AND SO it begins. The pomp and pageantry of the ordination service are ended, and you are now an assistant curate, self-conscious in that clerical collar, and sporting a shirt that is embarrassingly crisp and fresh — marvelling, perhaps, at the fact that you got under the radar of the DDO, training institution, and bishop, and have arrived at this point at all.
Yet you really are here, in the first days and weeks of the rest of your life; for the ministry to which you have been called, and to which you have now committed yourself, is indeed lifelong. The question then arises how to ensure that you fit yourself for the long haul — not merely surviving by keeping on keeping on (laudable though such perseverance is), but by continuing to grow and flourish.
IF WE look to the New Testament for guidance, we are faced with something of a tension. On the one hand, we have Jesus’s words as he sends out the Twelve and the Seventy to proclaim his first coming, which emphasise the need to travel light. On the other hand, we have the story of the bridesmaids who await the coming of a bridegroom who “was delayed” (Matthew 25.5), and who need to resource themselves for the wait by filling their lamps with oil, staying put, watching, and praying.
We who live “between the times” — particularly those of us engaged in public ministry — should heed both sets of instructions. We should be active and watchful; we should travel light, and take responsibility for resourcing ourselves by building resilience and stamina.
My students have by now got used to my practice of giving them Mars bars in some lectures, and again as they approach ordination. It is my way of reminding them that a healthy prayer life, from which healthy ministry flows, must strike a balance between work, rest, and play.
A great deal of ministry is about slog; but if there is never any fun then something has gone wrong. As St Benedict emphasises in his Rule, to work is to pray; but, if there is no holy rest (and, I would add, if there is no vegetating time), then, also, something has gone wrong. Having this basic balance in our lives will go a long way towards helping us get through exceptional periods of im-balance, just as learning to sit more lightly to things in general will, paradoxically, fit us for passionate engagement with particular things that really matter.
How might this all play out in a curacy? To what should you sit light? How should you responsibly resource yourself for what is likely to be a marathon rather than a sprint? Here are some pointers that might help.
• Don’t take yourself too seriously. Take your office deeply seriously, but laugh at yourself, and never believe your own publicity.
• Stop thinking that you have sneaked under someone’s radar. The One who has called you is faithful, and has work for you to do.
• There is a redeemer, and it is not you. Remember that the main thing in ministry is not to get in the way of what God is doing — this is particularly true of leading worship.
• Get out more. It is vital that you keep in touch with friends who are not inculcated into religion in general, and the Church of England in particular. They will not only keep you sane; they will help you to sit lightly to the institution; and they will remind you of the world for which Christ died, and into which he has called you.
• Do not over-invest in the relationship with your training incumbent, and do not be too hard on him or her. Remember that there is always a back story.
You will learn a lot from wise lay people if you let them teach you. They are the ones who actually run the church.
• Remember that your people are not some sort of burden for you to carry, but a treasure that has been entrusted to your care. Cultivating gratitude for this privilege is more likely to engender a lightness of being in these relationships.
• Accept that there are things in this life which cannot be fixed by you, or anyone else. Dare to believe that simply being present with people in the valley of the shadow of death really does make a difference.
• Keep clear boundaries. But let them also be permeable and flexible, so that you, and those you serve, do not become enslaved to them. Re-member that we follow the one whose bodily boundaries were breached on the cross.
Look after yourself
• Make sure that you have some supervision or mentoring in place, in addition to your incumbent and spiritual director. This will help you to work out what “clear but permeable boundaries” might mean for you and your situation.
• Make time for personal prayer, continuing study, and reflection. Do not overestimate the existing knowledge of those you serve, but never underestimate their intelligence and hunger for the solid food of the knowledge of God. It is your job to feed the Lord’s sheep — not with teat or spoon, but by directing them to the green pastures.
• Do not waste energy pretending. Be honest about yourself — your strengths and weaknesses, and the limitations of your own faith and understanding. Our people have been infantilised for too long; they do not need protecting from the truth about you, the truth about the Bible, or the truth about God.
• Get a life. Make dedicated time for hobbies that make you feel fully yourself, and fill you with joy. That way, you will flourish, and be more interesting to those you serve. Take great care with your loved ones. Remember that they, too, will often be quietly struggling with a new position as the curate’s spouse/child/parent, etc. You need to grow into this together.
“Above all, clothe yourselves with love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony” (Colossians 3.14).
The Revd Dr Joanna Collicutt McGrath is Karl Jaspers Lecturer in Pyschology and Spirituality at Ripon College, Cuddesdon, and an associate priest in a West Oxfordshire parish.