Surviving the first year of curacy

It’s nearly a year since ordination and I’ve survived! 

Sometimes it feels like it’s only by the skin of my teeth, but I’m still here nonetheless. So I thought now might be a good time to do a post of the things I’ve learned in that year, for those who are about to start Curacy.

 

1. Meeting the Vicar

Ok so technically this is pre-curacy but when you get to meet your TI for the first time do think very carefully before you go, about what you want to know. The meeting is as much for you as for them. How do you work? How do they work. Are those two compatible?! If you have questions, ask them, and find out exactly what is expected of you and when. Title Post agreements can be notoriously vague so if you have other things to consider (like a life) – or more specifically kids, partner, or especially if you are an SSM your paid employment – agree what you can and can’t do in terms of days and hours, and then stick to it.

 

2. Starting date

We moved house 3 weeks before I was ordained and started work. This was a luxury that I know not everyone has but it you can, make sure there is time between the two. In the run up to ordination you will have to finish college and essays or a dissertation, not to mention possibly managing a house move, potential meetings at the new church, saying goodbye to the old one, clerical garb to buy and who knows what else. Having a break before you are thrown into the madness is really useful. I know some dioceses don’t ordain Curates until September giving you the summer to have a break, which seems eminently more sensible. Of course you will be keen to get going but you might not get a break for a while so start with one instead if you can.

 

3. Burning out (or rather NOT burning out)

And on that, the first 6 months are completely exhausting. Unless you’ve stayed in your sending parish (which is very unusual unless you’ve planted a church for example) everything is new. New people, new places, new house, new job, new schools for the kids, and any selection of the above – it is draining on so many levels, mentally as well as physically, so try to take regular breaks, get rest where you can, don’t book too much in the diary, make sure your treat tin is packed and the wine rack full.

With 2 and 3 in mind let’s just think about working hours…

 

4. Working hours

There are no actual set hours from Min Div that tell you how much you should work, and every diocese, Bishop and even Vicar seems to differ. There are of course many benefits to flexible working time which means that for example as a parent I can stop work at 4 to do the school run and dinner, and then continue work in the evening. However it also means it’s nearly impossible to work out how much you are working. I spent some time in the first few months writing down my hours and what I was doing to work out exactly what was going to work for us as a family. Some weeks were bonkers and made me realise I needed to manage my diary better, but others showed me that I could be flexible.

As above, I suggest chatting to your TI about it when you start and then review it after 6 months or so if you can to see how it is going.

A while back I wrote some posts on getting the balance right, here and here which come with input from lots of clergy, so do read them if you can and find out what works for you.

 

5. What keeps you sane?

Again, leading on from the previous point, you have to look after yourself! Clergy burn out numbers are huge, start as you mean to go on and get a good balance. What helps you to feel rested? or what helps energise you? or just gives you peace? Game of squash, knitting, hanging out with friends? Whatever it is, prioritise it, book it in your diary and don’t drop it unless you really have to. Same goes for prayer/reflection/ retreat time – make sure it’s in there and doesn’t get dropped unless it’s vital!


6. Diary planning

This might not work for you but I put everything in my diary. Literally everything. I am ruthless. I use google calendar so I can access it easily from my phone if I’m out and about. I also share it with my husband’s calendar so we know what we’re each doing and when.

Each few months I go through and block in:

: Prayer time – including a morning every month for a longer prayer time (though I often use this to work I’m ashamed to say)

: IME/ study time

: Weekly running/exercise – keeps me sane and is part of my back recovery

: Days off – in red! and I never (unless an emergency) book things on my day off

: Home stuff / date nights/ Kids stuff/school events etc

Only then do I go through and put in regular meetings like PCC, staff meeting, and regular events. Closely followed by other church stuff eg: preaching, alpha, group sessions. I then add in the preparation time needed for each – so if I’m preaching I block out at a minimum a day to prepare (often spread over 2 days).

