Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Seeing the Good

Things have changed. Everything has changed. Nothing has changed.

So I've been doing this job for twenty-five years. For those who care I started at St Jude's Mapperley, Nottingham and was curate there from 1984 - 1988. Three other couples, not regular church-goers, who we met at the school door the day our kids started, are still friends and, get this, are all still married to the same person. We've done about 130 years between us. I did an 8.00 a.m. Book of Common Prayer communion every Sunday for four years. Several members of the youth group are now in full-time Christian ministry despite the youth group meeting twelve hours after the 8.00 a.m. communion every Sunday. Ian, now a retired archdeacon, taught me the basics and did it well. Mrs Mustard began a career in retail by earning a small amount in a shop, part-time, when she wasn't being a nice Mummy.

Then I moved to Chester-le-Street in County Durham and was one of the ones who refused to sign the petition against the new cricket ground. I was hated for that. The first clergy colleague who ever understood me deeply got more hours out of me in the next five years than anyone ever had before or has since. When things get a bit busy these days I remember Chester-le-Street and turn the energy dial up to eleven. Thanks Geoff. He asked me if there was anything I hadn't done in ministry that I'd like to have a go at. When I said 'writing' he gave me time to do it. It's his fault, this. Several members of the youth group are now in full-time Christian ministry. We ran a restaurant in an old butchers for three weeks as part of the Christmas Cracker project.

In 1992 I was invited to apply for a youth ministry job at the Church Pastoral Aid Society (CPAS) which I was eventually appointed to after the worst interview of my life. Thanks Phil. 'I wanted to see how you'd react to aggressive questioning.' I spent two years as a trainer-editor for the Church Youth Fellowships Association (CYFA) which at the time was the sponsor of the largest number of church youth groups in the Church of England. Then I was appointed Head of that organisation when Phil left. I remember early starts, great training colleagues with brilliant ideas, lively editorial meetings and immense creativity. A series of books to teach the Bible to teenagers grew to 20 titles and I had a lot to do with writing, editing or commissioning the last 18. I made a point of working with young, unpublished authors if I could, including the guy who has now become the Archbishop of York's communications officer.

Then it all went wrong. Several re-organisations and refocuses, mergings of departments, lowerings of budgets and I looked around and I was alone, training youth leaders and writing resources without a team around me. I resolved to leave but was persuaded to stay and be a bit of history in an organisation that was losing its identity rapidly. I did three more years. I suffered a debilitating back injury playing football, which wouldn't get better and seemed stress-related. I had a couple of adrenalin-rush attacks and a doctor told me to 'sort my life out.' I look back with sadness at that time. CYFA has all but vanished but no-one has ever offered to hold a thanksgiving service for its work and put it to sleep properly. Around the country churches still have CYFA groups (my own does) but it doesn't mean anything apart from a name. I hope, one day, to remedy that using the Godstuff brand.

I left on the tenth anniversary of my appointment on 30/9/02 and went to work at my local church, St Paul's Leamington, part-time. I got rid of my car and walked everywhere. I wrote part-time for a living and surprised myself by earning £8,000 a year at this, for four years, on two days a week. My first book was published to little acclaim but I'm still proud of writing it. Being part of a local community and doing a few ministry jobs was great and I learned to use Alpha as a ministry tool, co-set-up Cafe Create and sponsored an ordinand for the first time. Thanks Jonathan. Your theological conservatism does my head in (you're too smart not to be liberal) but your support fixed my life and I appreciate that.

Mrs M, freed from the task of being Mummy, gradually started to shoot up (shouldn't stop the sentence there) the retail career ladder and became full-time sales, senior sales, deputy manager, manager and regional manager in about eight years. The boys left home, several times, eventually for ever.

Four years on I felt ready to dip my toe back in the water and this triple (three part-jobs) Nailsea challenge was thrown me, a place where the previous post-holder at Trendlewood Church had died tragically after nine months in the job and the guy before that had left after an inappropriate relationship. Three years on and things first stabilised, then a colleague left and the vacancy was sixteen months, a bit longer than we expected and just this last week a new normal has emerged of a full team and some space to do what I came here to do. I am already talking to three ordinands about future ministries. There are plenty of things that looked good enough for the first three years but in the light of a slight increase in temperature and a small growth in numbers now look inadequate and need fixing. We can do better with our worship life, our discipleship, our outreach and we may need to find another building (we meet in a school, but got close to feeling full last Sunday). Our management committee is dysfunctional and I am not sure why. I blame the Chair who, sadly, is me.

But whilst own-trumpet-blowing is not one of my priorities someone said this to me yesterday in an email that they didn't have to send:

'During your 3 years with us, I believe that you have brought a fresh look to the Trendlewood services. I think that Trendlewood now provides a distinctive set of services that are not matched by other churches in Nailsea. I like the informal, educational nature - particularly the attempts to put the Bible into the context of events at the time. I find this helpful when trying to understand the text.

