Call on hold

by
07 July 2017

What happens if the Church says no? Rebecca Paveley hears five people’s stories

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Isolated after a decision? Counselling can be offered but is not compulsory

Isolated after a decision? Counselling can be offered but is not compulsory

MAGGIE had experienced a sense of calling from an early age. She began to give talks in her church while she was still young, encouraged by her priest. Then, in her late twenties, the birth of her first child made her think about the direction she was going in.

After tentatively exploring Reader training, she found herself redirected to ordination. Within 18 months, she was at a Bishops’ Advisory Panel (BAP), nervous but excited. The three BAP interviews (vocational, pastoral, and educational) seemed to go OK, she thought. And, as a writer by trade, she was confident with the pastoral letter that she had had to write. But the experience of those three days has left her — months later — feeling hurt and grieving, and with an acute sense of loss.

Her bishop was the one to tell her that she had not been recommended for ordination training. The call left her sobbing, and distressed in a way that she had not expected. “You can get over a job rejection: perhaps you haven’t the experience, or you could have prepared better. But if you feel affirmed that God has called you, what do you do with that? I was told it is like a bereavement, but how do you mourn something that you don’t feel is dead?”

The report from the panel was sent to her DDO, who, originally, would read her only excerpts from it, before finally agreeing to send her the full text. Reading the report “was a horrible experience”, she says.

“The report was just awful. It seemed to imply that I had some form of mental illness, after I disclosed that my parents had suffered anxiety and depression. It said I could appear disorganised and laid back; so they wondered what was going on under the surface . . . whether underneath there was turmoil and chaos. I found it hugely offensive: they aren’t psychologists or psychotherapists, after all.”

 

ANDREW was told that he had not been recommended after his BAP, three years ago. He, like Maggie, had been affirmed and encouraged all the way by his priest, director of ordinands, and bishop. He was assured by his DDO that he would be fine, but he found the pastoral interview at his BAP difficult, “with rapid-fire questions, and a lack of empathy and understanding from the interviewer”. Getting the result was incredibly painful, he says.

istockphotoLook upward to the skies: as well as the individual’s sense of vocation, the process involves the discernment of others“It felt very much like grieving: I was quite numb for ages. For weeks that followed, I’d be walking to work, or on my own, and I’d burst into tears. Then I had the full report, and that was like having a dagger twisted in. The report was a perfectly good example of how not to write a pastoral letter: it was a character assassination with not a single positive piece to it.”

He has written a blog throughout his ordination journey (www.thepilgrimexplorer.blog), and others have posted online about their own experiences of going through a BAP. “I have had people contact me to say they have had the report, and it has been character assassination, too, which is just what the Church shouldn’t be doing. I didn’t see any sign of their pastoral care coming out in the report.”

 

ALEX, who is in his forties, felt at the time that his BAP had not gone as well as he had hoped; so, although upset, he was more pragmatic when he was told that he had not been recommended for training.

“I felt during the three days [that] there were better candidates than myself there; so, though I felt a mix of emotions when I heard the result, I felt it was fair. The report highlighted where I’d done well, and the points I needed to work on. It was very encouraging on the whole. After all, they have to be sure you are following the right calling for you.

“I needed some time to clear my mind afterwards, and my DDO gave me that; but my parish and the diocese were pleased when I came back.”

He is hoping to return for his second BAP next autumn, two-and-a-half years after his first. His pragmatism after his first BAP comes, perhaps, from coping with setbacks in his current career, he says, after working for 20 years for a multinational company.

“If you go into the BAP thinking ‘This is another life experience,’ then you will get something out of it, whatever,” he says.

 

LAURA is still reflecting on her experience of a BAP last year. She found her final interview — the vocations interview — difficult. “We didn’t really connect; there were awkward silences,” she says. Immediately after the interview, there was a time of worship, and then it was time to leave; “so there was no opportunity to pick it up afterwards, or talk it through and resolve it, as there had been after the earlier interviews.”

She reflects that what she read about herself in her report also did not resonate with any of the meetings or interviews that she had had in the run-up to the BAP.

“It doesn’t really describe me. Others have said that, too. . . How do you manage to present in a way that gives a wrong impression of who you are? The process had been very positive all the way up to BAP. I found the report so difficult: it didn’t resonate with all that I’d felt over ten years.”

