Exploring ordination means preparing for a future life that may never happen. There are no guarantees, no certainties. Getting to a Bishops’ Advisory Panel is not a given, nor is a recommendation that I train for ordination. Yet I have to prepare for the possibility that I will be recommended. It means investing significant amounts of time, thought and prayer for something that may not happen.
Gerard Hughes’ book The God of Surprises helped me to become somewhat detached to the outcome of this particular journey. Even so, it is hard not to become excited, and scared, by the possible futures before me. It has given me a picture of the pain that those who are not recommended for training after a BAP must feel.
It is also hard not to feel scared or small at times, especially when facing some of your fears or being questioned about your faith and calling. Last week I faced one of my fears head on: the possibility of moving my family in order to study for ordination.
We could have taken the easy option and not looked beyond our local theological college once we knew it would provide exciting challenges (see my previous post The God of Convenience). The downside with that decision wouldn’t be studying locally, it would be that we were opening the door for doubt to enter into the equation once more. Unless we confronted our fears and looked beyond our locality we would forever wonder if God was calling me to our local college or making the best of my decision to say put.
The danger of looking at distant theological colleges though was that God may call me to do the very thing I have been reluctant to do. God may play the game-changer card. God may test my willingness to submit my will to His in order to build firm foundations for any future ministry. But would I obey or would I keep my grip on the controls if the decision to move needed to be made?
Each of the three distant theological colleges were unique yet similar. They all appealed to my sensibilities. On paper, there were good reasons to study at each one of them but prospectuses paint a skewed picture. Only visiting them could tell me if any of those reasons could trump studying locally.
It wasn’t an expedition to be taken on alone, the whole family needed to be involved. Any move would be done as a family, there was no possibility of commuting to and from college each week and only spending weekends at home. That would the route for separate and parallel lives to develop. My wife and children would not be able to be involved in the college community, nor I in their working and school lives, and I would miss them to the point of distraction.
My children might only be young but watching and listening to them as they visited each place would provide clues as to whether it would work for them. They have never known a different home to the one we live in now so it is a change to manage sensitively, should it be needed at all: with my adult perspective on my childhood moves I am not going to uproot them lightly.
It was particularly critical that my wife was along for the ride too. She would be giving up an important job to enable a move. She needed to look at the opportunities for her to explore her future ministry. She, like me, was also keen to see the nurseries, schools, and housing on offer and the implications of all things on family life as a whole.
And then there was the God-factor, the tingle, the feeling, the imperceptible. That was something no website or recommendation could provide. I wasn’t looking for the college that was right for someone else. I was looking for the college that was right for me and my family.
We deliberately bookended our expedition with time with friends and family, with God-parents and our God-daughter. It gave us space in which to prepare and collect our thoughts, and to reduce the intensity that such a journey could generate. If this trip wasn’t going to be fun there was little chance we would be able to hear God should He be suggesting moving to study.
Seeing three colleges in three days, with all the travelling between them, was always going to be an interesting experience. There was only going to be time for gut reactions and not for reflection during each visit. That in itself could be dangerously misleading: those first impressions could be affected by any number of influences which were particular to life on that day. Whilst there would be clues to what God might be saying I knew I had to restrain from leaping to judgements.
Each place we visited had plenty to suggest that moving to study there would provide a fruitful time of training. Some aspects were unique to one place, some common to all. It was like living in a venn diagram for three days.
At all times we were comparing what we saw and felt with out visit to our local college. Like it has been there, hospitality and grace were present in abundance to all the colleges we visited.
We were made to feel welcome by staff and students alike. Food, accommodation and answers were provided without expectation that we would return it by deciding to study there. Students took time out of their studies to guide us around and ensure we got to our interviews at the right time. Our children were loved and treated as individuals, there were no looks of judgement at the dinner table when food was wasted or when they couldn’t contain their natural excitement for life.
Of the four college we visited in total two provided stunning architecture to inspire me. Some inspired through the centuries of Christian heritage they sat amongst, or the powerhouse of theology. Others bent over backwards to make the transition for families moving to study as easy as possible, providing details of the schools our children could attend or houses they could live in.
Singles, couples and families were all present, though the degree to which the children were involved varied. It was an important factor to consider; children moving so that their parents could prepare for ministry need their spiritual and social life nurtured so that they don’t resent the move and turn away from God.
My DDO had emailed me at the beginning of the week with some things to consider during our visits, and pointed out that presently it is a buyers market. It showed in the interviews I had. They were more sales pitches than interviews; as often were conversations with students, with most naturally convinced that their particular college could not be bettered. We needed to strip away what was being said or left unsaid to discern a true picture of what the college was like and whether it would be right for us.
We needed to look beyond the sales pitches, to read between the lines, to discern what wasn’t being said. We wanted to avoid a theological bubble but to make sure that we studies and lived amidst other communities and outlooks. Many colleges work in some form of partnership with other denominations or branches of Anglicanism. To what extent that happens, and how comfortable or challenging it can be, varies as we saw in our visits.
Each college had something that we were looking for but as we approached our final visit we had not experienced that imperceptible tingle of God. Many have said of the peace and excitement they felt at a particular place, a strong sense that told them God was suggesting that it would be good for them to go there. It seems like we had that sense on our final visit.
We know that we need to let the dust settle and give each experience space to breathe. We need to strip away the fluffy stuff to see what remains: was, for example, ‘that’ feeling down to something transient that wouldn’t exist when we turned up to study? Did comfort come from God or familiarity? Was watching my daughter dance in worship a sign that she would flourish there more than anywhere else?
As we drove home to complete our Grand Tour we realised that the distance we had travelled would amount to 777 miles. Seven is a biblically significant number, a number suggesting completeness. It made the hair on the back of my neck stand on its end.
I crossed the city-limits into my home town with the strangest feeling. It didn’t feel like home. I felt like I was merely a visitor, and one preparing to leave. 16 hours and 34 minutes of driving had changed our outlook on the future. There may be even more significance in those numbers.
My Grand Tour has generated new levels of excitement in me and a greater height to fall from should I not be recommended for training. Yet the fear of rejection is something that I intend to confront in the same way I confronted my fear of moving, for I know God will be with me as I do.