Putting the son before serving the Son

From the 'Forest Stations' by William Fairbank, photographed at Lincoln Cathedral April 2007
From the ‘Forest Stations’ by William Fairbank, photographed at Lincoln Cathedral April 2007

When explaining to people some of the circumstances surrounding my forthcoming curacy, I have been beset by a sense of guilt, a fear that people will question my commitment to my calling, every time I explain why it’s panning out as it is:

  • I will be serving as a Self Supporting Minister (SSM, same as non-stipendury, it means I won’t get paid, just receive my expenses). I’m a freebie basically!
  • This means I don’t have to work full time, and have provisionally agreed to be in the parish 2.5 days a week, plus Sunday’s, to give time for the requirements of training and further study. There are logistical consequences to this for family and parish, which will be the subject of my next post, and there will be a nominated day-off, I just don’t know what it will be yet. That’s an issue to be discussed and resolved elsewhen.
  • I will be doing what is known as ‘primary’ Initial Ministerial Education (IME) such that at some point during my curacy I can test whether my calling really is permanently as an ‘assistant priest’ (which normally means you remain SSM) or whether I am in fact called to some form of ‘incumbency’, i.e. will I always help another priest run a parish, or might I one day be a ‘proper’ vicar?
  • Over and above my uncertainty as to which of these contexts my calling ultimately lies in, part of the reason for being comfortable with my selection as an ‘assistant priest’ candidate for ordination was so that we didn’t disrupt our son’s education at a critical point; being a candidate for  stipend ministry from the start would have made us deployable, and we would have had to move house as well as church. We weren’t prepared to allow that to happen when our son is in the middle of his A-levels! Had he been younger or older, the situation would have been different, but parenting has for us always been partly about giving kids stability at critical stages in their lives, and this is one of them.

And there’s the nub of the guilt trip. There are some Christian’s in churches I’ve attended over the years who I think would question my commitment to my calling to the priesthood because as a family we aren’t prepared to move our son in the middle of this critical period of his life. I’m currently preparing to lead some worship based on Philippians 2:1-13, and whilst I would say I am considering the interests of others (the lad’s education and therefore his future), I’m not sure I’m quite living up to the Christ-like attitude of taking a servant nature to the point of sacrifice.

Whilst NO-ONE HAS criticised our decision to restrict my willingness or ability to serve God at his bidding wherever we’re called, this still leaves me with this nagging sense that people are firstly surprised, and secondly don’t always quite approve.

Looking deep within myself, I don’t think God has a problem with us putting family first in this way at this time (he gifted me a loving family before he called me to ordination); if he did I think I’d have found that this journey had stopped long before now.

So I wonder if it’s actually me that has the problem? Is there a sense in which I fear that by putting limits on what God can do in my life, I’ve closed off a little bit of me/us as a no-go area to him for the moment (in a way I didn’t in earlier parts of my ministerial journey), and that this might have impacted on my connection with him? The latter is something I’ve been battling through these formational months, and now on top of it, I wish I could leave the sense of guilt behind. Perhaps it’s invisible scars of the past, I don’t know.

I wonder if others have experienced times when they feel they’ve put necessary limits on what they’ll give over to God, and it’s had spiritual consequences? Or, should I stop worrying and know that God has blessed me with both a family and a calling that help to promote and celebrate the importance of family life?

In the mean-time what I do know is that I feel very positive about the future, and there is a strong feeling of joy welling up within me, as I anticipate being able to engage once again in serving a parish as a minister, and later as a priest.



  1. You can only respond to the call you have been given – and not anyone else’s. Tour call is your call and “all” you have to do is be faithful to that.

    Be blessed and may you continue to hear God’s call and know his presence and guidance


  2. Hmmm.. I wonder if the key for you might lie in vv12-13? “work out your own … for God is at work in you”. Luther (not one of my usual sources!) champions a strong sense of vocation as both internal and external, and part of an SSM’s vocation, it seems to me, is to be a priestly ikon of the tension between them.

    A mundane bit of sheep intestine makes music best when it is held in tension.


  3. Rachel, this is exactly what I did – I went forward in the category NSM/Stipendiary which meant I could be deployed as either. When the Diocese did not offer me a suitable stipendiary curacy we looked at moving as there was a suitable job for my husband which had just come up in another Diocese. But we felt it was very important to consult our son, who was just about to start 6th form, and he very definitely asked us not to put him through moving at this stage of his school life, so we didn’t.

