Part of a formation program is giving candidates the opportunity to explore these questions, to think about their identity as ministers, about what ministry might look like in different places and to continue to explore their own calling.
When candidates interact in varying depth with different settings, congregations and agencies, then that little question dances along: is this the kind of place where I might end up? What kind of ministry might I be able to offer into such a context?
To help kindle further questions in this vein, in early October the candidates from the theological college headed up to the presbytery of North East Victoria for a taste of rural ministry.
There has been a recent trend for candidates to finish formation and stay near the city for their first placement. The visit to country was to expand the imagination of candidates as to what future ministry might mean outside of metro Melbourne.
The sunny weekend began in Benalla with true country hospitality, a barbecue lunch and a range of sweet delights.
But the real reason for the gathering was to share the stories of people from the presbytery.
Ron Manley, nearing the end of his years in rural ministry, had distilled the wisdom of his years in pastoral ministry into helpful pointers.
Caro Field, in her first placement, explained how a city girl could end up beyond the bright lights and ’burbs and still thrive. Tony Bradshaw described his journey of deepening involvement in lay leadership and how lay ministry is an important part of rural ministry.
The candidates were also reassured that, yes, there are good hospitals, schools, tertiary education and other facilities outside of greater Melbourne.
Later, the candidates headed off to billets from Bright and Mt Beauty, to Wangaratta, Waranga, Wodonga, and Yarrawanga, and a bunch of places in between.
The journeys on the way were times to talk to lay and ordained hosts about their lives and ministries – and to take in the beauty of spring countryside.
Conversations continued in the evening with more friends at their destinations. Sunday morning the dispersed group visited worshipping congregations, large and small, lay and ordained led; yet another chance to get the pastoral flavour of North East Victoria ministries before joining back together in Benalla for a final debrief.
When I walked into the Benalla church hall early Sunday afternoon I was deluged with a rosy glow of positive comments from the candidates:
“Oh soooo beautiful, so wonderful”
“It was like being back home”
“I felt so welcomed”
“I would be happy to come back and spend some time and explore some more…”
Later there was time for a different kind of ‘exploring some more’ and candidates were asked to try to understand what was underlying their initial positive responses. This richer discussion gave rise to what they had started to understand of rural community and rural ministry.
Many of the positive comments related to the community nature of life beyond the big city. For some, it was the idea that rural community is more defined than its suburban counterpart, so offers more ability to be involved in one overlapping community: coming across the same people in different situations leads to a greater integration of community ministry.
Some started to ruminate on what such an integrated community ministry might look like, how they might want to get involved in that way, and how much they would need a ‘rural mentor’ to understand more of the country/rural outlook.
For others, and especially those who come from community oriented cultural backgrounds, the hospitality and ‘community feel’ mirrored ‘home’ for them.
This held out to them a promise of ministry in a context that they somehow felt they already knew, as they talked about a shared DNA and the shared values of a close-knit community.
There is still a need to explore more questions. The challenge for our own changing formation program in Pilgrim Theological College is to continue to create the opportunities for candidates to love and live these questions, along with exploring formation for a missional Church in both urban and rural settings.
We continue to work at understanding and equipping candidates for the changing ministry scene.
The challenge is really the same for us all: loving and living the questions of what ministry is for each of us in the Church of the 21st century.
Centre for Theology and Ministry