Reflections on beginning in ministry
I can tell by the way you’re searching
For something you can’t even name
That you haven’t been able to come to the table
Simply glad that you came.
-Mary Chapin Carpenter, Jubilee
I can now sleep the night before I preach—soundly, even, if I’m lucky. But there were many years when I was both sick to my stomach and sleep-deprived every time I had to deliver a sermon. I remember my first time preaching at the main Sunday morning service at St. Jude’s, Oakville, Ont. It was very early in my time as an assistant curate (usually just shortened to “curate”), which is a two- to three-year paid placement at the outset of ordained ministry, working under the supervision of a more senior priest. Given how new I was to preaching at that time, I was no doubt exceptionally shadow-eyed and green with nausea.
I was describing my inner turmoil to two wonderful listeners ahead of the service. Terri and Hamish attended the main service, and Hamish sang in the senior choir. They were sympathetic and kind. And then Hamish said something that floored me. “You know, just remember that we’re all rooting for you,” he said.
To say that these simple words of support were so impactful makes it sound as if I haven’t been surrounded by supportive words throughout my life, but that couldn’t be further from the truth. I grew up in a family that showered love and support upon me and my brother, in both word and deed. I have always been blessed with trusted and caring friends, as well.
What I had experienced less—or maybe not at all—was a learning community that saw its job as directing goodwill and supportive shelter personally to me. I was 25 at the time. I had just completed seven years of post-secondary education. Which means that for the better part of 20 years, I had been learning competitively. I thrived at doing so. From Grade 9 to the end of my Master of Divinity, there was rarely a class or a school year in which I wasn’t quantifiably top. Every single thing that I learned needed to be proven on paper, with a test or an essay that could then be given a percentage mark and a ranking. I understood my worth to be intimately tied up in each and every percentage point, and I assessed a teacher’s interest in my learning to be driven by those marks, too. “If you keep going like this,” the assistant dean of the music faculty casually said to me at the third-year students’ awards ceremony, “I expect you’ll get the Governor General’s medal next year.” My mom overheard the comment and understood exactly how his words gut-punched me with dread. “So now you have to worry about getting the medal,” she muttered. I hadn’t even known such a thing existed, and now I felt the weight of having to win it.
I handled the pressure of school reasonably well, mostly because my particular strengths were so well-suited to academic success. But that one telling comment—“we’re rooting for you”—at the outset of this brand new learning environment undid me. There wouldn’t be a mark at the end of this sermon. I wouldn’t be ranked. And I was in a community of people whose active hope and prayer for me, for me as a person in community with them, was that I would grow, learn and thrive.
In fact, St. Jude’s offered me in those years exactly what the church can and should be to one another, however imperfectly. The church both sheltered and made room for me. I was allowed to try my hand at different leadership roles. I was given enough latitude to settle into those duties that seemed especially far outside of my comfort zone, and I was able to be nervous and inexperienced (and yes, nauseous) because the assumption was that I was learning and that was OK. I was shown kindness and friendship. Michael, the rector at that time, took time to talk through his own learning processes with me, to loop me into the challenges of leadership, to generously offer affirmation of the gifts he saw in me, to gently nudge me in corrections along the way and to shield me from any negativity directed toward me and my work—which must have existed in the congregation, but which he didn’t consider constructive in my growth.
It is important to say that all of this was provided for me in the imperfect way that human beings, particularly human beings in community, provide anything. If these years sound too rosy and romantic, as something less than real, then I am doing a disservice to both that time and those people. Habits from the world outside of the church—those habits of how we rank and grade and compare one another, assigning worth to people according to how we do or don’t measure up—occasionally crept in.
Looking back, I suspect that the greatest imperfections in the church’s offering to me was in my receipt of it. It’s only in the rearview mirror that I understand how much of a free pass that time actually was from the scramble of relentlessly having to prove myself. I was only able to receive a portion of the goodwill that the community was prepared to offer me. I kept defaulting to the assumption that their goodwill depended on my continuing to measure up. I know that at times my need for reassurance and affirmation must have taken up a lot of space; I definitely know that my insecurity sometimes played out in the false bravado of knowing all the answers and convincing myself (if not others) that I had much more figured out than I actually did. “I was such a punk at times,” I have said to Michael in the years since, laughing. “I don’t know how you put up with me.” But he did, and St. Jude’s did. They did much more than put up with me. They took any of my silliness, born of insecurity, with a heaping pinch of salt; they gave me the benefit of the doubt as needed; and they actively looked for opportunities to build me up.
They rooted for me. The grace this offered me was enormous. It was a step outside of the business-as-usual in which our lives tend to operate. It was an imperfect expression of the desire of God. Not just to create me in love, but to personally invest in how I might then flourish. Not in comparison to God’s other beloved creatures, but in relationship with them.
More than 16 years later, those words from what seems like a lifetime ago are suddenly fresh in my mind. The church that I now lead has just brought a new graduate onto our pastoral staff. Matt Gillard is joining us at St. George’s, both to offer his substantial gifts in ministry in our church, as well as to receive the ongoing mentorship and the supportive learning environment that is so key for any of us to really thrive in living out our vocations. He has expressed delight at the kindness and support already offered to him by members of our church. I pray to be the kind of priest, and for us to be the kind of church, that shelters and empowers one another, leaders included, with that simple message—that simple message whose source is surely from on high. “We’re all rooting for you.”