Ordination: a pathway to uniformity?

Routinely I meet with men and women, mostly young, who aspire to pastoral leadership. They sense a calling to the church. The most common professional pathway to this end is ordination, a rite of commissioning for pastors and priests. In every tradition it’s done differently. For some there’s a high ceremonial ritual along with a uniform and a title. For others it’s less grand yet equally specific in intent. The purpose of ordination is to set particular people apart to lead and care for the church.

I’ve been done. It happened for me a long time ago. In fact, next year it’ll be twenty-five years since my ordination to ‘the ministry of word and sacrament’ in the Baptist tradition. I have a certificate on my wall to prove it! The preparation took a while; years in fact. There were those arduous programs of study, panels of interrogation, psychological testing, intense processes of formation, and apprenticeship with seasoned practitioners. The high moment of ordination itself was memorable and profoundly significant to my continuing sense of vocation.

A common critique of the process toward ordination is that it’s too much like a one-size-fits-all funnel that ignores the diversity of those who present. What’s more, it is said, the intent is to nurture a conformity of style in leadership. There may well be some truth in this, and I have no doubt those who lead such processes wrestle with the limitations of their systems. That said, uniformity has never been my experience of those who make it through. Quite the opposite.

I am often mystified by just how different we pastors are from one another. There are the gentle and caring types, the incisive minds, the charismatic leaders, the blusterers and pot stirrers, the gregarious and the introverts. There are the fine preachers, the poets, the liberals and conservatives, the thoughtful strategists, the bookish types and the ones who act more like coaches for the local football team. How they all got through the one funnel I have no idea. But I am glad for it.

The encouragement to me in this is that just as there are numerous types who get into this business, the business itself is broad and so very different from one context to another. Sure, the comparisons are inevitable: her church is bigger than mine; his sermons could do with some work; her way with people is extraordinary; I wish my leadership was a strong as his. Truth be told, in the midst of such comparisons I often wonder just how I scraped through. But if I have learned anything over the years, it’s this: I am who I am, and being who I am is as central to my calling as anything else.

UnknownA couple of years back, I had the pleasure of reading Eugene Peterson’s memoir The Pastor. It’s a very particular story of ministry and open to critique for good reasons. But what was so very refreshing was Peterson’s refusal to offer anything formulaic to his readers. There are no five steps, seven habits or twelve secrets to successful pastoring. Only this:

‘There is no blueprint on file for becoming a pastor. In becoming one, I have found that it is a most context-specific way of life: the pastor’s emotional life, family life, experience in the faith, and aptitudes worked out in the actual congregation in the neighborhood in which she or he lives – these people just as they are, in this place. No copying. No trying to be successful. The ways in which the vocation of pastor is conceived, develops, and comes to birth is unique to each pastor.’

I like that.

Wisdom from Peterson

“I am a pastor. My work has to do with God and souls — immense mysteries that no one has ever seen at any time. But I carry out this work in conditions — place and time — that I see and measure wherever I find myself, whatever time it is. There is no avoiding the conditions. I want to be mindful of the conditions. I want to be as mindful of the conditions as I am of the holy mysteries.”

Eugene Peterson, The Pastor: A Memoir, New York: Harper Collins, 2011, 7.


Working to our strengths

I’ve returned to work this year with a small resolution in mind. Not small in the sense of being insignificant. More in the sense that my life is small, not grand, and any resolutions to do with its living will be, by necessity, humble.

The resolution is this: I want to work as much as possible out of my strengths. I have them, just like everyone does. There are things I do well, inclinations that are naturally honed, investments of energy that bring life and fulfillment. I am hoping that in this new year I can give the expression of these strengths a larger space to flourish in my days and weeks.

Profound or not, there’s something here that’s important. I have been conscious this past year that I spend a great deal of energy trying to make up for my weaknesses. While there are things I do well in ministry, the list of things I do less than well is long. Of course, I’m not alone. As I listen to the confessions of other pastors, I hear the same insecurity. We’re gifted, but we’re not all-rounders. The deficits are as obvious as the surpluses. Conscious of our lacks, we’re commonly driven to compensate, to work ever harder improving our skill-set and pushing through in areas of mediocrity. But the truth is, it’s exhausting.

The exhaustion is only exacerbated by the voices that speak loudly around us. It seems like every book I read, every conference I attend, every Facebook link I follow, every PD seminar I complete, I’m left with a new list of things I should really do better, or more of. If the church is struggling in areas X, Y and Z, it’s probably because, in part at least, I’m less than I need to be in capacities A, B and C. So come on, Simon, pull up your socks!

