Jesus’ teaching, the task of shepherding is very different to the welsh hills and valleys. Shepherds in Palestine have to keep their flocks moving if they are to find water, food and shelter. Jesus as the “Good Shepherd” is no Little Bo Peep, but is the one who drives the flock on to find sparse pasture in the dryness of the desert.

Palestinian Shepherd

We don’t walk alone. We’re called to take our people with us if they, too, are to find pasture. We’re called to lead from the front, from the middle and from the back – tying up shoe laces and bandaging blisters, holding people as a group, and, together, looking for the way ahead. But without this big picture, without this reminder of the task to which we are called, it’s easy to feel lost, displaced, and in exile.

I have my spiritual director to thank for this next bit. One resource that might help us in our own exile is the labyrinth. You may or may not have walked a labyrinth before. A labyrinth is not a maze. It has a beginning, and an ending, and a path that leads you on faithfully from one to the other. There are no dead ends. But there are twists and turns. There are moments where you have to walk in blind faith. There are moments where you near the centre, and you think you’re done – but then quite quickly the path throws you back to the outer edge and you wonder quite what happened. And – as my wonderful friend pointed out to me – when you walk a labyrinth you only ever see 6 feet in front. Only 6 feet, before the path twists out of sight and you have to turn faithfully, in trust and hope and joyful expectation.

When I met with the curates last week, I was able to speak of all this in terms of ‘formation’. We talk about formation a lot with ordinands and curates. It’s a posh word for the tough stuff of training: the process of falling apart and being slowly pieced back together. We might talk about it most in terms of training, but actually, formation is, I think, the work of God in every disciple. It is a leading of us down new paths, a building of us in new ways, and a humble and obedient response from us to this work of God within us.

What does Luke say about it?

The seventy returned with joy, saying, ‘Lord, in your name even the demons submit to us!’ He said to them, ‘I watched Satan fall from heaven like a flash of lightning. See, I have given you authority to tread on snakes and scorpions, and over all the power of the enemy; and nothing will hurt you. Nevertheless, do not rejoice at this, that the spirits submit to you, but rejoice that your names are written in heaven.’

Luke 10:17-20

The seventy returned with joy.

You can sense their astonishment, their excitement, that this wandering, this being sent, led them to experience such acts of God that strengthened them and built them up. And so this is my prayer for you, and for me. That no matter how we feel at this moment, no matter how much we might feel lost, or out of place, or like we don’t belong, that we too will have these moments in ministry of returning with joy – of being blown away by the good that we see God doing within us and around us – and even in spite of us!

Is God calling me to be a priest?

The following is adapted from reflections I shared this weekend at the Diocese of Chester’s annual vocations event: Called to Serve.

Every person is called to serve God in some way – vocation is always part of our discipleship. Ordained ministry is one way among many to serve God as a disciple, and it is by no means the best way, the purest way or the holiest way. It is certainly not the only valid ministry within the church and the world – and I hope you’re getting a sense of that today.

One of the things candidates for ordination wrestle with is the question of what is distinctive about ordained ministry. No longer is it the case that ordination is the only way to have a full time ministry – many lay church based ministries can also be full time, and many who are ordained have a full time ministry away from, and not within, the church, in their communities and places of work.

So what is distinctive about ordained ministry? I always encourage candidates to look at the Ordinal – the liturgy for ordination – when they’re considering this question.

Deacons share in the pastoral ministry of the Church and in leading God’s people in worship. They preach the word and bring the needs of the world before the Church in intercession. They accompany those searching for faith and bring them to baptism. They assist in administering the sacraments; they distribute communion and minister to the sick and housebound. Deacons are to seek nourishment from the Scriptures; they are to study them with God’s people, that the whole Church may be equipped to live out the gospel in the world. They are to be faithful in prayer, expectant and watchful for the signs of God’s presence, as he reveals his kingdom among us.

