In this article, Priestly discusses his preparation for his ordination and gives advice on those who have just begun their own journey to a higher calling.
In the summer of 1959 careers advice consisted of a two minute meeting in our teacher’s broom cupboard sized office. The conversation lacked enthusiasm on either part but we pushed on regardless.
“Have you got a job?” asked the teacher. “No,” came my reply.
“Well are you looking for work?” he barked. “Yes,” I nodded.
“That’s good. Do you want any advice?” he offered.
“I don’t think so,” I said. “Well off you go then,” the teacher chimed.
In terms of a career, I believed that God was calling me to be a minister. Despite my enthusiasm though, not everyone was convinced by this plan. When I was 17 our local minister told me to reconsider my dream and at 23, I was turned down for ministerial training and I was forced to take a different path into another career, but it was a path that was consistently entwined with my undying ambition to serve God as a priest.
When I look back at how it all started for me, I can’t help but compare my apprenticeship as a teenager with my experiences decades later as a ministry trainee. I believe these key periods in my life were the making of me.
I remember as though it was yesterday, my fellow ordinands and I assembling nervously in the undercroft of the cathedral. The bishop, dean, senior clergy and vergers arrived and we moved, to glorious music in procession up the stairs and into the chancel. I couldn’t believe it but sitting there on the front row of pews was an old friend and colleague of mine, who had travelled all the way from America to support me.
Stopping briefly to shake his hand as I passed, I glanced around and saw many more faces that I knew. Whilst singing, my family smiled in my direction. I knew they were so proud of me and felt a rush of gratitude for all of their support. We ordinands gathered around the altar, to be introduced to the congregation and my name was announced first. My thought that I was therefore the most important was soon dashed when I realised the names were being called out in alphabetical order.
It wasn’t long before I was kneeling before the bishop, about to be ordained. It was at that moment that I thought of my mother in heaven, who had so influenced me when I was young and inspired my calling.
Another treasured memory of that day of course was our triumphant walk from the cathedral two hours later as newly ordained priests. Carrying our letters of holy orders and bibles and accompanied by our bishop, we strolled out into the sunshine. The clouds parted as we were embraced by our friends and family, and at that moment I knew with certainty my ordination had been blessed from above.
That night I prayed to God, thanking him for bringing me so far, but recognising that I still needed his guidance as much as ever.
I started my new ministry the morning after.
I was fortunate enough to serve in a parish where I had lived and worshipped in myself prior to my ordination. Many parishioners therefore knew of my background and had shared with me my journey to ordained ministry. They were not only supportive but appreciated and celebrated my role.
Despite this head start, there were still many challenges that lay ahead and I took all the advice I could. A wise old priest once told me: “Listen, and listen again before you open your mouth. Be yourself and speak common sense.”
The first I found hard because I liked talking too much but in time, I felt that I became a much better listener and as for speaking common sense, the first thing I had to do was forget the language of theological college. Instead I needed to adapt a friendly, encouraging and understandable language to communicate effectively in services.
The real challenge was living up to the expectations of the congregation, but what were these expectations? Well, first I believed that they expected good answers to their questions. I therefore had to think about the impact my answer would have on this person and also the others who learnt of my reply.
Because now as a minister, I soon learnt that my answer would be passed on to others as quick as lightning. One technique that I did learn was to reply to these questions first by asking the following question back: ’What do you think?’ That way I got a clue for the reasons behind the questions and could tailor my answers accordingly.
Another element of the parish to contend with were the church wardens, the all powerful church laity. Most of these people, I believe, would’ve truly liked to have seen church growth and improved finances, but only if the status quo of church traditions, duties and services remained as well. I was very aware of the need for change in the parish but I knew there would be a lot of resistance. It was important to tread carefully.
As with most jobs, it was also important to recognise that you can’t solve each and every problem and it’s important instead to consider your priorities. In my case I elected to lead worship rather than buildings, services rather than finance, pastoral care rather than synod, the occasional offices rather than church, deanery or diocese meetings and so on.
I soon discovered that co-operation was the single most important factor in affecting both the harmony and advancement of the parish.
Many people suggest that future generations will only prosper through a fine educational grounding and quote: “Education, education and education.” So, in the same vein, to those considering the priesthood, my advice is: “Prayer, prayer and prayer”.
Being a priest is most rewarding but also carries its challenges. You are therefore going to need every ounce of God’s guidance. Clearly seek advice from those who are already ministers and from several too, if you are to receive a balanced picture.
Ask them what their calling was and do not be surprised if none are similar to yours. What is their present commitment and what impact has this on their personal life? What are the joys and the disappointments of their ministry?
Although it sounds a little harsh, you must also be prepared for rejection or deferment. Each step may not lead automatically to the next. However, so long as you keep asking God for guidance and discussing matters openly with those you love, you will receive the support you need.
You must always remember that you are not running this race alone. It is a journey that you share with God.
The Reverend Priestly Brook, an Anglican priest, retired in August 2012 from the Colne and Villages Team Ministry in East Lancashire. His bishop has granted him a licence with ‘Permission to Officiate’. He is married to Christine, with six grown up children. He is a well known preacher and after dinner speaker in the North of England.