They are worthy!

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This is the shout that the whole congregation make during a Methodist Ordination service.

I’m going to one today; I haven’t been to one, apart from my own in 2001, since 2003 when one was held at the church where I was minister.

They said that when you hear the shout it lifts you up; gives you a view of the mountains that can sustain you through the valleys. I guess that I felt that back in 2001 and that sense of being ‘worthy’, even when I have doubted my own capacity has never entirely left me and despite not being in the place I imagined I would be 18 years ago.

I never expected to have any major contact with the ‘mothership’ (Methodist hierarchy) after leaving church ministry in the Methodist Church back in February 2015, so assisting at the ordination of someone who used to be in the congregation of a church of which I used to be a minister is surprising. It is also rather lovely.

Someone asked me what I feel ‘going back’. 4 things:-

  • I had a definite sense of call to go into Methodist Church ministry; 3 and a half years out of church ministry, I feel no sense or desire to go back, but it is good to be open to questioning of any firmly held opinion. ‘Going back’ enables that to happen, I guess.
  • Conversely, it is more likely to confirm the (uncertain) direction that I’ve been heading. I used to think that the Christian life was a secure castle; now I think it is more like a coracle on a shifting sea. I have no idea where or what I will be doing in the long term, but that feels right.
  • A chance to see what the mainstream church is and how it resources what I do and to reflect on the scars that have healed, but still sometimes ache.
  • Maybe it is a reminder to me that what I did in churches did touch people in some way & to give thanks for that, but remembering what John Wesley said: ‘If thou art constrained to bless the instrument, then give God the glory’.

So when I hear that shout, I wonder how I’ll feel?

I guess still ‘worthy’, but in a very different way to how I imagined back in 2001.

In the wilderness: but it’s not so bad: part 3

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You were used to running a church. It was never ‘my church’ and you’ve often avoided those who talk in that way of a group of people as their own possession.

Yet all the same, you remember the feeling of never quite being ‘off duty’ and somehow your faith was symbiotically linked to yours in a way that just being part of a church ever was.

And then that goes: you no longer have a church/churches and you are ‘free’. Some in your role rarely if ever go back: the scars hurt too much, but eventually and haltingly you do.

I confess; I went through a few months when I hardly went to church. I liked the space and the bruises (not from the people in the churches that I once led) from the organisation still caused me to wince. Besides, it was lovely to be able to watch my children play cricket and to be around them without feeling that my time was not fully my own. To put it more crudely, the wife of a minister once said to me ‘Other people’s husbands have the right to be a dick: mine doesn’t’.

A new minister came to the church I once led: he was ‘whole’- he didn’t seem to need to display his ego in a destructive way when he stood in front of people and he seemed to have emotional honesty. We got involved again; I was asked to take part in things, but never to the extent that I felt ‘used’. I got to see just how lovely those people in the church were, when I wasn’t in charge, and we fell into going again.

But this new pattern is different; it is not regular. We try to get there every week and we don’t always manage it….but just being there…among people (mainly elderly) and seeing their faith is often enough. The question ‘Is your church a good church?’ has increasingly piqued me: as long as people pray, lean on each other, try and apply sacred truths to life as it is lived, isn’t that ‘good’ enough? Plus; it really helps if they are the people in your community that you normally see; church isn’t a place that you commute to.

For now anyway; one of the many things that this time is teaching me is that nothing is fixed or definite and nothing lasts forever.

Some things are never the same

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Much as I do not like labels, some part of being ‘Methodist’ helps me. I like the emphasis on community, informality and the strong emphasis of a practical outworking in what you believe. I like that as a minister you are not considered to be of a separate order to others. I like Wesley hymns. I like….so much, really. However, I also recognise that I cherry pick what I like.

Someone once told me that the church can be like the little girl with the little curl: when she is good, she is very, very good and when she is bad she is horrid. I’ve experienced much of that undeserved, gracious good and the kindness and generosity of ordinary people has been wonderful. Unfortunately in one or two significant incidents I’ve experienced the reverse where I’ve felt significantly threatened.

As a result, whilst I still remain in faithful communion with my denomination and ‘fulfil all righteousness’ to do so, I have a critical distance between myself and the formal structures of my church; in 3 years I have felt unable to attend anything more than one evening meeting and (by choice) have no formal role in that organisation. One of the experiences of this journey is that I’ve found others who feel themselves in a similar position and have experienced affirmation: you are not alone, unusual and your experience is not an isolated one: it is ok. Indeed, reviewing a book on NHS whistle-blowing for a professional journal, I found the feelings of transference overwhelming: the sense of any hurt or difficulty you feel in saying ‘this is wrong’ being made very much your own personal problem.

At the same time I feel profoundly grateful to those who against the odds, keep the flame of my denomination flickering. However I do not (yet? Or forever? Or somewhere in between?) feel able to rejoin them in that sense.

But that is ok: sometimes the road to forgiveness does not mean that the relationship will ever be restored in the same way.

A settled community

Three years or so ago someone said to me something like ‘When you get this job; they won’t want you living in this parish- you’ll have to move’. I remember saying something like ‘ ‘they’ have no power over me’ like that’. I can still recall the delicious feeling of freedom that I felt.

