On (not) being ordained

I first felt a gentle nudge towards Christian leadership in my late teens. This was quite a surprise to me at the time, as I was barely a Christian, and not yet a member of a recognised church community.

In my mid twenties, while on a 6-month mission trip to South America, I experienced a number of subtle (and some pretty emphatically unsubtle) pointers that seemed to come from God, and convinced me of a call to full-time Christian ministry.

When I came back to the UK, almost everyone I spoke to about this sense of call considered that it was to the Priesthood that I should go. I was never 100% sure – but then, who in their right mind would be? So I made enquiries and discovered that I should speak to someone with the odd sounding title of Diocesan Director of Ordinands. I spent a year or so chatting to this lovely man, all the while feeling neither of us quite understood what the other was going on about. I found a job as a Pastoral Assistant (a sort of ecclesiastical go-fer), and spent a year seeing if the vicar thing might fit… I enjoyed my year, but the DDO and I mutually concluded that neither the Church nor I were ready for each other.

So I entered a period of youth work, initially for a national organisation (but ½ time working for an Anglican church), and then for an Anglican church, and then an Anglican deanery (group of churches). Every time I moved jobs, I explored options outside of the CofE, but each time the only door that seemed to be open was within its gates, and so I remained a coincidental, if conscientious, Anglican.

While working for the Deanery, I again felt a significant tug towards ordained ministry. The Church of England had produced a pretty radical and exciting document called ‘Mission Shaped Church’, that argued for an acceptance and resourcing of broader models of church community and mission. Some of the things they said resonated with areas of mission and community life that I had felt instinctively drawn towards for some time.

Mission Shaped Church spawned a movement of some significance within the CofE, including the creation of ‘Ordained Pioneer Ministers’ (OPM). That seemed to fit my sense of spiritual identity and calling, so off I popped to see another DDO.

After what seemed like an eternity, including some time of semi-voluntary work as a pioneer type person for a church, the DDO agreed that I should go forward to the next stage in the discernment process – the Bishops’ Advisory Panel (or BAP). This is an intensive weekend, where your every movement is monitored by a sinister team of people. That description may not be entirely accurate. Anyway, against advice I made it clear that any calling I felt was to be an OPM, not a more traditional Priest. To my significant surprise, they recommended me for training. They actually seemed quite fond of me.

So I started at a theological college, and have spent the last 3 years reading for a degree in Contextual Theology. During this time I have also been working as a pioneer type for the same church in East London.

During this time of of study and work, and especially the final year, the wrestling with the call to ordained ministry has, if anything, intensified. For mostly utterly forgiveable reasons, the institutional structures of the Church have struggled to keep up with the theory of the new forms of church. Old habits die hard. Actually, many of those old habits don’t need to die – they are still appropriate for a good number of people. Old habits have a tendency to not give new habits all the room they need to flourish…

And so, as my peers were finding curacies, and getting ready to start the next stage of their ministry, I wasn’t.

There were not many pioneer curacies around, and those that did exist had an awful lot of other stuff to do as well, stuff that I just don’t feel called to do, that others can do with significantly more sincerity, authenticity and passion. The sense was that the pioneering element was usually an add-on to the ‘actual’ job.

I have really tried hard to play the game with integrity. Some have seen my increasing sense of the kind of ministry I feel called to as a stubborn refusal to do “what everyone else had to do”. But the thought of spending 3-4 years dong a job that brought me little life began to suffocate me. There is a degree of salesmanship in any church ministry, and I just don’t believe in the product enough to sell it convincingly.

I know the product works for some, I have seen this evidence with my own eyes. I even have friends for whom it is the only product that helps them. I want them to thrive, and so I want them to have ready access to that product. I’m just not the man to maintain it for them. I have another, similar yet different, model to sell. I believe in it, it works for me, and I have seen it work for others. The problem is that the Church is just not ready to have the range of products necessary for my sales technique to work.

And so I have made the decision to not get ordained. For now. Most people I have told are supportive of my decision, some have expressed concern or doubt. I’m trusting God will lead me here. Ordained ministry is still a possibility, but for now it feels like the disadvantages outweigh the advantages. We shall see.

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