I was a water engineer in a former life – actually I designed sewers. Now, after one apprenticeship, three years at college, five moves, eight 9:38 conferences, ninety cardboard boxes and one thousand five hundred unread e-mails, here I am: an assistant minister. I’ve just started working in the parish church of Sherbornes with Pamber, a collection of villages near Basingstoke.
It’s really good to be here. The minister is a kind and keen man who’s been here for twenty-one years. My wife Hannah and I are living on a brand new estate – one of two new estates which more than double the size of the parish. If anything, my focus is on reaching these new homes with the gospel. We are due to have a baby at Christmas so it’s all change for us!
How did I get here from designing sewers? (Perhaps you’re wondering how I got to designing sewers in the first place, but that’s a very different story). Well, I began by doing a 9:38 apprenticeship – up the road in Oxford. It became clear to me and to the church leadership during that apprenticeship that it would be good for me to train for long-term paid gospel work. I was enjoying teaching the Bible to large and small groups, with Christians and non-Christians. More importantly my minister told me that I wasn’t really too bad at it. I had already had a ‘normal’ job so it seemed right for me to apply straight to theological college rather than to spend more time in the secular workplace. I’ve always been interested in overseas mission so my church sent me to do a degree in ‘Theology and World Mission’ at Oak Hill College in London. I wrote to many friends, family and church members telling them about these plans. Quite a few of them confirmed the decision to go to college by offering generous financial support.
It’s been brilliant to study at Oak Hill these past three years. What a privilege to be taught the Bible by clever, godly and experienced men and women such as Mike Ovey and the rest of the faculty. I’ve missed the intensity of full-time ministry but am so glad that I could keep reading the Bible with a friend and preaching a few times a year during my time at college. The best thing that happened was that I married the lovely Hannah a year into my studies. College has been a good place to get used to married life.
Last summer I started a somewhat anxious search for a job, praying, writing to ministers, talking with tutors and browsing websites. I was keen to work as an assistant minister in this country for a while, to learn how to do ministry and mission. I joined a Pastors’ Association run by the FIEC, which operates a kind of dating agency for prospective pastors, but nothing came of that. In the autumn I spotted an advert on the Cornhill website for the job in Sherbornes with Pamber. It’s exciting because it’s a jack-of-all-trades job with a focus on reaching new estates. It involves spending a lot of time doing outreach and evangelism while also getting a feel for a bit of everything. Most importantly I’d been reliably told that the minister is a good man with plenty of experience. I’d preached in the village church a couple of times when I was an apprentice in Oxford. It may be a good thing that the minister can’t for the life of him remember me or my sermons! Anyway, the church took me on.
I’m really glad both to have done an apprenticeship and to have been to college. The apprenticeship taught me basic Bible handling and teaching skills and gave me a feel for ministry. It tested me to see if paid gospel ministry was right for me longer term. Most importantly it enabled me to see good ministry modelled day-in-day out, both by the minister and by others in the church. My time at college taught me how to read books effectively (no really – remember I’d been an engineer and a sewage engineer at that!). It introduced me to Greek and Hebrew which help me to understand the logic of a Bible passage. It gave me an idea of how to do mission within different cultures and contexts. It equipped me with a historical and biblical framework for theology. It gave me a feel for how to counsel people biblically in different situations. A dissertation in my final year allowed me to study one area in depth: the challenge of evangelising men.
So what do I do as an assistant minister all day? It’s early days but, so far, a bit of everything! To start with, I’m trying to spend time getting to know people in the church. I have quite a few Bible talks and studies in the diary (preaching, home group studies, Sunday Club lessons, school assemblies and even the occasional talk on the local hospital radio station!) so there’s plenty of preparation to do for those. I’m also working on how to reach the new estates. That will probably involve team building, door knocking and one-to-one or small group Bible studies. It’s very different from life at college. It’s harder in that I feel more responsible but it’s more exciting because it’s what I was preparing for all along! I think the transition into ministry has been relatively straightforward so far because the apprenticeship had shown me what ministry is like.
I suppose that at the end of the day ministry is all about relationships. Obviously my relationships with Hannah and (soon) with our baby are crucially important. For that reason, among others, my minister has been very good at insisting that I have a proper day off every week. The next set of relationships Hannah and I are trying to cultivate is with people in the church. It’s important for me to get to know the leaders in particular – home group leaders and the PCC. I also need to try to build a team of people to help me reach these estates as there’s no way I can do that on my own. Building these relationships isn’t the easiest thing as most people are obviously out at work all day. Of course it’s easier for me than it is for Hannah who’s commuting into London. However, I expect that once she’s a mum she’ll probably get to know people far better than I. (I recently visited both the ladies’ Bible study group and the toddlers’ group and it was quite a shock to the system!). We’re beginning to get used to village life. We were delighted that a neighbour actually knocked on our door to say ‘hello’ on the first day – something that would never happen in our North London block of flats near Oak Hill. A church member kindly gave us a torch and we couldn’t think why – until I left it at home and tried to find a particular house after dark one evening!
Perhaps the most important relationship for me within the church is with John, the minister. I reckon that the heart of my job as assistant minister must clearly be to assist the minister – to support him loyally and to follow his direction. I guess that’s why the most important thing to look for in a job like mine is a good minister. The final set of important relationships for me is with non-Christians on these estates. I’ve been making flyers about the church but I don’t want to put too much time into making them visually stunning because I’d rather spend my time actually meeting and getting to know people. I’m trying to meet non-Christians with a recommendation rather than simply cold. So I have a chat with a non-Christian and ask them a few set questions. One question is, ‘can you recommend one or two others I could have a similar conversation with?’. Another question is, ‘would you like to meet me or someone else from the church for a few minutes to study a bit of the Bible one time?’. My highlight of this week was knocking on a door and meeting a lady who answered, ‘yes,’ to that question. What a joy!
Of course my relationship with God is more important than any other. It’s a great temptation to busy myself so much that I have too little time to pray. That’s a big challenge for me. I reckon ministry is all about getting priorities right. So maybe those unread e-mails will have to wait a little longer.