Then, anytime after that I book something else into my diary, I also add in the time I need to prepare it at the same time. I learned that if I don’t do this I just end up with a full week of stuff and no time to prep any of it.

I also try and have one day a week where I work from home for the whole day and catch up on admin and one afternoon I keep free for meeting people/pastoral visits, it doesn’t mean there won’t be others but just means at least I have one afternoon available at short notice if needed.

Sounds very regimented but it works for me and I swear by Google calendar.

Also a quick side note, you may have a shared work calendar, so if you need to book things in and don’t want the entire staff team to know what they are use a code system! I know people who use inititals eg: TFM = time for me; ABC = anything but church, that sort of thing, don’t have to tell people what they are!

 

7. On not being the Von Trapp family

Obviously it depends on your circumstances and your family if you have one, but there can be a tendency for churches to expect a lot from clergy partners and families, for example that they will come to everything, help, join in and generally be extra free help. I think that’s particularly the case for clergy wives. So, set boundaries as you need, don’t feel pressured into anything and if your kids are being a nightmare, just parent them as you normally would, don’t expect them to be perfect angels just because you work for the church.

Wider boundaries are key, especially with a family. For example, you don’t have to always answer the phone, door, email, text etc. I have an answerphone on both home and mobile and I tell people to use it as I often can’t respond straight away, and friends and family know that I call screen so if I hear it’s them I will pick up if I can! If you do answer any of the above on your day off then I think it’s harder to expect people to then respect your day off.

Family-wise, if people come to our home for meetings I don’t run around clearing up (unless it’s really bad!) and if the kids are watching TV in the next room we put up with the volume through the wall. I don’t book meetings between 6-7 unless unavoidable as that’s when we eat and Saturdays I only do essential work so that we get some family time.

School hols I avoid just thinking ‘I’ll just work from home’ which just doesn’t work for us and isn’t fair on our kids, and so we try to balance doing things with the kids and having friends over for them, or days out with Granny & Grandad when we do need to work at home.

 

8. Social media

I love social media as I’m sure you all know, great tool for the church and communication. But I have thought very carefully about my use of it since working for the church. In fact I now have two Facebook accounts – one is a family page I have with my husband for keeping in touch with family, pics etc and one that I use for work. So If I get friend requests from people I only have vague links with I point them to the more public page. Keeping boundaries, I usually don’t put personal things or pictures of my kids on my public profiles, and if I’m going to mention them in a sermon I do check with them first.

I find I think more carefully about what I tweet/post whilst trying to still be myself and I’ve also had a chat to my TI about my blog before I started the job to make sure he was ok with it.

 

9. Making friends

A difficult one. People have different opinions on this, some think you need to have good friends in any parish to help sustain you in ministry, especially if you’ve moved far away from family and friends. Others think it’s better not to as you’re there to be a leader and lines can be blurred. I really think this is one that you need to work out what’s right for you.

You might also find yourself overwhelmed with people asking you around when you first arrive, equally no one might! And on this I think key things are:

Being consistent – so if you accept invites from someone more than once and tell others you haven’t got time, that isn’t going to go down terribly well.

Secondly – though it sounds mercenary, prioritise your friends. We haven’t moved far from where we lived before so we make a real effort to see a few key people who are really important to us. They get prioritised over other invites because it’s important for us personally and as a family. Might seem selfish to some but as I said it’s important to us and I’m quite happy to explain that to people if they ask.

For whatever reason you may need (or want) to say no to invites. I’m not sure there is an easy way to say no when parishoners ask you over, but a couple of suggestions are:

: If you get lots of invites, host your own evening drinks and invite people to you, so it’s on your terms and timings.

: Offer to meet for coffee instead so you can do that during the day instead of taking up an evening or having to involve your partner/family

: Use real reasons eg: husband is busy with work, difficult to get a babysitter, we don’t do evenings as we keep them for family,

Whatever happens make sure you have a good support network, friends family, other clergy, mentor or Spiritual Director.

