My lay ministry course folder from the Diocese of Southwell arrived a short time ago, the same day as a book on Pastoral Care I had ordered from Amazon. I got that 'new school year' feeling immediately. A lovely shiny hardcover folder including some preliminary course material! A textbook! How over-exciting!
But I was just getting over a cold at this point in the school holidays, popped the things on a bookshelf, and turned my attention Rachel Balducci's book about raising boys (yes, I know I have three girls.) And there it has stayed. Yes, I've been busy with the children (dentist, playdate, swimming, shopping, playcentre, looking for a fish tank) and now I've sprained my ankle, making fetching and carrying anything tricky. But there was another, psychological reason the exciting material remained on the shelf.
I had idly flicked through the folder before consigning it to the shelf, and one thing instantly shot out at me (of course it did). It was amongst a list of questions we will be asked to consider during the course - and it wanted to know whether, when we listened to people to whom we are offering pastoral care in our church/community life, we can give them our full attention.
This came a few days after a Reader friend of mine expressed her delight that I could potentially be a licensed lay minister employed by the Church of England within twelve months - that I would be part of the staff team and able to attend meetings and help with their work, perhaps visiting the young mums in the community in need, and any other needs that are identified.
And how I ran from this.
Because the short answer is, no, I NEVER give my full attention to ANYONE, because I am always ministering to three girls first and foremost, in church and in the community. Last time I spoke to someone about her elderly mother suffering from Alzheimer's, and was able to give some counsel and comfort (I hope), we were in the church car park, the baby was wriggling in her buggy and I had to hand the car keys to the girls to let themselves in because they were equally fidgety. (And rightly so. They are good to a point about my responsibility to others, but at the end of the day, they are children, with children's attention spans, and children's needs.) Even when I went to Church without ThirdSister, SecondSister was tired and shy and any interaction I possibly could have had with others wasn't possible that day; I certainly couldn't have gone and prayed with someone in the Chapel of Our Lady and left her there.
And this brings the conflict between mothering and ministry into sharp relief.
I have always said my first priority is to my family, but have over the years felt called by God to wider ministry. The past couple of years I have been putting in groundwork, studying theology, and fulfilling commitments with Pram Service and Baptism Preparation team. Being blessed with another baby threw things a little bit into a spin but life -and study - went on. However, I don't have the childcare set up whereby I am ready to enter the workplace and counsel people in a formal way. I have felt excited that there are positions out there such as hospital-chaplain-who-also-helps-prepare-bodies-in-the-mortuary (yes, really), but I have a baby girl who just turned one and who I struggled to leave with grandparents even to get my Monday morning aquanatal workout in. (And who knows, we may not be done with the baby thing yet!)
So look at me, panicking away about the future. Look at me, whittling about what would happen in a year's time and what would be the expectations on me and how am I ever going to qualify and fit in parish work with being a stay at home mother and so on. So freaked out I just packed the study folder away on the shelf and filed away my anxiety in a little corner of my brain.
A few days later I warned my husband I had to talk to him about something to do with my career. (You know, the career I am going to have in official church ministry, rather than the career in academia I abandoned.) And put off the inevitable for a few days longer. Eventually I caved and spoke to him about my concerns. And do you know what this man, my supportive spouse in our Christian family who doesn't 'get' church but who gets me, do you know what he said? He said:
"But you know, it will all be alright."
And in the utterance of those words, I know it would be alright. Not because he said so, but because we have been here before, about many things. And after going round the houses and worrying for a while, I always realise that - this is God's plan, so it must be alright, and He will equip me and my family with whatever we need to do whatever work He has in store for me, without them and their needs being neglected, if it is what He truly wants.
I remember a previous incumbent explaining to me that I needed to seek out one small part of God's plan for me at a time; it is impossible to see His bigger picture, but it is possible to see it unfold and realise that each babystep at a time is utterly possible, and can lead to a giant leap. I myself had previously visualised God's story for me appearing like words being written on an empty page ready to be filled, and it's true - there is no point reading the ending, or skipping a chapter, or even a few paragraphs, before one is ready to get there. There is a whole journey to go through first, and you get to the right bit at the right time, and IT IS ALRIGHT. Of course I am not currently prepared for the next bit of the plan. Because I AM NOT THERE YET!
How blessed am I to have a husband who helped me shortcut back to the trust-in-God-it's-His-plan mentality. I did have to pray as well. And stop feeling sorry for myself. And realise that things are the right fit for ME at this time, and will be so in the future. I am sure I will go through a cycle like this again (and I am not discounting spiritual attack for increased occurences of distrust and self-doubt, because they usually occur the further I journey down my route to ministry.) But I will try and remember the solution!
The folder and books are still on the shelf. (Did I mention I'd sprained my ankle?) But I started thinking about things I AM able to do in my life as a mother, and asked about joining our church's Prayer Team (as one of its leaders said, "You can do that while pushing the baby in the buggy.") I also realised this week that I am now ready to approach our local hospitals to find out more about the chaplaincy team - after all, hospital chaplaincy takes place 24/7, and I do have some evening capacity. Sometimes when feeling we are blocked in, drowning in responsibility and confusion, it's because we need to learn to look at something in a different way. And to remind ourselves to remain patient.
So I am mentally preparing for the new academic year in September; but we are enjoying the last few weeks of school holidays now. There is a right time to grab my books and dig in; I may take little dips in with my toe, and get time to read an entire book before term starts, but I am not rushing the present, and certainly not the future. I get to watch ThirdSister grow, and sort out opticians' appointments and have girls' friends round to play. I suspect there will be subtle shifts in the way things are done around here in subsequent years (it honestly won't be that long before ThirdSister will have a pre-school place), but I don't need to think in terms of everything turned upside down quite yet.