I know. Pulling up our socks is part of life. In every job, every role, there are things that just have to be done. Not everything we do can be about fulfilment and fit. But surely, in the longer term, the greatest impacts we’ll have upon our communities will arise out of our primary gifting. I am a good pastor but I’m not a charismatic leader. I’m a good communicator and teacher, but I’m not great at strategy and five-year plans. I have a passion for writing, but I’m exhausted by spreadsheets. I’m committed to community building and hospitality, but I’m not a great manager.

One of the things I’ve observed about myself and others is that as much time as we might invest in those tasks that sit outside our abilities, the longer term impacts are minimal, indeed far less than we imagine. The deepest impression that you will make upon your church will almost certainly arise out of what you are really good at and passionate about.

I reckon we owe it to ourselves and our communities to give these things a generous space in our lives and ministry.


Fallen in love with solid ground

by David Whyte

That day I saw beneath dark clouds
the passing light over the water
and I heard the voice of the world speak out,
I knew then, as I had before
life is no passing memory of what has been
nor the remaining pages in a great book
waiting to be read.

It is the opening of eyes long closed.
It is the vision of far off things
seen for the silence they hold.
It is the heart after years
of special conversing
speaking out loud in the clear air.

It is Moses in the desert
fallen to his knees before the lit bush.
It is the man throwing away his shoes
as if to enter heaven
and finding himself astonished,
opened at last,
fallen in love with solid ground.


Sunlight and the Word

From time to time a favourite niece provides words that speak gently, deeply. I am always grateful. These are from the poet Tony Hoagland.

The Word

Down near the bottom
of the crossed-out list
of things you have to do today,

between ‘green thread’
and ‘broccoli,’ you find
that you have penciled ‘sunlight.’

Resting on the page, the word
is beautiful. It touches you
as if you had a friend

and sunlight were a present
he had sent from someplace distant
as this morning—to cheer you up,

and to remind you that,
among your duties, pleasure
is a thing

that also needs accomplishing.
Do you remember?
that time and light are kinds

of love, and love
is no less practical
than a coffee grinder

or a safe spare tire?
Tomorrow you may be utterly
without a clue,

but today you get a telegram
from the heart in exile,
proclaiming that the kingdom

still exists,
the king and queen alive,
still speaking to their children,

—to any one among them
who can find the time
to sit out in the sun and listen.


I can’t help myself

After twenty-eight glorious days of writing leave, I’m back at work. Though it’s been a bumpy landing, I’m glad to come back to a good job, good colleagues and a terrific community, and all in Melbourne’s best neighbourhood. I’m grateful, too, for an employer who still believes writing is worth my time.

Just today I dropped by the regular Friday morning café for my weekly liturgical meal of eggs and mushrooms. Away for a month, it was nice to be missed.
‘Where did you go?’ my waiter asked as I took my seat.
‘What did you do there?’ He’s a pushy bloke; a Frenchman with not a skerrick of reserve.
‘Write?’ he asked, his eyebrows raised. ‘Really? Why would you do that?’
I laughed. ‘Because I can’t help myself.’

I can’t really. In fact, the older I get the more I need to write. I don’t know why. It’s not because I’m especially good at it. ‘Ok’ has to be good enough most of the time. There is nothing like the exceptional writing of others to keep aspirations modest. And it’s not the need to be read either. Truth be told, ninety-percent of what I write will never see the light of day. It has something to do with the way I’m built. If I’m not writing, I’m not doing well.

Laurie-Penny-007Before I went away, I read a piece by the English journalist Laurie Penny titled, ‘Why I Write.’ It was timely, a good dose of encouragement to take with me. In the midst of her writerly wisdom, there were two things I packed away.

First, the normalcy of this obsession. As with with all compulsions, I suppose, those who are struck with it are those who understand it. Like singers who sing or runners who run, those who write know the urge from the inside. ‘Most of today’s best never expected to be widely read but wrote anyway,’ Penny says. ‘They write not because they think that a writer is something somebody like them really ought to be, but because they can do nothing else without betraying their own spirit. They write because if they don’t get the words out, they would be eaten away from the inside. They write because they have no choice.’

So, I’m not completely odd.