'I find Trendlewood to be a friendly and encouraging environment to learn about God.'

And a small tear crept out. That is probably the nicest thing anyone has said to me in twenty five years. Why? Because it was out of the blue, heart-felt and not from someone who puts pen to paper to say nice things every week. Encouragers are good but if it is something they do all the time you can't judge its meaning or value.

The other bit of my work here is a bit of blank canvas to do with the future of Fresh Expressions in Nailsea. Things have been tried but haven't gone that well. My work in other churches has been less straightforward. I am tired and about to take a break.

Mrs M's 'region' became half her company and I last spoke to her on Monday night although we still live together. She knows what she means to me. As a new set of Alpha course members met her recently I could hear them thinking, 'How did he do so well for himself?' I agree with them. It is a puzzling question.

Thanks to Bob for being a friend, spiritual mentor and guide and the daftest genius I have ever met. Thanks to Richard for managerial advice, support and great lunches in the Forest of Dean whilst telling me straight how I had got it wrong. Thanks to everyone who has asked difficult questions, said something when they disagreed and pointed out how things could improve round here.

What's the big theme? There are two. One is developing other people. Maybe born out of laziness but that can work. 'How can I get someone else to do this?' It's a great ministry question? The other is Jesus, the likeness of the invisible God. If you want to know what God is like look at Jesus, point people to Jesus show them Jesus and be Jesus to them if you can. Thirdly (I lied about there being two) improve the church coffee. Always improve the coffee. How difficult it proves to be to improve the coffee will be a marker for how difficult it will be to change the church.

Sorry this was a bit self-indulgent but I needed to take stock and you helped me.

Things have changed. Everything has changed. Nothing has changed.


Kathryn said...

Happy Silver Jubilee, Steve...Your 25 years make interesting, challenging, exciting reading. Lots of blessings on the next phase - and I'm so pleased that random emailers recognise the difference you make.

Suddy said...

WOW - what an amazing journey - feel privileged to have floated in and out of that journey of yours - I found out about 4 years ago that a distant friend of our family was part of the team that originally set up CPAS (and ultimately CYFA) what I found out about its origins and original vision staggered me as to how subversive and radical it was (if it still had the same vision we would be seeing it as just as radical today. I to am sad at how CYFA ended up - I have fond memories of being taken on them as a child and trained up on them as a leader.

Caroline Too said...

how lovely to read your story, st, thank you for being indulgent..

I remember back to the days of Don's CYFA houseparties...when we last met, nearly 30 years ago... Don listed the people from the housparty who had headed into the ministry... heading towards 50 at the time... and I read something of the same in your story, people being called to serve, but I also noticed less mention of ordination as the story wound on... because you've learned to see a wider story of service? just a guess...

Congratulations, st, our heavenly father looks on, nudges the angel next door to him, points to you and says, sotto voce, "that's my boy!"

RuthJ said...

How true, and yet how daunting - 'Encouragers are good but if it is something they do all the time you can't judge its meaning or value.' I had a very similar discussion with a colleague only today. As a signed-up encourager I need to be sure I don't devalue the currency; and I need to be careful that what I say is strictly true and not just aimed at making the other person feel better. But I'd hate to think my positives were automatically discounted, however valid, just because they come in quantity as well as quality.

Perhaps my credibility will be saved by that well-known caustic edge which had me nominated by colleagues to share St's Lenten abstinence from cutting rejoinders. I like to view it as the horseradish sauce which adds relish to the beef.

OK, St, I will continue with the thrusts that whistle past your ear, too close for comfort, but may I also be allowed to say with credibility that I value you a lot.

Di said...

What great encouragement. Thank you for sharing your journey, it certainly sounds an interesting one. Random emails of encouragement are sometimes what are needed to spur you on to your next challenges.

You got me reminising about my CYFA group, I think I started at St Pauls as you finished leading the group.

Hadge said...

Congrats Stevie Boy! A mention of good old St John's and the incomparable Supergroup and not forgetting the Mighty Reds would have put the whole thing into context (or maybe not!) - happy days! Go well my friend ;0)

Andy said...

Awesome words St. Just starting to wake from a 2 year faith slumber (coinciding with the birth of both of my daughters) and this just reminds me of the passion and awesome potential for helping people that lies ahead of us all, and I hope, for me.

Thanks for the prod on facebook, I had forgotten to drop in here regularly, but I shan't forget again.


Mike Peatman said...

Wow. Is it really 25 years. I remember giving you a smile when coming back from communion (an acknowledgment seemed in order) You said afterwards I was the only person who did.

Anyway you are the best best man I have ever had!

Caroline Too said...

hmm, st as best man... you like living dangerously don't you Mike!

Steve C said...

As one of the young and unpublished writers, it was much appreciated and very exciting. I'm now a very long way from being either young or unpublished, and one of those things is partly your fault. Thank you, for that and everything else. I think there is great wisdom in the coffee observation, too.