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Considered thoughts on ministry today

28 September 2012

Nicholas Papadopulos assesses advice that is based on experience

Called To Love: Discernment, decision making and ministry
Raymond Tomkinson

SCM Press £19.99
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Mindful Ministry: Creative, theological and practical perspectives
Judith Thompson and Ross Thompson
SCM Press £19.99
Church Times Bookshop £18 (Use code CT231 )

MINISTERS who read books about ministry run risks. They may be so utterly depressed by the author's wisdom that they never dare lead worship or visit the sick again. Alternatively, they may be so utterly impressed by the author's faith that they rush out and implement every last thing that the book recom­mends. Overnight.

Ministers who read Raymond Tomkinson's Called To Love: Discernment, decision making and ministry or Judith Thompson and Ross Thompson's Mindful Ministry: Creative, theological and practical perspectives are unlikely to do either. That is not to cast any aspersion on any of these authors' wisdom and faith, which are evident in every word on every page. It is, instead, to comment on the maturity of what they offer their readers here. Behind both books lies a great wealth of practical and pastoral experience, and within both books a patient, considered, and reflective style predominates.

Tomkinson's current appointment as chaplain to one of the Church of England's theological colleges has afforded him a unique perspective on those who are seeking to move into a training curacy after their initial ministerial education. In Called To Love, he explores the theological, spiritual, pastoral, and practical implications of transitions in Christian ministry. He relies upon the stories of 12 ordinands (his "Cuddesdon Twelve"), and, although they occupy the greater part of his exploration, he also considers movement -
into retirement, and the other transitions that punctuate minis­terial life.

Judith Thompson and Ross Thompson reflect on two lifetimes of ministry in Mindful Ministry. If Tomkinson asks what the secular world's experience of decision-making can bring to the world of the Church (and concludes that the distinctions between these two worlds are less rigid than some might believe), then Thompson and Thompson apply the practice of "mindfulness" - an attitude of awareness advocated in many disparate disciplines - to ministry. They understand the practice of mindfulness in this context simply as that of "waking up to what you really are"; of priests and laity waking each other up so that together "they may reflect the glory of the rainbow that is Christ."

There are irritating distractions in both books. Tomkinson's habit of putting references in brackets embedded in the text, instead of in footnotes, is surprisingly off-putting. Thompson and Thompson might helpfully have dedicated a chapter to their understanding of mindfulness, instead of compressing it into the preface, which is also compelled to deal with the details of their proposed methodology. But the cumulative effect of these does not distract from the books' gentle, persuasive flow.

The authors enjoy a common lightness of touch. Tomkinson's book is more impressionistic in style and format. He meanders endearingly, picking up subjects
that intrigue him, and flitting from one to another: it would have been good to hear more from him on the generally untouchable subject of vocation and ambition. On this he lingers only briefly. Thompson and Thompson have a more coherent approach throughout. They identify mindless ministry, absent-minded ministry, and ego-minded ministry as the opposites of mindful ministry. They devote eight different chapters to eight different ministries (Apostle, for example, Leader, or Servant) drawn from the Pauline epistles, and consider in turn what each ministry might look like when exercised mindfully - or exercised other than mindfully.

Both books are illustrated with plenty of anecdotes, but Thompson and Thompson also include Ignatian-style biblical reflections, questions for discussion, and a table of connections to the familiar Myers-Briggs Type Indicator and the Enneagram. Their book could be widely and profitably read by many at any stage of a ministry, and it will aid a more profound evaluation of it.

God's call to God's people is that they are to love, and to live for love. This is Tomkinson's conclusion, interestingly reached in the seventh of his nine chapters. Few would challenge it, but it is followed by the refreshing assertion that a fully "discerned" decision is the will of God when it brings a sense of freedom. "Where there is potential to demonstrate or to receive love," he writes, "such a place is mission territory because God's mission is to love us into his kingdom." Whether a ministerial move is the right ministerial move should be judged thus. Does it allow the minister such potential?

Heady stuff. It could and should be read by all who are contemplating a move in their ministry, and by all who advise them. God's service is, after all, perfect freedom. We pray it often enough. Yet, as we scan the clerical advertisements at the back of the Church Times, attend ministerial reviews, prepare presentations on "What My Ministry at St Murgatroyd's Would Mean for . . .", or await the outcomes of applications, shortlistings, and interviews, which of us really believes it?

The Revd Nicholas Papadopulos is the Vicar of St Peter's, Eaton Square, in London.

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