Priests are called to be servants and shepherds among the people to whom they are sent. With their Bishop and fellow ministers, they are to proclaim the word of the Lord and to watch for the signs of God’s new creation. They are to be messengers, watchmen and stewards of the Lord; they are to teach and to admonish, to feed and provide for his family, to search for his children in the wilderness of this world’s temptations, and to guide them through its confusions, that they may be saved through Christ for ever. Formed by the word, they are to call their hearers to repentance and to declare in Christ’s name the absolution and forgiveness of their sins. With all God’s people, they are to tell the story of God’s love. They are to baptize new disciples in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, and to walk with them in the way of Christ, nurturing them in the faith. They are to unfold the Scriptures, to preach the word in season and out of season, and to declare the mighty acts of God. They are to preside at the Lord’s table and lead his people in worship, offering with them a spiritual sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving. They are to bless the people in God’s name. They are to resist evil, support the weak, defend the poor, and intercede for all in need. They are to minister to the sick and prepare the dying for their death. Guided by the Spirit, they are to discern and foster the gifts of all God’s people, that the whole Church may be built up in unity and faith.

For some people, this way of life – as a deacon or a priest – is what God is calling them to as part of their discipleship. Vocation to ordination always begins with discipleship – with a deepening of your relationship with God, and a growing or nagging sense that God is asking more of you.

So you might be here today because of that growing or nagging sense – because you’ve felt it in yourself or because someone else has seen it in you. Or you might be here because you’re really unsure what you’re feeling, and you simply want to know more.

How might a person know that God is calling them to ordination? Well – the short answer is that there are no quick answers! Vocation to ordination travels through us in two directions, and it takes time to sense this movement of God and discern what is going on.

The first direction is from within. A person called to ordination has to sense and own that vocation for themselves. If everyone else around you tells you that you would be a good vicar, but the thought fills you with dread and loathing – then it’s probably not your vocation! Of course, there are always a few Jonahs – those dragged into this way of life begging for it to be otherwise. But, on the whole, if you can’t get to a point where you articulate yourself why you think God is calling you to this, then it’s probably not the right path for you.

Of course, the other side of this is that if ordained ministry is something you really would like to offer your life to, then we need to hear that desire and take it seriously. So often in the church we believe that God wouldn’t possibly ask us to do anything we actually want to do! But discipleship and vocation, at their heart, are not chores to be endured, by a joyful and freeing way of offering the whole of our life to God. Desire and vocation always go hand in hand.

So vocation comes from within and flows out of us – we sense it and we own it and we become open to where it will lead us.

But vocation also comes from out here – from the world around you. It might be someone else who firsts recognises your call to ordination – your vicar or a friend or family member. Or it might be that as you begin the process of exploring the possibility of ordination, that others see in you a growing vocation to this. It might be that in the process of exploring your vocation, the church begins to affirm and recognise that calling. And so what other people say matters too.

When a candidate for ordination comes to see us, we look at an early stage for this movement of vocation – moving out to the church from within you, and moving towards you from others in the church.

And the vocations process is designed to help you grow in these two ways: candidates exploring ordination will find that their inner sense of vocation grows and deepens as they journey through the process. And they will also find that outer confirmation increases too – that others encourage them and see that deepening calling as they explore it.

So how might we know that God is calling a person to ordination? It all comes down to the word “yes”. A candidate’s “yes” to God, the church’s “yes” to the candidate – which comes through the vocations process, and then in both of these we find God’s “yes” – to the candidate and to the church.

What sort of person is called to ordination? There’s another short answer to this question – and the answer is “anybody”! Those called to ordination will usually already be serving their local church or community in some way – although some may not be. They will have a growing, attractive faith. They will be people of integrity who can be trusted. They will have a love for God, for God’s people, and for the Church (despite its shortcomings). They will have a passion for the flourishing of the Church, and for sharing God’s love with the people around them. And they will almost always suffer from imposter syndrome!

But people of all ages, genders, nationalities, occupations and backgrounds are called to ordination – and thank God for that!

So what next? I hope today is a helpful early step for you as you begin to work out where God might be calling you. The first thing we always look for is this sense of vocation. We are looking for a sense of vocation which, as I’ve said, is coming from within you, and from around you. We are looking for a sense of vocation which is changing you and drawing you nearer to God. And we are looking for a sense of vocation which is informed, obedient, and realistic. Informed – in that you’re willing to learn more about the life to which you think you’re called (which I’m guessing is why you’re here today!) obedient – that is, that you are ready to make sacrifices as a response to God’s calling, and to follow it through wherever God leads, and realistic – that is, that what you are offering for at this point in your life is do-able and deliverable. Informed, obedient, and realistic.

