Testing the limits

2384200Geraint Thomas riding to victory in the 2018 Tour de France (Source: Eurosport)

Over the course of 3 long-read blog posts I am reviewing my first year as an Ordinand, each post focused on 1 of the 3 words that sum up my first year: tea, testing and transformation.  This, the second post in the series, is all about testing, and no, they haven’t brought in doping tests for prospective priests in the Church of England.  

One section of life where tests for performance enhancing drugs is common place is sport, and in particular cycling.  Each July athletes race in the most famous cycling race in the world, the Tour de France.  For 3 weeks cyclists mix sprinting for glory with climbs up some of the highest and toughest mountains that Europe have to offer.  It is a tremendous feat of endurance just for a person to make it to the end on the Champs Élysées in Paris.  This first year of training has similarly felt like a feat of endurance.

The Tour de France and my training have another parallel, both involve an individual taking responsibility for their own performance within a larger project.  Unlike a professional cyclist though, I had to learn to be content with not doing my best but doing enough.  My challenge was to put aside perfectionism: with my training that meant submitting an assignment knowing that it could be better; with work that might mean making a map that showed what was needed, rather than one which was accurate to levels only the obsessive would notice.  The test was dealing with the frustration borne out of a lack of time.

Dealing with the cost some areas of life had to pay was also testing.  The demands of work and study meant that time with family and friends was limited.  No matter how productive I managed to be with my work and study, I could not contribute towards family life to the same extent as I did before I began my training.  It meant though that when I was with family or friends I had to apply the same focus that I applied to my study, except with family procrastination was not allowed!  For some ‘work hard, play hard’ might mean extreme sports, for me it meant a trip to the cinema, the cycle track or the kitchen to bake a cake.  It also meant deciding to forgo visiting any of the Christian festivals, any time I was to take off work would need to be spent with my family and not in a tent listening to more theology – my college and my church would have to suffice.  Time with those closest to me was planned relaxation, a time to reconnect and recharge.

Sustaining a schedule with limited time to ‘simply be’ over an 11 month-long academic year was challenging.  So it was hardly surprising that as I approached the final module of a long academic year my energy levels were running low.  It was then that I was reminded that running at full capacity didn’t preclude having taking on more.  

Like many people I have often worked within organisations that regularly restructured to save money, and my current job is no different.  For the past year my management repeated the message that the savings made in my section, coupled with being short-staffed, meant that our jobs were safe.  That was the line being communicated right up until an extra person joined me and my manager for our weekly catch-up.  This was no meeting to check on the progress of work, this was a meeting to tell me I was being made redundant.  

I had been handed the biggest challenge of the year, but one which the test of my ability to juggle work loads and question my beliefs had prepared me for.

Being a Ordinand studying Part-time meant that although the Church of England gifted me my course fees, I needed paid employment to pay for my family’s needs.  After my wife’s redundancy 2 years previously our finances were already on a knife-edge.  Without me earning any money the ability to keep our home and feed our family came into doubt.  

I was being made redundant from a job that had been perfect for my situation.  The flexibility and location of my work meant that I could fit a full-time job around the needs of my study and my family.  What were the chances of finding a job with similar compatibility within less than 8 weeks? The available job vacancies suggested it would be unlikely. 

My sense of calling though never came into doubt, even if how it would be realised did.  Whether I would continue to train as I had been, or whether my calling might be manifested differently, was something I did not have time to contemplate though.  Amidst all the chaos of thoughts going around my head, one thought about my training came to me: could I forget about employment and simply be an Ordinand?  It was fantastical.  It was absurd.  It was impossible.  I dismissed it.

I had to concentrate on the things I could control and influence, everything else had to be handed over to God.  He would take care of my calling; my responsibility was to use the abilities He had given me to act in the ‘here and now’.  I needed to find a way to pay the bills.

With less than 8 weeks within which to find a solution I had to change my way of working.  I had to change from reflecting before acting to acting before reflecting.  I had to apply for jobs whether they were compatible with my training or not, working out how they might be could wait until I knew whether I had a job.  I might not be able to see how “all would be well” but I knew that it would be, even if surviving to that point was going to be hard.

Although my work was coming to an end, my family and study life continued unabated. I still had to keep to my study schedule.  I still had to write my assignments.  I only had to “do enough” but with redundancy looming even doing that was becoming difficult to achieve.  Juggling study, work and family life had taken everything I had, but now I had to find more.  This was particularly evident when I came to preach.  The passage chosen wasn’t about me, and the sermon wasn’t for me, but nevertheless both spoke into the situation I was experiencing.  This sermon was personal.  This sermon cut to the heart of the pain of waiting for the time when everything would be sorted.  It was the hardest sermon I have yet preached.

My redundancy was personal but not unique: I was experiencing something that many others had experienced and would experience.  It was that realisation that delivered the motivation: in being made redundant I could better minister to those who would be going through similar and worse situations.  My redundancy was not about me, it was about ‘them’.  This test was about the hurting people I will be sent to serve.  This test was for the people who have no one to help them through their tough times.  This test was for the people who do not have the hope that I have.  

My redundancy also proved to show the church at it’s best.  Emails sending news of my redundancy to my college, Sarum College in Salisbury, and my Diocesan headquarters in Wells met with instant replies.  My fellow Ordinands and members of the Twurch stepped up with encouragement and prayer.  But a sign that the support was wider than I realised came with a card from the Bishop of Taunton, with it I knew that I had an army of supporters and prayer warriors on my case.  I was not alone. 

Most miraculous of all was a telephone call with my DDO (Diocesan Director of Ordinands).  Almost the first words out of her mouth mirrored what I had dismissed as fantastical, absurd and impossible: the idea of switching from being a Part-time Ordinand to being a Full-time Ordinand.

The redundancy was pushing me beyond my known limits  Adding job searching to my regular roles had drained my energy reserves, adding exploring options for full-time study provided hope that refilled them.  In the 8 weeks before my first year of Ordination Training came to an end I used every moment I could find to play my part in securing the remainder of it.  As my college effectively closed for the summer I heard the news: the Church of England is likely to fund me to become a Full-time Ordinand – the impossible becoming possible.

I will still be working towards being ordained in 2020, but I will no longer be juggling work with my studies.  Instead I will be studying more theology and gaining more practical experience, removing my frustration of not being able to get involved with the frontline of church life.  Along with the hours of study increasing so will I be blessed with increased time with my family.  And though the financial side of the switch will have its challenges they are ones I have survived before, and they pale into insignificance compared to the alternative of no funding.  It will be a blessing beyond anything I could have imagined, so much so I have to pinch myself to know that I am not dreaming.

But it isn’t hard to imagine what life would be like if the Church wasn’t blessing me with soft a gift.  My redundancy has helped me imagine a reality where there will not be the funds to pay the bills, a time when I would be dependent on foodbanks, and a time when the family might be homeless and hungry.  I will be fortunate to have an opportunity to serve at the foodbank my church runs, but the thought that I could be receiving from one is a sobering lesson to shape my future ministry.  That I am being gifted so much, by the Church of England and by God, is just one reason to embrace those living on my flip-side.

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