    Later on I was offered a stipendiary post for the last two years of my curacy by my Bishop – who I am pretty sure had assumed that I had been offered stipendiary to start off with, and had left it too late to check – and quite a few people made snide comments about me receiving special treatment. This was after two years running myself ragged supply teaching (for we still had a mortgage and an older child to support through uni) while attempting to tick the boxes for eventual stipendiary ministry. That really did hurt, but in the end I thought it was their problem if they couldn’t see what a difficult time I’d been having.

    What I quickly discovered is that in the parish nobody really cares if you are paid or non-stipendiary. The main difficulty I had was in establishing the correct boundaries so I didn’t end up being expected to behave as if I was a full time curate and therefore available for everything people thought it would be good to ask me to do. You are ordained ALL the time, wherever you are, so if you are spending less time in the parish you are also spending more time than the average stipendiary curate outside the parish, which can be a strength in your formation.

    I’m sure things will fall into place quickly once you are ordained and able to get on with exploring the ‘Rachel shaped ministry’ that is waiting for you!


  4. Erm… You talk about making sacrifices, and that should be true, but you only have the right to make sacrifices yourself, forcing others to make sacrifices instead of you is something else entirely… And as an outsider, I would say that if you did that it wouldn’t be in keeping with what i think are christian ideals… As I see it you are making the sacrifice, not taking the easy way so that those prior committments you made can be honoured….


  5. So, let’s get this straight. You’re giving half of all your time to the service of the church, pro bono, plus additional time studying to prepare yourself for future service, and you’re also prepared to put in hundreds of miles a week to make it happen, no doubt diddling yourself out of travelling expenses in the process, just like the rest of the clergy, and you’re feeling guilty about not serving God properly?


  6. I really don’t think it’s you holding back from God at all. The whole ‘only full time equals complete commitment’ is a myth we need to bust open. It’s about honouring two equal callings (to parenthood and priesthood).


  7. Grrrr. Listen to Charlie and keep going back to what he says. You are making a huge sacrifice and so is your OH in providing your salary. Set some boundaries now. I didn’t and ended up being full time. It’s easy to slip into that pattern. Nothing is fixed in stone. I’ve been SSM for nearly 9 years. My OH a son of the clergy would not let me sacrifice what he saw as our children’s well being. The youngest is now 18. I went to candidates panel and changed category to NSM/stipendiary and will take up a stipended post this summer when the A levels are done. The deployability bit makes me cross. At some stages of our lives we are more deployable that at others. It has precious little to do with sacrifice. If I was single with no kids or elderly parents, then i guess it might be different.
    Oh and another thing enjoy being called a volunteer or an amateur. People don’t realise what they are saying. Amateurs take up things for the sheer joy of it rather than having to do the job for money. It’s a real vocation.


  8. We’ve had a chat over the hot wok, and we reckon this idea has come from a previous church we attended where it was expected that folk would give 100% to the church and to church activities.


  9. It’s interesting that you’ve actually been given a choice. When I went forward, possibly due to age etc I was told categorically that my ministry would only ever be as an Associate Priest, but I also had to accept that I wasn’t being ordained for my parish, but for the whole Church? In this context I would be deployable diocese wide, albeit, they would try to keep me within my local deanery. I certainly would not serve in my sending parish.

    All of this is immaterial now as I didn’t make it through BAP, but in my ignorance I chose to accept this, and even though I would be SSM was prepared to relocate (at my own expense) to serve wherever the church would need me, my spouse even accepted this, even though we’d be separated from family and grand children for the long term.

    This demonstrates to me that there are inconsistencies within the discernment, selection and training and deployment decisions between dioceses and across the church. Perhaps due to my Army background I’d accepted that being posted somewhere (without choice) was the norm for the Church as well (the dangers of being conditioned by a system) and chose not to challenge what i’d been told.

    My more recent experience has been the total lack of care, pastoral or otherwise from the Church for those who for whatever reason don’t make it through BAP, and a sense of total abandonment by my diocese, where even the parish and deanery struggled to get any support for further engagement in terms of lay ministry options. Particularly galling as the BAP report had made a strong recommendation for just that.

    Perhaps I went into the system in faith and belief that it would treat me fairly, naive as I was at the time, I wasn’t able to contemplate that the church might actually be deceiving me about such things and that in fact, there where and are other options, not just that of an Associate Priest.

    In the end, I’m not in a new place and parish and diocese with renewed hope and excitement at where this journey might be taking me, but I now go forward clear eyed, with the blinkers off knowing that just taking someone’s word for it, however well meaning isn’t good enough. I want firm assurances, in writing where the journey is headed and what the possible outcomes will be. No prevarication tolerated.


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