I’m not paranoid, I know people are watching my every move.
As you try to discern if God is calling you to be ordained it can feel as the Church is watching and analysing your every move: CCTV cameras trained on you, hidden cameras in place to catch you unaware, spies and informers reporting back to headquarters. Of course that is nonsense, there is no need for the church to watch or inform you because you will be informing on yourself, and willingly so.
When struggles arose from my involvement in my church and its ministries I looked upon them both from my perspective and through the perceived eyes of those discerning and judging my suitability to be ordained. I had long struggled with being a cash-strapped member of a wealthy church but had learnt to deal with it. I had struggled with running ministries people said they wanted but failed to support or use – it was like the call to support independent shops but shopping in a nationwide supermarket. How would I explain my discernment and involvement in these to an Examining Chaplain or Bishop?
My involvement in one ministry within my church had become a struggle too. The team leader had announced planning meetings were moving from evenings to office working hours, effectively shutting me out as I was the only member who couldn’t meet then. As the change hadn’t been instigated by me I decided to continue do what I could, but when I found I wasn’t involved in planning the services by email or phone I began to question my involvement. Receiving an email informing me that there was a service in a week’s time in which I was required to perform a predefined task suggested it was not my input that was valued, I was simply a delivery mechanism. As this wasn’t the first time it had happened I found myself questioning whether I should continue with it.
Though my frustrations with the ministry had increased my passion for it remained undiminished. I wanted to find a solution, not quit because of my frustrations. Nor did I get a sense that God was calling me to move on to something else because I had no sense of what I might be called to do instead. There is a danger of over-spiritualising such things, sometimes it is a simple case of what works and what does not, but it is worth at least looking at and testing all avenues before acting.
I decided to make the unofficial official and withdraw from the planning team, but make myself available to help with the services themselves. The response expressed appreciation for my planning and service input but made it clear that my offer wasn’t going to be taken up. I had neither quit nor had I moved on, instead I had been shown the door; how was I going to explain that to an Examining Chaplain? Would they see it as a simple matter of logistics and other people’s decisions, or would they see failure in my my inability to engineer a mutually suitable solution that would have seen me continue with the ministry? The logical and sensible mind would say the former, but the ever questioning mind of a discerner can turn such things into paranoia.
The email closing the door on my involvement in the ministry greeted me as I arrived home from hearing the news of changes to funding for ordinands (see One Foot in the Graveyard). It made going to church the next day a struggle. I did all that I could to avoid going and looked for ways of escape, but just as God had perhaps engineered an end to my struggle with the ministry so He seemed to engineer ways of keeping me in church, and just as well. Friends noticed my wife and I were struggling, they saw the tears we tried to hold back and hide, and they did what church should be good at, they loved us.
The weekend had been a difficult and draining one, and hardly an ideal start for my preparations to see my first Examining Chaplain. One of the challenges with the discernment process is that it takes note of times you find tough not for pastoral reasons but for how you deal with them.
I had been avoiding the selection criteria the Church of England uses to assess candidates for ordination training for some time. It had been easy, my conversations with the DDO had been built on a foundation of previous criteria based discussions and assessments, to the extent that the criteria had faded from my memory. I knew that if I was to convince the Examining Chaplains to recommend I see a Bishop I would need to re-engage with them so I began by focusing on those I had been told the Examining Chaplain would be looking at. Unfortunately he exceeded his remit and covered others too.
One of my Achilles-heels on my first time through the process was failing to articulate and express the knowledge, experience and thoughts within me. I am a reflective person and the sort who comes up with the witty response 5 minutes after the bully has left the scene; thinking on my feet can be problematic if I haven’t prepared well, but when I have my subconsciousness can come to my rescue. Such was the case when my church had a power-cut as I led my first service, and it seemed to be the case during my meeting with the Examining Chaplain.
He was preoccupied with my job history: a long list of contracts which, he suggested, showed a lack of focus and made him concerned that my consideration of ordination might be just another fad. Hard as it was to hear he was right to question it, it was my job to convince him that his concerns were unfounded. When he saw a long list of contracts he saw an unfocused and uncommitted person. What I had hoped he would have seen was someone with a strong work ethic whose purpose was being in work, not finding purpose in work. My singular career of focus as a child had been taken away from me as a teenager, and ever since I had been searching for what I was to do. I thought I might have found it in teaching but circumstances conspired to close the door on that. I hope that I have found in ordination but to find out I have to articulate the reasons why I believe I actually have: still pursuing it after over 3 years and being prepared to put myself through a second round of Examining Chaplains, a Bishop and a BAP was one reason I gave to the Examining Chaplain I was facing.
A sense of irony that almost made me laugh came when he questioned whether I would be prepared to move because of the demands of being a curate and vicar in different locations. The question came out of a discussion where I had talked about moving a lot as a child and being determined to give my own children a more stable upbringing than I had had. What he did not know was how much my family and I had wrestled with the potential of moving and had come to embrace it. Nor had he heard of the changes to the funding of ordination training which would mean I would move even less (see One Foot in the Graveyard).
I don’t know whether I convinced him that he should recommend I go forward to see a Bishop and then to ordination training; all I can do is pray and hope. Yet even as I pray I find myself wondering whether I actually want to be ordained. Undoubtedly influenced by a bruising time within the church, and the draining nature of the discernment process, I have found myself questioning what I have felt and feel now. If I look into the past over a long-period it is clear I and others feel God does want me to serve Him as an ordained minister, but if I look into the past few weeks the picture is anything but clear. Enough things have happened to make me question whether the Church wants me, or rather the leadership of the Church because I have certainly been wanted and loved by the rest. To stop now would be to give in to short-term emotions and prove the Examining Chaplain’s concern about it being a fad to be correct. I need to complete the process to let others close or open the doors to ministries I serve God and others through, just as I did with the ministry at my church. It all points me to God, it is His will for my life that I want to fulfil and it is His strength that I need to keep going when it becomes difficult.
The two further meetings with Examining Chaplains lay before me, with the one I am most apprehensive about being next: it is with an Examining Chaplain that interviewed me during my first time through the process (see A Tale of Two Storms), someone who found me muddled and unable to articulate my calling. Time will tell if I am able to this time.