 

10. Not everyone has a great Curacy

There’s so much more I could say but this has to be the final point for now. No matter how good your planning or how much prayer and discernment has gone into it, your curacy may have issues.

For example: your TI gets another job, leaves or goes on sick leave, leaving you holding the fort; you just don’t get on with or disagree hugely with your TI; the expectations put on you are too much; you have a falling out with someone in the congregation, to name just a few.

If you find yourself struggling, please please please don’t suffer in silence. It can be easy to feel like you are new to this and shouldn’t complain or that is might be partly your fault, or will you jeopardise your future if you ask for help. If appropriate talk to your TI first off, or if not then the Archdeacon, or person who oversees Curates. Get advice, help and support and don’t be fobbed off if you really need it.

In some cases it might mean moving curacy, this is rare but not as rare as you might think. If it does happen, don’t panic. Get support where you can and don’t take it to heart, especially at the start of your ordained life.

 

…o0O0o…

So there you go, a few thoughts on what I’ve learned this year. I”m sure there is plenty more (I mean for a start I haven’t even mentioned Jesus –  #EpicFail – so if you’ve been through this already and have other points to add, do let me know and I’ll include them. And if you’re about to start Curacy, I hope it goes really well! If I can help or answer any questions do let me know.

 

Surfing Curacy

IMG_20160812_112400

This post started out as ‘surviving curacy’ and yet autocorrect made it ‘surfing’, which seemed apt as whilst writing I had just come from an afternoon on the beach with the family, surfing and body boarding in the Atlantic Ocean.

Surfing, even as terrible as we are at it, requires balance and poise. Life long surfers have a second sense of when the weather is turning, when waves might appear and then once in the water, an instinct that kicks in before the brain has registered the right wave approaching. The highs are great: overcoming nature, riding through the surf, staying up on the board for the first time; the lows immense: wipe outs, swallowing gallons of sea water (and occasionally vomiting it up again), injuries or broken boards. But the ocean is majestic, powerful, beautiful, vast, I’ve heard it referred to as the green cathedral. There is something spiritual about it, an energy that goes where it will. Strange analogy for curacy maybe? Well I’ve discovered after just 5 weeks in the role that curacy is all of those things…

For a start, ministry always requires balance, usually work-life being the hardest one to master. And I’ve not mastered it, especially in the midst of school holidays. Why so many curacies start right at the beginning of summer I don’t know. We’ve all just finished assignments and essays, brain dead and exhausted. Then for those of us with kids, which is quite a high number, a few weeks after we start and the kids break up from school for weeks on end. This has been the biggest challenge for us – starting a new full time job a week before the summer hols starts and 3 weeks after moving house. There’s been an almost unsaid and gentle battle over whose work is more important between my husband and I. This is the first time we’ve both worked full time for years, and now suddenly we both have important things on the same day that cannot be changed. Who gets to go to work? Who gets to try and ‘work from home’? Childcare has been balanced out between paid things, and grannies and grandad to the rescue – for us it seemed wrong to book our kids in for 7 weeks of summer camp and activities when we have never done that before. To be honest they have had enough upheaval recently and need to know that they come first. But whilst that was right for us as a family, it has brought its challenges. That said, God has been faithful, told us not to worry and with just a few weeks to go we are managing ok. Although whilst the house largely looks tidy, the hunt for the endangered species of cleaner is not going well. Lewes is the place where cleaners can command a huge salary and a waiting list. We’re not even on a list yet. This does not bode well. I’m not sure when I’ll next have time to actually sort and plan, my home making desires and skills sidelined for sermon writing and pastoral visits. For now don’t look at the fridge too closely, or under the sofa… I know some dioceses do ordinations in September which seems eminently more suitable for all concerned!

 

So, poise. Chances are the church any potential Curate heads off to will go into summer mode, which means nothing runs as it usually does, clergy will be away on hols, as will church wardens, key leaders and the verger. So, just as you learn where you need to be, then you find out actually that’s not on this week, that’s all off until September… Oh and Jo who gave you the keys last week, she’s away until mid August so make sure you have someone else to let you in to church next Sunday morning… This is where poise comes in. You need to act like you know what you are doing, even when you really haven’t a clue, which will probably be for some time.

