Ministry Reflections: The first 150 Days

It is common, upon the election or appointment of a new leader, for people to keep a close eye on the “first 100 days”. These days are sometimes seen as a means of measuring the tone and policy of a new regime: the actions and decisions taken by an incumbent in these days giving a sense of what is to come.

Unfortunately, I have missed the opportunity to reflect on my first “100 days” of parish ministry. This is because, believe it or not, the first few months of full-time ministry are quite busy!! This is also reflected in that this is the first time in several months I’ve been able to share my reflections here.

I was ordained and inducted as Parish Minister of Clincarthill Parish Church on the 27th October 2016. As such, today marks my first 150 days of full-time parish ministry. Since I missed my first 100 days, I thought I would use this milestone as an opportunity to share some thoughts on my first few months as sole minister of a congregation.

Starting Well

Coming to a congregation as a new minister is quite daunting, especially when that congregation is your first charge! With the best will in the world, there is nothing that can prepare you for the unique task of ministry: and I say that having had a very helpful and thorough training experience!

The first few steps seem, at the time, the most difficult: following the procedures which are set out to allow you to discern and follow God’s call to a congregation, leading to your ordination and induction. This process can be very draining, and I certainly felt a sense of relief when the it was complete: I had finally made it!

This relief was, however, short lived. A realisation quickly set in: I’m now the minister to a congregation of 230 members. These people are now my responsibility. I have services to prepare, and visits to conduct, so as to feed their faith, and look after their spiritual well-being. Above all else, I need to get to know these people; for, how am I to lead these people, if I do not know them?

Maintaining Balance

Before long, Christmas was upon us. This was a mixed blessing: on the one hand, the congregation have their traditions and expectations, and in a sense, can just get on with these. On the other hand: the congregation have their traditions and expectations, and some of these things required my input.

Now, don’t get me wrong: the Christmas period is a wonderful time, where people soften slightly to the message of Jesus. It was wonderful to so soon celebrate my first Christmas with my new congregation.

Unfortunately, the busy-ness of this period meant the rhythm and pattern of ministry, which I established over my first month, was disrupted. The shape of each week became increasingly unpredictable: I was not able to visit people as regularly as I would have like, and my time was increasingly taken up by events and preparation for various upcoming services.

I began to realise I was falling into one of the pitfalls of ministry: poor work-life balance. There are few jobs where you can get up at 8am, work continually throughout the day (especially when your office is in your home!) and only stop working because you think it’s about time you went to bed…!

Trusting God

Thankfully, I have a very wise wife, and she had the foresight to do 2 things:

  1. Book us a holiday!
  2. Remind me that I had friends to talk to.

Both these were wonderfully helpful.

The holiday was helpful, for I now had a target: I knew when my next break would come and I could push on through my work until then.

And, of course, catching up with friends is always helpful. I enjoyed being able to catch up with people socially, but I also appreciated the insight some friends were able to provide. Most helpful, I think was a quote one friend shared with me:

The best thing you can do for your congregation is look after your own spiritual life.

Would you believe that it that I, the new minister, had been neglecting his prayer and devotional life!? Scripture and prayer are at the centre of all I do and believe, and yet I had not been immersing myself in these things. As I was ministering to my people, I had been failing to minster to myself!

Sustaining and Persevering

This was a moment of clarity for me, and helped change my perspective on a few vital things.

First, although I have a unique role as parish minister, I am more aware of God’s role in these things. Yes, I have my tasks and duties, but ultimately, I am a servant, whose job it is to point people away from myself and toward God. I take seriously the words of John the Baptist: “He must become greater, I must become less”. (John 3:30 NIVUK).

Second, I have found greater joy and sustenance from my devotional life. I would be the first to confess I am yet to get the balance right: it is still sometimes too easy to set aside time for prayer and Bible study in order to do other things. But I now appreciate the discipline at a much deeper level: when I practice it, I am uplifted; when I neglect it, I am aware that something is missing.

I am amazed, as well, at how much has happened in my first 150 days of ministry: and this post doesn’t even cover half of it! What I’ve shared here are some specific moments, and all focused on my experience of God and faith: I haven’t even said anything about my work in the congregation or the parish!

What is clear, I think, from these 150 days is the way God works. He is (thankfully!) gracious enough to sustain me in ministry, even when I do give Him His rightful place. And (thankfully!) He is quick to show us where things are not right, and loving enough to give us His Spirit, who helps conform us to the likeness of Jesus.

I am excited what lies ahead of me in ministry: the joys, as well as the challenges. But, more than anything, I am excited to see what God can and will do through me, as I do what I can to devote my life to Him, and give my service as a shepherd of His people.