‘They’ have no power over me.

Even saying that phrase now, I feel the same sense of freedom. I travelled for years under a false sense of obligation. I’m part of a closed Facebook group for ministers of my denomination; often I can sense that unhealthy feeling of over obligation; mostly it is self perpetuated, but with ‘they’ controlling your accommodation and in some ways your life it is a living reality. In hindsight, it was a reality that was slowly draaining the life out of me.

I’ve realised that part of my make up is to resist; if ‘everyone’ seems to be doing something; I’ll often desire to do the opposite. That wasn’t the reason why we chose to stay in this village that we’d lived in for over 10 years- no one could be that petty- but sometimes it comes back to me; I’ve done something that ‘they’ wouldn’t like.

I guess we stayed in this place because of ‘community’: that feeling that you get where-as the theme to ‘Cheers’ goes- everyone knows your name. If not ‘everyone’, many people. The unforced and random conversations that result in pubs, shops, churches and on the street are lovely: you don’t have to be always working to establish yourself. The impact on my mental health of not changing everything all at once and keeping many of the same friends and community activities has been incalculable; it has given me the basis to make new friends and try new things.

Friends who are ministers have often asked how that is possible: to live in an area where you were a minister. If you have friends outside the Christian bubble (which many full time, paid,  church people seem to struggle to do), it is natural and easy: or at least I have found it to be the case. Some of the same ministers have also wondered if church people can ‘cope’ with that. I think that betrays an unhealthy view of people who attend churches to be almost like children who cannot cope without a change in role of the ‘adult’ minister. I’ve found what I already knew: that view is manifest nonsense, people are ‘adult’ enough.

 

…oh and perhaps ‘they’ never thought that possible: it is.

It was easier to get rid of than I thought…

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Books

‘Stuff’

Notes

Even souvenirs that I had held on to for years.

I got rid of a lot. At first I went through things slowly, carefully filtering what to keep and what not to keep.

And then we moved. At first the pile of boxes slowly diminished and then when all of the unpacking was done, there was still more to do. Eventually, some of what was unpacked was repacked for the tip/recycling/charity shops. What began as a slow stream became a raging torrent.

Contemplating that months before gave me some anxiety: how can I get rid of that? Where am I going to put that? How can I live without that?

But when you are in the middle of a change it gets easier.

It is challenging though: I have become wary of very wealthy people in big houses and secure finances talking about how we don’t need possessions to define us, who at the same time seem unwilling to part with what they have. My educated middle-classness was (and still is) defined by what I have accumulated and held on to. At 49, as I was then, you have a tacit expectation of stability, security and mortgages paid off and you become defined by what you have. Getting rid of large amounts of that and having little financial stability threatens all of that: Who am I? What will I be? Why am I somehow ‘different’ than my peers?

At times the process went:

I can’t move.

This is too hard.

And then, slowly and fleetingly, yet the frail flame of faith is always guttering and threatening to be blown out:

I can move.

We can do this.

We are doing this.

The financial stability, 3 years down the line, has not yet come, but the feeling of release and freedom has; I haven’t missed much of what I’ve let go. And with that freedom, comes openness: what shall I be? Where will we go next?

It is always hard and yet easier to get rid of what can can never hold on to for ever: I don’t think that you find Grace without it…

..in the rear view mirror…

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Someone said to me that what I would experience when I ‘left’ the church, or at least when I left the direct pay of the church, would be the sensation of that denomination disappearing from me like something seen through a rear view mirror.

I understood what they were saying- sort of- yet it is hard to imagine what change will look like until you experience it. All that you really know is what you are currently experiencing. I think it became more apparent when I went to a conference a few months after beginning my new role; one other chaplain referred wryly to the experience of connecting briefly with his denomination as ‘connecting with the Mothership’

To all intents and purposes the formal structures of my denomination have dropped out of the ether; I have only attended one evening meeting in 3 years and I reckon I have made around half of the various synods (all day meetings) that I am supposed to attend. One I forgot about: so far has my world changed.

Suddenly you begin to realise that you are not ‘compelled’ to be at things you often struggled with: you have choice. Initially this is both bewildering and liberating. As time goes on, the heady feel of liberation goes stronger: the delicious feeling of ‘the hardening of the oughteries’ gets stronger.

Whilst your admiration for those who remain ‘inside’ begins to increase, you lose the guilt and realise this uncertain path that you are on is your ‘new normal’. There won’t be a fixed point or destination any more.

Over time, you experience a craving for this thing called ‘church’: you can’t exist without it. Yet over 3 years in, you have no real desire to engage with its formal structure ; at some time you may engage more closely with the place that birthed you, although perhaps you never will.

But you feel ok with the liminality…

 

Tempus fugit. A lot.

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There is a line from Dark Side of the Moon’ that goes: ‘Then one day you find, 10 years have got behind you’.

I’ve just realised that it is around 3 years this week since I had my leaving service from being a Methodist minister in a regular church appointment. My local friends tell me I am ‘defrocked’; I’m still very much ‘frocked’ (although mostly in pantomime).

