It’s complicated. It’s not you, it’s me.
Discerning whether God is wanting you to be ordained is not a simple process. At times it feels like a tightrope, a roller-coaster or a double-edged sword. On one side it is very much about you as you try to work out what God is wanting you to do and whether you want to do it too. On the other side it is about who God is wanting you to work with and whether others want you to do that too.
It is about you and it isn’t.
When I first embarked on trying to discern how God wanted me to minister I did a lot of soul searching and praying. I read books and contemplated their meanings and implications. I thought carefully about the impact on me and my family. I sought to determine not just whether God wanted me to be ordained but whether I wanted to be ordained as well.
I met people where I talked about me, my path to faith and my path to them and beyond: Vicars, Vocations Chaplains, Examining Chaplains, DDOs, Bishops and others – it was hard to avoid becoming inward looking. When I reached the heady-heights of the selection conference (the BAP) I hadn’t realised just how inward looking I had become, Answering the Bishop’s Advisors’ questions in a similar manner to those asked before meant my answers were all about me when it wasn’t supposed to be.
Subsequently I became aware of the discernment paradox: on one hand it is very much about you but equally it is about God working through you. There is a meaning behind the questions asked that I failed to see: the questions may be phrased inwards but the answers need to be focused both inwards and outwards. They may be asking about you, your journey, your faith and your future but they want to know how it impacts on others and God’s Kingdom.
On one hand this realisation was welcomed: I hate taking about me. I hate photographs of me. In fact I have a general dislike of being the recipient of attention. I have lived my life on the edge of shadows and like it. God, however, decided to call me out into the limelight, to lead, preach and contemplate ordination
By ostensibly giving up on the discernment process after the BAP my focus changed from learning about me to learning about others. I was back doing what I prefer: finding out what it’s like to all in somebody else’s shoes and to see the world through their eyes. The focus may be outward looking but the lessons learnt are multifaceted: just as we are blessed by blessing others, we learn about ourselves by learning about others.
The list of people seen as I explored ordination grew. But whilst my focus had changed one thing remained the same: conversations were still starting with me, my path to faith, my path to them and my path beyond.
It is surprisingly hard to avoiding talking about yourself on the discernment journey, even if you don’t want to.
Of course, it is an unavoidable and natural conversational transaction that each time you meet someone on the journey you start by telling them your story. After all, they need to know about you before you can know about them.
Normally you would hear their story and get to know them too but the discernment process is not normal, it is not the establishment of new and continuing relationships; the relationships made on the road to a BAP can be fleeting, often lasting no more than a single encounter. And because there certain information that must be handed over, it is hard to avoid the conversations being one-sided and business like.
But when you know the pitfalls and are actively trying to do the opposite to avoid them it can feel like being the rope in a mental tug-of-war. You know that you need to talk about yourself but you know you need to avoid only talking about yourself. It requires a nimble mind, able to jump between ways of thinking without loosing focus or purpose.
I joined a reading group with other prospective ordinands to read and discuss books of theology and faith together. I devoured the first book and went to the inaugural meeting keen to hear other people’s views and test my thinking against theirs. It was frustrating: the majority of the time was spent talking about ourselves, our journey to faith and the discernment process. The book got barely a quarter of the available time.
Whilst I was disappointed not to have debated the book to the extent I had hoped to, I had gained an insight into other people’s journeys: I had talked about me but had heard about others. I had retained my focus on others and away from myself.
More problematic was helping with some training for future Examining Chaplains, people who help a Church of England diocese to discern whether someone should proceed along the road towards ordination training. I had gone to help them learn and to help prepare myself for when I would be officially reassessed by such people. Naturally it involved talking about me.
Their delight and excitement in hearing about me fed my ego, setting off mental alarm bells; much as I tried I couldn’t steer the conversation away from me or influence outward looking questions. Time was limited and the feedback ever more so, consisting more of self-reflection than anything else. I had noticed how the content of my answers became more selective and less conversational. Previously I would have mentioned every little detail, this time I limited myself to the key points and left it to them to them to decide if they wanted to go deeper.
My pursuit of personal change and enlightenment has continued with meeting yet more people, more vicars and chaplains. And it is in meeting the latter that I have gained a better grasp of the importance of creating a space to listen to others. It is the art of communicating more by saying less, of focusing on their needs whilst also focusing on building a connection through conversation. It is about them not us. It is about reflecting God not ourselves.
Gaining practical insights is proving more problematic though, due to something common to many discerning ordination: finding time and opportunities to see and practice a life you wish to live whilst still living the one you’ve got.
Balancing the need to work to pay the bills, the needs of the family and the ministries that already have a call on our time leaves little time to do other things. Taking time off work creates some time but that is a limited resource; for many time away from work is largely accounted for by the fact that children do not get packed away in a cupboard during the school holidays.
The lack of available time is frustrating, my children though are lovely.
To experience and learn more without the repetition of reciting my discernment journey requires more than one session with one person, group or ministry. The practical insights are not things that can be easily or adequately accomplished in one visit.
With the time not always be available it creates dilemmas, soul searching and many a thing to pray about: are they insights to be pursued now to inform my discernment of whether I should be ordained or not; are they be pursued at another time as part of an ordained ministry; or are they to be pursued as a ministry instead of ordination?
I could spend a lifetime finding out.