Like the instinct of the faithful surfer, ministers need to be able to react on the spot. Like, in the first service I led, when the video wouldn’t work last minute, there were unexpected additions to the service, an offering being brought to the front I didn’t know about and I was the one out the front… I’ve discovered that most churches are filled with people who know far better than the Curate what needs to happen and when. They have likely been worshiping there for years and you are the young whipper snapper (or not that young actually in my case) arriving to lead them all into worship. Humility goes a long way.

Of course for us it’s more than instinct though, it’s being led by the Holy Spirit and being able to listen and of course to actually hear what God might be saying is vital. I’ve now led a handful of services and most of them were founded on a prayers like ‘Lord I don’t know what I am doing, it’s all up to you, just get me in the right place at the right time, please!’. Largely, thankfully, he has. I’ve only once been to the wrong building – we have 3 churches, 2 church halls, an office and a chapter house, plenty of room for mistakes there then…

So to the highs and lows. For me, there have been plenty of highs, I am really loving my curacy, the church is fab, the Rector incredibly encouraging – after my first preach his response was ‘the girl can preach’! This cheers me and it was not my best preach (& there is plenty or room for improvement!). The staff team are also brilliant and the people have been so welcoming and lovely. My first pastoral visit, taking home communion (with my new home communion set, an ordination gift from my parents) to a lovely lady who had been ill was such a privilege and I felt so blessed by going to see her. Wearing my dog collar with pride, has also been a surprise to me as I thought I’d wear it as infrequently as possible but I actually love it and love the visibly it brings, in terms of conversations with people I meet. Another plus being, the first night in our new local, not in collar, but ending up in a conversation with some young lads about faith, God, the church. I just knew we were supposed to be here.

I’m not sure there have been too many lows yet for me, probably just the sheer volume of information I need to take in and the whole balancing act thing which is proving tricky. From others I’ve heard though, it’s not always that way. The best I have heard of was where the church had filled the new curate’s fridge with food, left flowers, took meals and popped in with freshly made cake and to make sure they had all they needed. In others not so much as a welcome, visit from the Vicar or in fact anyone from the church and an expectation to take every service & preach on their first Sunday. Yikes…

And that great green cathedral? Well for me it’s the people. I love meeting new people, hearing their stories, finding out what makes them tick, who has God made them to be. That is the brilliant part. Seeing God at work in people. The metaphor of the energy of the ocean is not lost, people moving together as one in worship, but also free to move, to do as they will, ocean spray reaching out and touching others around them. Beautiful and majestic and with a very definite energy of its own!

This is God at work, in the church, in his people, sometimes unpredictable, but then our reliance on him is only increased. And where else to be on the ocean but in the safety of a divine lifeboat?

 

The Battle…

20160412_151228

There have been lots of prayer walks in all this too….

So, it’s fair to say the last few weeks have been a total emotional roller coaster. I wrote a few weeks ago about being in limbo and how I was not facing up to how I was feeling. Then God had other ideas and took away all my self enforced deadlines and it all came crashing down. I just had to start to process it all, and that was where the spoken word piece came from. I love writing and I often find it is a way for me to sort out my own thoughts and feelings, it’s cathartic. And this was possibly the most cathartic thing I ever wrote. Because I just couldn’t work out why I was feeling so emotional, I mean I had known I was leaving for ages, I was prepared, or so I thought and writing that just helped me to take the next step…

I finished that piece with the image of me standing in my armour and ready to face whatever I needed to. That actually meant facing some stuff from the past and some stuff I had believed about myself. I’m not sure I am ready to write about all of that but the bottom line is that for the first time in my life I realised I am in a place where I am truly encouraged, affirmed and loved. It’s been quite a revelation for me.