I don’t know what I imagined on that day: we still had nowhere to live (that is a long and painful story & one reason why I still don’t preach regularly), I had no model of what the future looked like, it was nearly 20 years since I last had a contract of employment and I had no live model of what spirituality looked like outside of being a rev within a church.

3 years later and I’m still standing: sometimes that has been ‘just standing’ and sometimes it has been ‘thriving’. Mostly it has been somewhere in the middle; often a mix during the same day.

In the next few days, I’m going to do a bit of thinking out loud about what these 3 years have meant. Once thing I have learned, however, is that change, huge change is possible and I never thought it would be for me. Most of us spend a huge amount of time, energy and money trying to fight it off and ultimately we can’t. At best, it makes you feel more ‘alive’: the highs are higher and the lows are lower than you’ve ever felt.

Nothing is sacred. Perhaps because of that; everything is sacred- even the bits that you’d prefer to skip.

A synod

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After so long away from regular blogging, I never anticipated 2 posts in 2 days. It won’t be a habit.

Today I am at a Methodist Synod. It is an all day meeting. Inside. On a Saturday. All day.

I confess that I have had a love/hate affair with Synod. Well; to be honest, more of a hate affair. I get the point about meeting, about connecting with each other and about being united. However, I’ve never got the (sometimes) sheer, mind numbing boredom of 100 plus people facing the front with little involvement from anyone apart from the ‘talking heads’ at the front. Plus, by lunch I often felt overloaded with information, craved silence & home yet sometimes felt frustrated to anger that I was going to get even more information that I had little scope to absorb or do anything about in the weeks afterwards.

Since I left- as Methodists quaintly call it, ‘the active work’, it has seemed almost irrelevant: a fellow chaplain talked of it as something fast receding in a car mirror. I confess that a couple of times I even forgot that it was happening and had to send apologies (the phrase is ‘ask for a Dispensation’: don’t get me started on the compulsion/infantalising potential /paternalism of that phrase).

Yet I’m back- all day today, for the first time in 3 years. Negatively, part of that is because I have to be there. More positively it is something about ‘connecting with the Mothership’ and seeing what is happening in this Institution that I have sometimes had an uneasy relationship with. There is also the chance today to be able to talk (briefly) about the work I do now, and host some workshops to see if others feel a calling into chaplaincy. Perhaps deeper than that is to find out if I am comfortable with my distance from the Institution or to see if there is anything of a calling to attempt a closer relationship.

If I was 45 years younger though, I would be looking for a ‘You’ve been a very good boy’ sticker afterwards though….

Lots more supervision

A few years back when I was going through a tough time in full time ministry*, a friend who had no background in the church asked me about what level of supervision I had: after all I was working with people on a ‘deep’ level.

‘Well, off my own back I have a spiritual director (I explained what that was), but apart from that nothing formally: that is not stipulated or provided’.

I think I got that right- technically you can get something of this from a Methodist Superintendent, but that is more management supervision (and it is highly variable- many are not trained well). In reality, few have the supervision that he talked about- I thought it was bad then; I think it is worse now. Several things can happen: ministers ‘carry’ issues unnecessarily, they can get negatively over involved and responsible, they can become ‘messiahlike’ (‘I solve things’, ‘people listen to me’ I am important‘) etc

He was shocked and could not imagine from his area of work how that could be ‘safe’. His employer would not let anyone work with another human being on that level without extensive supervision and accountability.

At the time I thought his environment was a bit ‘overkill’. However, now working in a similar environment, I am really grateful for that level of accountability, supervision and (sometimes) correction.

The thing is- what I now experience does not feel like overkill: I feel I can do what I do better and I have a feeling of support and affirmation from those above me which bears no comparison with the church.

And that saddens me: it should not be like that.

 

 

*Clarification: I use versions of that phrase a lot. I enjoyed the vast majority of things about full time ministry; I had support from people within the churches that I ministered to. Over time, however, I found the Methodist system of moving and staying so unsafe and those who administered it so variable and inconsistent that I looked to leave. I was fortunate and got out.

Even as I am writing those words I expect someone to say ‘Well I always had a good experience and the church was very good to me’. To you I say ‘I am glad for you & your happiness, now please shut up and listen to the minority of us who did not have a good time: you may learn something’.

Leaving your tribe:5 (postscript)

Everyone just needs a few people who are just as weird as them. Find your tribe:

In the last few posts I avoided using the phrases: ‘I have grown out of’ or ‘I have moved beyond.’

I have heard others use those phrases and they seem incredibly patronising: like you have some special ‘mature’ knowledge and others don’t. You don’t- you may be misguided…your journey/my journey may be a dead end.

Respect those who are part of the tribe you have left: they are not ‘limited’ or somehow blinkered- just different; their insights can throw valuable light on your own journey. Borrow freely from them: there is much of worth in the place you came from and much you will keep.

And don’t set out on a journey so insular that you don’t bless others and include them.

And resist joining a new tribe: or at least any tribe that has ‘in/out’ language. Rather be a part of those who honour the ‘Excuse me I have a question’ point of view above all other. Unhealthy tribes tend not to like people saying that.

And be free…and trust in the God who you think who has led you here…for that is what it is all about really.