For the last four years, alongside my role at the University of Roehampton, I’ve been working in Circuit in Warwickshire, undertaking a number of pastoral roles. It is an understatement to say that Circuit ministry during that time has been a tad challenging. Even before the global pandemic took hold sixteen months ago, Circuits were facing diminishing resources, shortages of clergy and volunteers, and the increasing demands of governance, reporting and compliance. Put simply, Methodism entered the covid-crisis in pretty bad shape and lockdown has been far from kind.
I’ve already shared some of my own struggles over the last year or so, including bereavement and a surprising discovery of neurodivergence. For these, and other reasons, I felt there was no alternative but to suspend my doctoral studies for a year to allow some space to deal with stuff. Meanwhile, of course, life has gone on and I have learnt to work remotely with colleagues at Southlands and around the world via zoom, as well as try to offer what pastoral leadership I could within the Circuit. With the superb leadership team and members of Dignity and Worth, we overcame our disappointment at the decision to defer decisions about marriage until the Methodist Conference of 2021 and worked hard to maintain the momentum for change within the church. It paid off in the overwhelming votes achieved and the subsequent very positive press. Of course, whilst important, the Conference decisions are only the first steps and there is much more work to do to implement them in local churches. No wonder I feel a bit weary as I write this!
One of the more positive aspects of the enforced recent lockdowns has been the chance to take some quality time to reflect on life more deeply. My own focus was on vocation, how it had lead me to this point and where it might be leading me next. It became a very rich vein to tap and I began to see how the different facets of my calling fitted together. I also reflected on the responsibility given to me to discern with others the particular places and roles where this calling might be fulfilled, in the new context of a growing understanding of my neurodivergence and how it affected the way I live, relate and minister to others.
As the end of lockdown approached back in May, it became increasingly plain that a return to the full range of pre-pandemic activities would not be possible. One of the hardest lessons of ADHD is the need to create structures and frameworks to aid focus and then to stick to them! The second hardest is learning to leave gaps in the framework and to resist the urge to schedule every minute. I reckon it’s a bit like planning a car journey and making sure you factor in stops for rest and refuelling. My pre-covid pattern had consisted of too many journeys without stops, leading to periods where I had completely run out of juice and was forced onto the hard shoulder.
Working in a number of part-time roles also meant that things often spilled over and it was hard to recover the balance. I have long advocated for the Methodist Church to increase the availability of part-time, shared and flexible ministerial appointments to allow a much greater diversity of people to offer their gifts to local Circuits. I see now that this involves much more than agreeing the amount of stipend and the days of work. There is a need for a change in mindset that encourages members to see the ordained minister as one of a range of ministers, all with particular gifts to be used in focussed ways, rather than the first port of call ,always available whatever the need. My own experience suggests that local members are reluctant to make the change, preferring to use clergy increasingly as a triage service to decide how best to respond to each and every situation. The idea that there will be times when the ordained will not be available each week feels like removing a safety net.
I have also begun to notice that, where I have been able to stop, the result has been an outburst of creativity. It occurred to me that, in the past, it has been in those times when I was externally constrained by a lack of energy, wifi or movement (especially on a longhaul flight!) that my brain seemed to unfurl life a flower in the sunlight. Coming out of this lockdown, I began to toy with the possibility of creating patterns of work and life that intentionally created these spaces and didn’t just rely on a lack of connectivity!
After much soul-searching, therefore, I came to the conclusion that the only way to achieve this new pattern was to step back from pastoral ministry for the time being, It has been one of the most difficult decisions I have had to make and leaves me with a feeling of disappointment and guilt. Despite it being the right move, I am so sad to wirhtdrawing from the pastoral charge of some fantastic rural chapels, who have reminded me of the abundance of love and faith to be found in some of our smallest fellowships. I would dearly love to continue to serve these rural communities who have been through so much in the last twenty years and, like most of rural Methodism, are feeling neglected and marginalised. As I look across the Connexion, I am fearful that the current direction of travel will do little to cherish and nurture these jewels in our crown and Methodism will seek to be an evermore urban denomination. In these past few months, I have rediscovered a real connection with rural mission and ministry and will continue to support rural Methodists in any way that I can.
In practical terms, this means that, from 1st September, I will no longer be in Circuit and will focus on my work as Partnerships and Research Officer with Southland College and the Susanna Wesley Foundation. I will also be restarting my doctoral studies with the University of Roehampton and owe a huge debt to Dr Ash Cocksworth and Dr Clare Watkins for their continuing support and encouragement. This will leave me with spare time, initially to be used to heal and learn about my own wellbeing, and then to dream dreams and develop visions. I am committed to exercising the preaching ministry which sits at the very heart of my vocation, as well as refocussing on the ministry of reconciliation that forms the golden thread that binds the different facets of my calling together. I will also devote more time to my vocation to love and support my partner as he enters the final stages of his PhD research.
I am moving into a new phase of life and ministry, something that is both scary and exciting. For one who has often been terrified of empty spaces, the temptation to fill them as quickly as possible will be hard to resist. So I am grateful to Catherine Simmons for her poetry that seeks to reassure me that it will be worth it in the end:
beneath the chatter of the world,
enveloped in a rich, pregnant silence,
winds its way through the spaces between.
You’ll know it, because you’ve felt it.
And you’ll know the discomfort between this and that.
When you’re feeling lost and fidgety:
I am your Ghost Writer.
I am your un-seen.
I am The Instigator,
The Presence in your being.
You are incandescent in your own blackened wasteland,
strewn with soot and chaff.
Bold as brass among the silverware.
Like broken shards of light upon the glass.
Discomfort is a hallowed bunion of pithiness and point.
Our most painful, unbearable bits, are the best way in.
If we’d only stop and sit.
Listen to the language of the heart:
Sit with it.
A vast and ancient wilderness.
Fierce as the seven seas
and tender as a mother’s arms.
Space is full of magic, power and light.
A vibrancy that lifts our stature, fills our bones.
A shortcut to delight.
Don’t rush into thoughts, but sit down in your soul.
Let your body do the talking.
Feel all the messages it brings.
Are they feelings of joy and peace, tingling and ease?
Or perhaps a sagging sorrow?
Hope for tomorrow?
Settling into confidence that holds your heart in place,
As though suspended from a force that’s far greater from within
Far greater than flesh and bone,
and far from commonplace.
You might feel:
I’m not quite here or there, but in between, somewhere.
I’ve got nothing or too much to do and no place to go.
Or something isn’t quite right in my soul.
You’ll have to sit and face the void.
Face your fidgeting, your fussing and your feelings.
Face the lot.
We’re so used to filling space,
that we lose the simplicity of each moment’s grace.
Confidence grows with awareness.
And that’s the magic within.
The power of presence,
in the spaces in between.
Author: Catherine Simmons https://www.elephantjournal.com/2017/01/there-is-magic-in-the-spaces-in-between-poem/