So some questions that might help your reflections today are:

  • Am I sensing any stirring of vocation within myself to this way of life?
  • Does what I am hearing today leave me feeling excited and enthusiastic, or exhausted and drained?
  • What might my desires tell me about any vocation I may have?

The well-keeper: Clergy in an age of busy

I wrote recently about self-care, with this caveat:

I am a champion of the importance of self-care. Wellbeing, resilience, self-awareness, wholeness – call it what you like but whatever term we use, it’s important. And it’s important not solely for our own sake, but so that we can be a resource, a wellspring to those around us.

And I’m grateful to David, who left this thought on the post:

I love the connection you have made about the importance of self-care and being a wellspring. Wellspringing- could that be the refreshing replacement for the overused “wellbeing”?

Some months ago I was part of a conversation with clergy colleagues about how Church of England clergy can – and should – grow a deeper awareness of what their congregations do when they’re not in church. As the conversation inevitably meandered, the question arose:

“What’s the point of clergy?”

There are a million different ways to hear this question, never mind answer it. In this instance, it arose out of an understanding that those who are not clergy (“the “laity”) – that is, the majority of people who walk into churches – might be nurtured by, and grow through, not just activities that happen “inside” churches, but in a life beyond church.

Forgive me if I say that this is a frightening thought for clergy in a church which has at times, however inadvertently, failed to hear, understand, nurture and liberate its members through previous decades (think: sheep and shepherds, children and fathers, ekklesia and presbyter – all metaphors with both deep value and severe limitation).

But if clergy are no longer to be (only) shepherds, fathers and presbyters, then what metaphor might serve a church which is intentional about “Setting God’s People Free”? The Ordinal offers powerful and deep descriptions of priestly ministry, and these deserve much meditation, consideration and reflection (I often tell candidates I see for ordination to spend time reflecting prayerfully on these images).

Priests

 

Father doesn’t know best

Well, not always. For a fleeting time, I used to catch my 5 year old up to no good. Responding to his amazement at my 360 degree omniscience, I would say “Well, mummies know everything”.

I stopped that pretty quickly. One day soon he’ll discover it’s not true, and I’d rather have my integrity intact when he does.

How tempting is it for those of us in priestly ministry to assume an air of “the ministry professional knows everything?” I suspect most of our people know that’s not true, even if we’re adamant that it is!

Institutions are wrecked. We have moved past the point where authority itself is license to speak or act or persuade.

And amazingly, how few of these priestly metaphors are about knowing everything? How few are about authority (at least in a worldly sense) and power and control and knowledge?

Watching, walking, telling stories, discerning, sustaining, delighting, searching, offering: what intense metaphors these are for the awesome and impossible task of holding a community of faith together!

The well-keeper

Ever since that conversation with my colleagues, I’ve been musing on the metaphor of well-keeper. In an age where 90% of Christian ministry happens outside the church building, where Christians spend perhaps just a few hours a week coming into church, where the church as institution is dying while spirituality unfettered by religion is booming, then what’s the point of clergy?

Perhaps clergy are the well-keepers. They are the ones who might find life-giving water, and share it round. They start with no special knowledge or strength: it is their own thirst which drives them to the well. And when they find it, they have no monopoly on the water. The water is a free-flowing gift, although it might be that clergy have the time and resources to dig a little deeper and set the flow going.

To those who seek rest and sanctuary, clergy might offer peace, a sounding board, a listening ear. To those who live frenetic lives, they offer attentiveness and availability. For those facing uncertainty and doubt, their listening and their words instil value and build confidence, renew vocation and discern God’s voice.

Clergy are the well-keepers. They find the water and build the wells. They maintain them, and repair them when they’re damaged. They signpost others to them. And they draw from them themselves.

The pun is deliberate, and this brings us full circle.  It is only from the path to wholeness that we can call others to join us. There is a calling on clergy to keep well as they keep the wells. Of course, wholeness and wellness are destinations yet to be reached. Sometimes they feel far away or only mirages. But clergy must be committed to their own self-awareness, self-management, and self-care. Not only for themselves, but for the flourishing of the whole people of God.

In busyness and panic and chaos and simple everyday life, in the mutuality of lay and ordained vocations, perhaps it is clergy who have – or should have – the gifts, the time, and the tools to stop, to dig, to drink, and to call others to do likewise.

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