So it’s that time of year, new ordinands are heading off to college to begin theological & ministerial training. I remember heading off to my first evening at college with a huge about of trepidation and a large chip on my shoulder; then just a few months ago I cried at our last service together, knowing I would actually miss everyone. A huge journey in just a few years.
So for anyone about to head off to theological college, here’s some top tips to help you survive your first few weeks. Now I know some of you will be off to residential college, other regional or mixed mode, but take what works for you. And feel free to add suggestions in the comments below! thanks too to those who offered advice via Twitter :)
1) Be You
First off, be you. It was you that got you to this point, don’t try to be all ‘vicary’ now you are training, the church needs diversity! Smokers, swearers, ripped jeans and piercings? come on in! You are not supposed to be perfect. And on that, please please please please, and again, please, do not start with the whole ‘Vicar-Voice’ thing. You know exactly what I mean, the monotone drone of reciting liturgy or scripture without a shred of joy or meaning. What is that about? Shoot me if I ever do that. Just be you!
@gerrardus tweeted ‘people at Vicar school are posher than average. Don’t judge them’. Good advice, but works both ways, so posh people don’t judge the less posh ones! and on that…
2) Be open minded and loving
Vicar School should be a place where we can learn on many levels, but also learn to challenge ourselves and each other. We may have differing theological views, but healthy debate is good, when done with grace. In fact I encourage you, to encourage each other, to allow college to be a safe space to discuss tricky issues openly and honestly. This can be difficult, emotional and personal but it might be the only place where you can do this. Make the most of it.
Be kind to and patient with each other, it’s new for everyone, if you are regionally training/mixed mode then you may well have paid work to balance too, let alone kids/family/friends coming to terms with the newness of it all.
3) Secret drinking dens
Ok perhaps not exactly secret but I’d love to hear about any Vicar School dens, anyone?! But there does seem to be a strange quirk of celebrated drinks at theological colleges. At some it’s sherry, others the Malt Club, or perhaps the gin swiggers. No idea how this started but my suggestion is give them all a go, you will almost certainly need a tipple at some points. Me? I’m a Prosecco girl – not sure where that sits in the posh stakes? and court be known to sneak a bottle into my room occasionally. Kim notes on Twitter: ‘…the bar is your friend – even if you’re a teetotal introvert. It’s the place where theology takes place.’ True that.
4) Books Mortgage
Yes, so you are actually there to study, not just have deep and meaningful chats whilst supping whisky, there is some work involved. And that means reading. A lot of reading. So on the whole books thing, think very carefully about which ones to buy. If you pick all the ones you like off the reading list you will need to remortgage your house (that’s if you will ever afford a house on a Vicar’s stipend of course…). Best advice given to me was only buy the ones you will use again and again – commentaries for example or those in an area that you want to specialise in. That said, you will still need a trip to ikea for suitable accommodation to house them all when you leave college. Haven’t seen a clergy study yet without it’s own dedicated book wall.
There are lots of places to get free books too including google books – which may not have the whole book but might just have the chapter you need. Amazon often has the ‘look inside’ feature which can be used for the odd page too and Kindle often have books for free or at very low prices – keep your eyes open and share with each other.
5) The dreaded ‘Formation’
This is a word you will get to hear a lot. To start with it seems huge, you will feel like you are expected to literally re-form like some Doctor Who style shape-shifter into the ‘Vicar Mould’ – see no.1 on this – being churned out the end like some production line (some people even call it Vicar Factory). By the end it will undoubtedly be a huge joke and anything slightly odd or tough will be deemed ‘formational’. Like the dodgy retreat houses, ancient loos and oh so interesting food you shall be forced to eat (grey soup and salmon bolognaise featured highly in my training) – it’s all formational darling…
It is though a good thing really, of course I can say that now I am out of Vicar School. As Kim says ‘It just means being open to being led & shaped by the Spirit & growing’.
6) Marks Smarks
You may go into this intending to get a 1st in every essay, or you may be paranoid about failing. Just remember you only have to pass. No one is going to care if you finish this course with 45% or 99%, you will be ordained and that’s that. Unless of course you plan to be the next Rowan Williams, in which case, you may need to spend a teensy bit more time in the library.
I, and several of my college friends had an ongoing challenge to see who could pass an essay by just one mark. I’m not sure any of us ever achieved it (we passed by more, not failed thankfully!) but there were times when we all thought this essay was going to be the one. So don’t try to be no.1 all the time, there are other things on your life too. Just get done what needs to be done as best you can, sometimes that will be better than others and that’s fine. Also do talk to tutors if you are struggling, they won’t eat you (well that’s debatable) and usually extensions can be offered.
7) Just keep on bloody going…
There will probably be times when you want to jack it all in, can’t face the next lecture, or swear that if you ever see another copy of he Book of Common Prayer you will barf… (ok, that one might just be me). It’s all perfectly normal. You can do this, and don’t forget who called you into it all, he isn’t going to abandon you now.
And anyway if you need to skip a lecture or a worship time because you are knackered, brain dead (or hungover, see no.3) then I really don’t think God will mind. Be kind to yourself.
8) The Learning circle
Yes lectures, classes and tutorials will fill you with knowledge, but don’t forget your cohort who will all be different and have their own journeys, stories and skills to share. I think I learned as much from my fellow ordinands as I did from the course itself. Talk to each other, share ideas, debate and challenge, ask questions, engage in community life and as noted above, go to the bar!
Also, don’t revert to school pupil mode, your tutors will recognise that you might actually have some knowledge of your own and in fact on my course several of us did some teaching to our cohort from our own area of expertise, which was really great.
9) Out of the house
Whether residential or regional, at some point you will be in accommodation not chosen by you – might be for a few years or just for a study weekend or two. Enjoy the er, interesting, decor; be refreshed by the often strange food (see no.5); and remember if you want a hot shower to be up by 6am – this rule seems to work anywhere and everywhere (except at Aylesford Priory where there is never ever any hot water).
One of my fave places we went to stay was an ex-NAAFI hotel in Kent. All yellow pine with polystyrene ceilings and plastic plants. But, we were mixing with ‘normal’ folk staying there – potential for great chats in the bar, it was warm, had plenty of plug sockets and wifi that worked. Look for the good stuff and you will find it! If you ever have to stay anywhere old – like a priory or monastery, take a hot water bottle – even in summer, and a 4 way adapter if you want to plug in anything.
And the last word goes to Margaret who shared on Twitter:
Write somewhere (or tattoo): ‘everyone’s bluffing’. Remind yourself of this every day.
If you have anything to add to the list, please do let me know and I’ll add it on! Thanks to those who shared via twitter too: Gerrarrdus, Kim, Chris, Margaret, Boris the Bold