That has partly been about being in an amazing church that has nurtured us, helped us to grow in our faith and embraced us into the family. But more than that, for me, being part of the staff team there has been like nothing I’ve ever experienced. It is a team that has great bonds, that looks out for each other, that supports each other, that cares for each other and that encourages each other. 

I’ve also had a great boss, my Vicar, who has allowed me to be me, and helped me develop into more of the me God made me to be. He has always listened to me, even when he didn’t agree, given me freedom to try new things, take risks and get well and truly out of my depth, all the while gently nudging me forward and giving me encouragement.

I’d never been part of a team like this. I half wondered if all church teams were like it, but I mentioned that to a friend who put me straight on that! So perhaps this one is just special. That isn’t to say it’s all been wonderful, of course there have been ups and downs but even in that we have found mutual support, help and encouragement.

And it’s because of that, that I now find myself feeling good about myself, recognising that I am capable of doing some stuff and that I am both loved and lovable.

That might sound a bit lame, but it’s actually taken me 42 years to really recognise that.

So, why am I sharing all this? because I think it shows how being planted in the right and nurturing environment, can change a person. Totally. I actually don’t recognise who I am half the time!

And of course none of this takes away from the fact that I couldn’t of course do anything without God anyway, but that is the thing, I finally see me as God has made me to be. I can see the gifts he has given me and recognise them as God given. I can understand why he has put me into ministry, when I’ve not really been a Christian that long. I am able to walk in the path he has put me on with confidence, but confidence really, in him.

Transitioning

JesusTheSameJPG

I’m feeling really kind of strange of late. I can’t quite put my finger on it, but I just feel unsettled, or have an ongoing low-level of anxiety, or maybe I just need more sleep, who knows. It’s just that it’s a funny time approaching curacy. It’s normal to have been assigned your curacy well in advance, in my case almost a year ahead, so I’ve known where I’ll be going for a long time. Which is great in one sense as the stress of not knowing and all the paperwork and complicated stuff is done so that you can concentrate on finishing training. But in another way it’s frustrating because you know where you are going but can’t really do anything about it!

So for a long time my husband and I agreed that we would not even think about the new place until after Christmas (I start in July), which was fine until January when it was ‘after Christmas’ and we really did need to start thinking and planning ahead. So to be honest we’ve been busy and I have probably stuck my head in the sand too, and it’s now March and I find myself feeling ‘kind of strange’. 

 

…o0O0o...

In modern churches we refer to the bit between the ‘worship block’ and the preach as a ‘transition’, and I guess that’s where I am, in transition. When you lead a service like this, it’s quite an important time as you are going from one key element to another. I find it really tough because you can’t plan exactly what to say or do (and I am a Monica-style-planner), but on the other hand it’s so great because you just have to be led by the Holy Spirit.

So here am I, going from one thing to another and trying to hear God and be led by him. And to some extent I am, I mean I feel so close to God right now, and in my own spiritual walk I feel like I’m growing in some areas, so that’s fab, but I still feel odd. 

So here’s the thing, I finish my current job in 2 months time (EEKKKK!!) so I am winding down there and handing stuff over, which means for the first time ever my ‘to-do list’ is actually shrinking rather than having things added on the end. In College terms I have three essays left, one study weekend and a week away, I can actually count them in one sentence now! There’s nothing new to plan, no new schemes to be putting into practice (and as a pioneering type I love new stuff!), no big projects on the horizon. It just feels strange and not all that comfortable really. 

…o0O0o...

So I’ve been trying to think about how I handle transition at church in a service, and the truth is I just stop, do nothing, and listen to God. And perhaps that is the best preparation for the new season anyway? I don’t want to go into it rushed off my feet and with a head full of stuff, I want, need in fact, to go into it refreshed and revived and knowing God by my side. And the one thing that won’t change in all of this: Jesus. Yep, the answer’s always Jesus, right? We all know that. And I know it’s kind of obvious but right now I think that’s what I just need to keep reminding myself of, that no matter what I’m going through, he is a constant. Unchanging and unfailing.