On Wednesday morning I chaired our District Probationers Committee, which is responsible for offering support, encouragement and guidance to those ministers who are in their first two years of ministry prior to ordination. Listening to the stories of these amazing people is always a real privilege: anyone who doubts the existence of God would do well to ponder the evidence of those who have made major and costly life changes in order to follow Jesus and devote themselves to this demanding vocation.
Twenty years ago I was a probationer minister in my first appointment. We lived in Weymouth on the Dorset coast. With just two ministers on the Circuit Staff I was responsible for six churches and was Methodist Chaplain to The Verne Prison on Portland. Our District Probationers Committee, led by Nigel Collinson, the wise, calm, deeply thoughtful and caring Chair of the Southampton District, was hugely supportive. We were truly encouraged to grow in our ministries as the unique individuals we were, rather than being squashed or squeezed into an inflexible mould labelled ‘Methodist Minister’. This was incredibly releasing and I am still profoundly grateful to Nigel for the way in which his care shaped structures of oversight which nurtured rather than oppressed us. It has informed my own approach ever since. And the two photographs, scanned ages ago from the original slides which were taken on my trusty black second-hand Olympus OM1 manual SLR, tell the story of what those two years as a ‘Prob’ felt like.
The feet are mine, as are the corduroy trousers (!), and they are deliberately in the frame. Several months separate the two shots, which were taken on the South West Coastal Path at Wyke Regis, about half a mile or so from the manse. I used to walk there often, especially when we got a Border Collie dog. The views were stunning and the coast in all its moods provided a mental canvas upon which I could try to make sense of the demands and delights of becoming a minister. The photographs show the two extremes of my experience. The first shows growth, vitality and flourishing underfoot. The grass is green and fresh, daisies, buttercups and clover are vibrantly in flower. All is well, and ministry is good. I took it to reflect this sense of wellbeing and optimism.
Contrast this with the second shot. The ground is now parched and hard-baked. Nothing grows. Here the grass is worn away and has become nothing but a distant and improbable memory. The image conveys a bleak outlook and tough times. I took this shot to reflect how it felt for me when idealism met reality. And across the years comes the memory of my late mother-in-law speaking right into these feelings. We were walking along the coast path and having listened to what was on my mind she said: “you were not called to be successful, you were called to be faithful.” These words, said with great love and care, transformed my self-understanding and were the most precious gift. As was the love, encouragement and understanding of the people in the churches I served. I hold them in my heart with great affection, for in those crucial formative years we journeyed together exploring the demands and delights of seeking to be faithful to God in the realities of where we were, not where we might have wished or preferred to be (full churches, new growth, obviously making a real difference in our communities etc). And of course these sometimes parched realities were never the whole truth, because always and everywhere there were those moments and times when reality underfoot was very different. Lives were touched and transformed, grace flowed freely, and in so many ways these lovely Methodist people were quietly being an effective Christian presence in their daily lives.
And of course being faithful means we trust to God all that is underfoot. Whatever the circumstances in which we stand, hope is within us, for the one who calls us walks with us always, breathes love and encouragement deep into our being, and calls us friend.