The verbal feedback passed on to her, via her DDO, was even worse, she says. This described her as “arrogant” — a comment that no one who knew her, or those involved in preparing her for the BAP, recognised, she says.

 

PAUL’s experience of the BAP was also negative — although, unlike the others, he was recommended for training. He says that he found the process weird: “a bit like going into the Big Brother house: tasks to perform; cameras everywhere; a group of strangers trying to assess me in a strange place; a sense of needing to impress, though not knowing what was expected. We knew that some of us would be evicted, but we didn’t really know on what grounds.”

Paul had been “urged on by friends, turned down by a diocesan panel, urged on by the DDO, turned down by an independent assessor, urged on by the bishop”. After that, although he was recommended for training, he decided to turn the opportunity down.

“It was an incredibly liberating feeling. I have had such an incredibly rich ministry as a lay person. I have preached more, cared more, and changed more than I could ever have done had I been ordained,” he believes. “Being ordained is the best thing I never did.”

 

SO FAR, only Mike has returned for another BAP. It took him several years to be ready for it, he says. The initial BAP had left him depressed, and put a huge strain on his marriage. He turned down the opportunity to have post-BAP counselling, but now believes that his DDO should have directed him to go instead of leaving it up to him.

“I got to the point where I thought the worst thing I could do is chase after answers. The report gave me just nothing to work on at the time. [But] I found myself gradually coming to a point where I could see the painful truths within the report. That took a good year before I could face looking at it.” It took him two more years before he could face another BAP.

He had to build a relationship with a new DDO, and he took his time to be sure that he wanted to go through another BAP, so raw were the feelings from the first. “I wanted to be able to say, whatever they say, ‘I will be at peace.’ My wife came round to the idea sooner than I did, but she didn’t want me to, at first, because of the impact it had on me, and the strain on our relationship. But, through taking our time, she was more prepared for me going back than I was.”

This time, he was recommended, and, though overjoyed, he still feels anger at the way the report was written the first time: “I really hope the Church will learn some lessons about writing constructive criticism.”

He also acknowledges that he, too, learnt through the process, and will be a better priest for it. “If I’d been recommended first time, I still would have made a decent priest, but my focus would have been pretty narrow. It felt like the first one was about me, and the second one was about serving others.”

 

LAURA and Maggie are still reflecting on their experiences, and are not ready to think about going forward again.

Laura says that her sense of God’s call is still strong, and her DDO has suggested that she go straight back. But she is not ready: “The process hasn’t made me doubt my faith, but I don’t think the process is very good. For me, every time I think about it again, I well up. . . But there is an ache that is not going away.” For that reason, she will be going on retreat this summer to pray about the direction she should take.

“If I was rejected a second time, I would find it very difficult. It feels very personal: it’s a rejection of you.” Her husband has been bewildered and angered by the process, too.

She feels that one of the issues with her BAP interviews may have been that she did not fit into an easy “box” for ministry: she wanted to work across boundaries, while those interviewing her came from parish backgrounds. ”The people interviewing you are in these boxes. They should [also] have pioneer priests, or others, on the panel. The make-up of the panel should reflect the direction the Church is going in.”

Maggie has spent the past few months trying to heal. She has taken up running in an effort to look after herself, and says: “There is no way I’d go through that again, certainly not for a couple of years.”

Her relationship with her DDO broke down irretrievably after she was told that she could not preach any more in her church, as a result of the panel’s decision. “I felt like they were taking everything away from me.”

Despite this, she has had a strong vision that God is still working in her life, giving her back to her family. “My prayer life is really hard now, but I have a powerful sense that this is not a sign of God’s displeasure with me.”

 

THE Church Times showed these stories to the Church of England’s Ministry Division. The head of formation, the Revd Dr Ian McIntosh, said: “Through the rigorous BAP process, the Church aims to select people who will flourish in ordained ministry. For all of us, receiving direct and honest feedback is hard, and directors of ordinands work to support candidates through this.

“The BAP process is currently being reviewed, including the report. Around 400 assessors are trained to ensure that selection is fair for all involved, and based upon evidence that a candidate meets the selection criteria.”

It is also up to bishops in dioceses whether to accept the panel’s recommendation or overturn it. “At the end of the BAP,” Dr McIntosh says, “the Bishop receives an advisory recommendation about whether the candidate should enter training for ordination, which the Bishop is free to support or not.” About three per cent of decisions were overturned last year.

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