Second, the permission to keep at it. Honestly, sometimes I feel guilty about writing. Surely, I think to myself, it’s only the precociously gifted who can justify the time it demands. Not so, Penny says. In this, the ‘golden age of writing’, never before have so many written so much and published so easily — from the inane to the sublime and everything in between. No longer do we inhabit the age of the Alexandrian library, a ‘finite and fragile’ collection all shelved within easy reach. ‘We are in a vaster, stranger place altogether,’ Penny writes, ‘and the number of stories yet to tell sends recalcitrants into a delicious panic.’ And then this: ‘The shelves are stacked with the sacred and the profane, the tragic and the obscene, slush and trash and death notes and love letters, and somewhere in the dark of the farthest stacks are volumes yet to be written. One of them is yours. Make it count.’

I’ll keep trying.

Buttoning Shirt

The Dressing Prayer

A Celtic prayer for daily life

This day I bind around me
The power of the sacred Three:
The hand to hold,
The heart to love,
The eye to see,
The Presence of the Trinity.

I wrap around my mortal frame
The power of the Creator’s name:
The Father’s might.
His holy arm,
To shield this day
and keep from Harm.

I cover myself from above
With the Redeemer’s love
The Son’s bright light
to shine on me,
To protect this day,
to eternity.

I pull around me with morning light
The knowledge of
the Spirit’s sight.
The Strengthener’s eye
to keep guard,
Covering my path
when it is hard.

This day I bind around me
The powers of the sacred Three.

UnknownDavid Adam, Tides and Seasons: Modern Prayers in the Celtic Tradition, SPCK, 1989, 11.


Tim Foster and the ‘burbs

FosterCover_Catalogue_Screen_WithBorder-180x273When there’s ‘bugger all’ on the bookshelf that addresses the unique challenges of Australia’s urban and suburban neighbourhoods for the mission of the church, the arrival of a book like Tim Foster’s The Suburban Captivity of the Church is worth cheering for.

Books like this one flow in a steady torrent from North America, but the cultural differences are vast. Given that we are among the most urbanised societies on earth and take first place in the propagation of suburbia, it’s always frustrating to me that we’re content to let the thoughtful missiology of other places set the agenda for us to the extent it does.

Tim is an Anglican minister who currently shares in the leadership of Melbourne’s Ridley College. His book arises out of his own transitions in ministry, from the leafy surrounds of Sydney’s middle suburbs to the cultural and social diversity of the inner city. With this move comes the challenge of understanding the nature of ‘the good news’ in a community whose values and perspectives on the world contrast so starkly with those of the near but distant ‘burbs. Given how much the values of suburbia have shaped the church’s understanding of the gospel, Tim makes the case that we are pressed ever more urgently to the work of contextualization.

In part, I would think, the test of a good book it that it spurs a reaction. Tim’s book does this for me. Though we have never met, I have a suspicion that Tim and I might have some theological differences. Perhaps Tim has a clearer sense of the gospel as ‘a message’ — a clearly defined and methodically presented outline of truths —than I do. The book is written in two parts. As helpful as Part 1 might be, I came to the end of it feeling as though Tim’s priority on a right ‘understanding’ of the gospel message and a better ‘presentation’ of its truths was not one I could embrace with enthusiasm. To be honest (and probably unfair), his alternative readings of ‘the gospel’ left me feeling as though those ‘four spiritual laws’ were hovering ominously in the background.

That said, Part 2 was more engaging read. Tim’s attempts at exegeting the cultures of the inner city ‘yuppies,’ ‘hipsters’ and ‘battlers’ (among others), points the reader to the importance of taking our contexts and communities as seriously as we do our sacred texts. What’s more, it’s here that Tim looks for ‘gospel themes’ that emerge from this engagement. There is much here that is challenging for an urban pastor like me. I would only long for a more sustained engagement that Tim can provide here.

As someone who attempts to write about similar issues, I commend Tim for the book. If it helps practitioners like me to engage more intentionally and intelligently with our own neighbourhoods, and from a distinctly local perspective, then it has served us well.

Tim-Website_370x370Tim Foster, The Suburban Captivity of the Church: Contextualising the Gospel for Post-Christian Australia, Moreland: Acorn Press, 2014.

Thomas Kelly on tenderness

“There is a tendering of the soul toward everything in creation, from the sparrow’s fall to the slave under the lash. The hard-lined face of a money-bitten financier is as deeply touching to the tendered soul as are the burned-out eyes of the miners’ children, remote and unseen victims of his so-called success. There is a sense in which, in this terrible tenderness, we become one with God and bear in our quivering souls the sins and burdens, the benightedness and the tragedy of the creatures of the whole world, and suffer in their suffering, and die in their death.”

267213Thomas R. Kelly, Testament of Devotion, New York: HarperCollins, 1992 (1941), 64.