Friday, June 24, 2011

Still getting it off my chest

Sorry to continue with this theme. If you think it's too self indulgent just skip it. For me it's good therapy.

On reflection, a lot of the tension arose out of my sense that the Yorkshire Ministry Course was providing me with what the church needed and the church’s sense that it was not but without engaging with the college authorities to see whether the modules I was sitting could have a more overt Lutheran content. It struck me that my fellow students might well have benefitted from such an addition perspective.

As the only non-Anglican in the year group I was inevitably drawn into the timetable, processes and concerns of my Anglican friends as the year group progressed through the course towards ordination and many of the course’s activities were linked to that rhythm. I don’t think my church authorities fully appreciated this.

So much of what we did was linked to the fact of the Anglican ordinand’s service of ordination within a month of graduation and it was hard for me to distance myself from that and not to be influenced by and caught up in that rhythm.

One simple example is that of the selection and purchase of ordination stoles: there were regular visits to the course on college Wednesday evenings and at residentials by clerical outfitters. We all went. Should I have stayed in the library when everyone else was selecting their clerical apparel? (What? And miss the chance of seeing Dr. Bob trying on a berretta and a Canterbury cap?) I should not have bought stoles I was told. Too presumptuous. Where would that have left me in the session where those stoles were blessed? Sitting in the back row on my own? Should I have not attended those (non-optional) sessions relating to ordination and the first curacy? What should I have done about the graduation ceremony where the details of each graduate’s first curacy were included in the programme? Should I have asked for some variation? Perhaps I could have asked to receive my certificate privately and not as part of a public ceremony further isolating me from my peers. Should I have asked for the Ember Days list to be varied to reflect my unique position? How did my church expect me to feel during these sessions which were already charged with a heady mix of spirituality, group dynamic intimacy and emotion? How could I fail to be affected? How could I possibly opt out and separate myself from the rest of my group at this time?

Not one of the Vocations Committee came to that ceremony.

My church leadership were to all intents and purposes insensitive about these issues: they didn’t fully appreciate what the college were doing and they didn’t understand the course’s provision for its students in the run up to graduation. Neither did they understand the effects of these activities on me. Most significantly they did not take the trouble to engage with the college which I think is a huge failing of a Vocations Committee in a small denomination with few ordinands.

At the same time they would be critical of me for being influenced in my expectations and attitudes to ordination by the programmes the college were providing. “We don’t do things in the same way as the Anglicans.” Is no help when the people who are saying that see you maybe twice a year and are not offering meaningful support or alternative programmes and interventions to what is being offered weekly at college. It is quite hard - and certainly not at all helpful - to be told what you should not be thinking, doing, feeling and opting into in relation to ordination preparation “because we do things differently”, on the course you have been sent to, when no practical alternatives are offered. Lots of “don’ts” with no “dos” are no help at all.

There seemed to be no awareness of the difficulties these programmes of work and activities caused me when I had no idea when I would be ordained, and therefore no sensitivity, just criticism because I was influenced by them and had my expectations raised. “These are the things we don’t do.” Yes, but you’ve sent me on a course which does.

When I raised these issues I was reminded that I had not “been sent” on the course. “The Committee is in no position to recommend any programme of training.” How can you abrogate responsibility in this way? What a cop out. I am a mature adult with a family and a full time job heading for non-stipendiary ministry. The obvious questions from my point of view are:

a) You can't be ordained in any real church without the proper training so ...

b) Where else am I going to go for ministry training other than the regional centre which offers a part time course?

c) How have I reached this point if the church has not sponsored me and supported my studies? I was not an independent student.

It is preposterous to disclaim responsibility by saying “We didn’t send you”: mere semantics and laughable for a Vocations Committee to say “We said you could go on that course if you wanted to.” as if there was an alternative route to ordination.

No one wanted to take responsibility which is very convenient because that meant that no one could be held accountable: I “chose” to attend the course, which is odd because from YMC’s position I was a sponsored student as evidenced by the church paying my fees. No wonder I have felt dislocated from this process and felt that attempting to communicate with the Vocations Committee on the topic was like trying to knit with water. What a ludicrous position but one from which, nevertheless, the Vocations Committee would not depart.

Strangely, pointing these things out did me no favours.

“You don’t understand how we do things.” Clearly not. How about trying a bit harder with the explanation?

There was clearly resentment at the challenge that systems were not good and the committee have responded in a knee-jerk way that has been defensive, and that defensive reaction inevitably perhaps, has not been to acknowledge poor systems and therefore not to be proactive about analysing them with a view to improvement. In addition, my experience of this group is that they never move on: it’s all logged away to be trotted out against you at some future date. There is never a line drawn under a discussion and a fresh start although on more than one occasion I have felt lulled into such a false sense of security.

“Who is this upstart? Who does he think he is?”

This is not a collaborative venture. Those in authority have no investment in learning from the foot soldiers. There is no culture of taking feedback without feeling threatened (but a significant culture of offering punitive criticism). There is a clear division between the leaders and the led and the leaders are always right.

“But this is how we do it. This is how we’ve always done it and it has served us well so far.”

Has it? Has it really?

Given that the LCiGB corresponds in size to a small Anglican Deanery some form of 360% appraisal could work well. In a small denomination where, perhaps, some key characters have dominant roles and personalities – or entrenched behaviours and attitudes, there needs to be some way of assuring that the appropriate use of that authority is managed and that people are properly accountable. Authority has boundaries and poor personnel practices should not be tolerated.

The downside is that in a small denomination such as this you have to be brave or very secure in your position to challenge authority.