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Advice for new deacons: Don’t say yes to everything

10 July 2015

We asked a management consultant and a psycho-therapist for advice for the newly ordained. Beware the incumbent in the kitchen, warns Matthew Caminer

Dave Walker

THE ordination service has taken place, and the celebrating is over. It is an exciting time for you as a newly ordained deacon, as well as for any family you may have. You are experiencing a whole range of life-changes simultaneously. And, when I say “you”, I mean the new deacon, and the spouse or family (if any), and the host congregation into which the newly ordained deacon has been placed.

So many changes: ordination itself, possibly a change of home, possibly a new job for your spouse or partner, and perhaps new schools for the children. Separation from family and friends, maybe; a new church; and wondering how your gifts and aspirations will be accepted in your new environment.

In all probability, it will be a time of wonderful growth, new discoveries, and blessings. But a few tips might help you on your way. Much of what follows is addressed to the deacon, but could equally apply to the deacon’s spouse, partner, or family.


1. Protect the essentials

IT WILL be the work of a moment for your diary to get filled up. Protect the essentials at all costs: time for God; time for your family; and time for your ongoing training. You may now look different in your clerical collar, but, to your family, you are still husband or wife, Mum or Dad.

One common complaint is that, even after many years, some members of the wider family simply don’t get it — that you are not available for family events on Christmas Day, and may just feel like sleeping on Boxing Day. You may need to educate them, or be proactive by suggesting family get-togethers that avoid the big festivals. Guard your integrity. If you don’t get this right from the beginning, it will be an uphill task to adjust things later.


2. Manage time (or it will manage you)

THIS is hard, whether you are in full- or part-time ministry, managing a family, approaching retirement, single, or juggling work in secular employment. Learn to differentiate between urgent, important, and trivial; and filter your tasks accordingly, especially if your training incumbent has a very robust work ethic. Therefore. . .


3. Learn to say ‘No’

IN THE first flush of enthusiasm, you are liable to find yourself saying “yes” to everything, and, as a result, taking on stuff simply because your predecessor enjoyed doing it, or was good at it. But that does not mean that you have to edit the parish magazine, or repair the altar frontal. It is important to develop a way of saying “no”, firmly and politely, while you sort out your priorities and ring-fence the essentials.

It will be much harder to develop this habit later in your ministry; and by then the family may have felt neglected, and core tasks have been left undone. You can always add things later, but for the mean time learn to say “no”, and keep practising. This will benefit the family, ministry, and relationships.


4. Treat days off and holidays as non-negotiablee

IT IS amazing how many conversations start with “I know it’s your day off, but . . .” Educate the congregation, and make sure that your day off is known by everyone. If your training incumbent has bad habits about this, don’t let that put you off.

 This is especially critical if your spouse is also working, and time off does not often coincide. Days off together may need to be planned a long time in advance: don’t abuse them. If at all possible, rather than stay at home, find somewhere you can go for days off and holidays. This is partly because work has a way of creeping in, but also because if you are not there, they can’t get hold of you.


5. Manage your boundaries

PEOPLE are generally sociable and welcoming, and there will be natural curiosity about this new family — something that most curate families appreciate. Remember, though, that people whom you did not know before will see you though the filter of being “the curate”, or “the curate’s spouse”, and that will colour the relationship.

There are differing views on whether a deacon or spouse should have friends within the congregation; you will be given all sorts of advice, but only you can work it out. Establish boundaries up front, and — especially if you are an introvert person — develop coping strategies for your protection.


6. Develop your support network from day one

YES, you have God and each other, but it is a good idea to have a wider support network, including friends and family, or maybe the peer group of ordinands and their spouses from theological college.

Within the Church there are different resources for different purposes — the training incumbent, the IME officer, the diocese, your spiritual director, the pastoral-care adviser and work consultant, to list a few. Some of these are just as appropriate for the spouse, and a clergy-spouse support group (whether in the diocese or online) can be invaluable. Use them: don’t be alone.