Faith Journey 8: A Picture Paints A Thousand Words

Sometimes words fail us. This can feel uncomfortable: I think, especially in Western culture, we like to have an answer for everything. We aren’t always comfortable with silence, we aren’t always comfortable when we don’t know what to say.

At my most recent session of Spiritual Accompaniment, we reflected on how God can speak to us through pictures.

God primarily speaks to us through His Word: the Bible. It is important, when listening for God through other mediums, that what we hear should be in agreement with God’s Word in Scripture. God is consistent, so will not give us a personal revelation which in some way contradicts the revelation of the Bible.

What we sometimes find, depending on how our mind works, other mediums can speak to us, and affirm what God says to us in the Bible.

When I met for Spiritual Accompaniment, we reflected on this painting:

This is quite a famous painting of the story of the Prodigal Son, by Rembrandt. As I looked at this painting, I was led through the following meditation:

QuietTake a moment to quieten and still yourself before God. You may wish to focus on your breathing: take deep, steady breaths. Thoughts may pop into you mind: acknowledge these, and lay them to one side. This is time for you and God.

Take time to acknowledge that God is present. Ground yourself in the knowledge that God is here, and ask that He may speak to you during this time.

ConsiderNow look at the picture. Take in all that you see. Is it a familiar image? If so, what is it about? Is it a new image? If so, what do you see? What sort of things jump out to you?

What is God saying to you through this picture? Ask Him to show you what He has to say to you. Take in the picture as a whole before moving on to any details.

NoticeLet your eye wander to some of the details in the picture now. What is your eye drawn to? Is it a person? Is it a detail? What have you noticed? Focus in on these details.

Is your eye drawn to a person? Which person? Do you identify with any of them, perhaps by how they are positioned, or what they look like? Why do you think you identify with them in particular?

Is your eye drawn to a detail? If so, why did this detail stand out to you? What do you notice about this detail?

Ask God to speak to you through whatever you have seen.

PrayThrough what you’ve seen, first give thanks to God for what you have seen. Now, ask God to speak to you through what you’ve seen. Is there something in your life with which this is connecting? Is there a message you can take away and reflect on further? Talk to God about this, and ask for his guidance to know what to do with this.

It may be that nothing stood out to you. If this is the case, talk to God about that: what does it feel like to have found nothing? Ask that God may speak to you another way.

I found this a helpful exercise, as I tend to think rather visually. Perhaps you might find it helpful, if you think in pictures.

I was also given another picture to take way with me. I’ll share this with you too, in the hope you might find it beneficial too!

Practising Ministry 1: The Gospel As Centre

I have had a mixed relationship with journalling. As part of my earlier training in ministry, I had to keep a journal. I didn’t always find this helpful, as I do most of my reflecting in my head and don’t feel the need to write it down.

As I enter my final period of training, keeping a journal is no longer a requirement. Despite not always enjoying it, I do see why keeping a journal is useful. But I also wanted to do something more substantial, which not only helps me, but also is (hopefully!!) of benefit to others.

So, I’m starting a new series of blog posts, which will not only reflect on my ministry practice, but also to hopefully give you an insight into what the life and work of a minister is like (if you aren’t a church leader), or perhaps to offer another perspective which you might find helpful (if you are reading as a church leader).

Practice or Practise?
I’ve been quite deliberate in my spelling of practise in the title. This is something I often get very wrong, but I checked for the benefit of this series:

  • Practice: a noun, for example: Doctor’s Practice;
  • Practise: a verb, for example: practising piano.

Either could be applied to ministry. I have deliberately chosen to talk about ministry practise, since you could say that, in my training, I am practising to be a minister! Although I still have a ministry in my own right at my placement, I’m still in the process of practising for what it will be like when I have a congregation of my own!

The Gospel As Centre
To help me in these reflections, I’m going to be drawing from this book. Edited by Don Carson and Timothy Keller, The Gospel As Center encourages church leaders to think seriously about their ministry practice in light of particular aspects of the Christian faith.

The first chapter, written by Carson and Keller, explains the principles upon which their organisation are founded (The Gospel Coalition). These also apply to the contents of the rest of the book.

The central principle they describe is that the Gospel must be the foundation upon which we build our ministry. This is due to the fact that only the Gospel can truly transform people’s lives (What is the Gospel?).

As ministers, we represent and extend this to people when we meet them. We don’t come representing ourselves, but representing Christ and the good news that He has forgiven them and can transform them. This means we can have confidence in our ministry, because it is grounded on the sure foundation of the Gospel.

We might be tempted to build our ministry on other foundations (for example, our personality), but these things come from us, and cannot bear the weight which usually comes with ministry.

The Gospel, however, comes from God, and therefore can bear this weight. Which is why, as I begin this series, I start with the foundational principle that only the Gospel can truly support the task of ministry.

The Gospel must by the centre!