7. Treasure your family and friends

FROM now on, anyone you meet is likely to think of you as “the curate”, or “the curate’s spouse”. The great thing is that your family and old friends will simply see you as “you” without any of that baggage; so you will be able to relax and “be” with them. There may be times when you need exactly this to keep balance in your life. If you are an unpartnered deacon, this may fill an important gap. It is very important to nurture the health of these relationships: it takes commitment.


8. Clergy marriage: establish the balance

THE psychotherapist Canon Beaumont Stevenson has written of clergy marriage as a form of bigamy, with potentially conflicting vows to God at both ordination and marriage. One spouse said: “I hate the fact that the training incumbent is in our kitchen at 9 a.m. on a Saturday, when I am still in my pyjamas.” It’s no joke: a newly ordained deacon may spend more time with the training incumbent than with the family. It can feel intrusive and excluding.

This needs to be addressed from the start, agreeing strategies for protecting both the marriage and the family. Above all, commun-icate, and plan together. For instance, take no appointments between 5 and 7 p.m. so there can be quality time with the children; leave the door unanswered, and let the answering machine take messages.

If that seems an impossible dream, work out a strategy for making it work, and ask yourself why some clergy do manage to achieve that sort of rule of life — and I use that term deliberately.


9. Decide what sort of clergy spouse your partner will be

OLD stereotypes of the vicar’s wife have all but gone. There is no “role” for a clergy spouse other than that which she or he has consciously chosen. You may see yourself as totally involved, or totally detached, or somewhere between the two. Any of these positions is valid, provided that you have thought it through between you, and have addressed any expectations and assumptions that you or others may have had.

The key point for everyone to remember is that the only established “duties” of a clergy spouse are derived from the words of the marriage service, not from the Ordinal. It is your marriage: don’t let it be pushed out of shape.


10. Protect and nurture your children

THIS can be an unnerving and destabilising period for clergy children. They may be leaving friends behind; routines are being interrupted; studies for exams may be disrupted; there are new schools to get used to; Granny may no longer be just round the corner; and Christmas has to be shared with the church.

Of course, the parish is likely to be very welcoming to your children, but even that can be burdensome and laden with expectations; and there can be a sense of collective ownership, to which some children respond positively, but which others may find difficult and intrusive. Make time for your children, and do not leave that to the non-ordained parent.


A word to congregations: understand what a curacy is for

YOU may expect the curate to be a spare pair of hands, and for the curate’s family to slot into your existing ways of doing things.

The reality is different: the deacon is primarily there to learn, through a combination of continued academic study and in-work experience. This will limit the time available for contributing in the parish. Similarly, having a curate is likely to make the incumbent busier. Set your expectations at that level, and give the curacy time to blossom.


And finally . . .

THE key thing, starting this new life, is to weigh up all the relevant factors, bringing any expectations and assumptions into the open, and, above all, being true to yourself. Without such reflection and open communication, the health of the ministry and of the marriage may be at risk. So have the conversations now, while there is still a blank canvas.

Whether you are the deacon or the spouse, this is a time for learning — for making mistakes. As long as those mistakes are seen as growing opportunities rather than misdemeanours, life will be full of richness and rapid development.

Hold on to the joy of ordination. One curate, approaching the end of his deacon year, wrote: “Nothing could have prepared me for how deeply I would love my congregation. It is joyful and painful in equal measure; but I was shocked by just how quickly I became completely devoted to people with whom I had nothing but Jesus in common! I found I needed time just to feel this, and to come to terms with it.”

Or, as one clergy spouse put it: “Look for, and celebrate, the joys; share the sorrows, and find time to talk to each other every day, even if it is limited. If you have children, let them see the good things about Jesus and the church. Remember that training incumbents, clergy, and their spouses are individuals, and what one may enjoy another may find terrifying, nonsensical, or boring. God is gracious, loving, and powerful; and miracles do happen.”

May this be a time of discovery, joy, and many blessings.


Matthew Caminer is a management consultant and speaker; and presents seminars for vocation-seekers, ordinands, and their partners, on behalf of dioceses and theological colleges. He is the author of A Clergy Husband’s Survival Guide and, with Martyn Percy and Beaumont Stevenson, Curacies and How to Survive Them, both published by SPCK.

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