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Regional Ministry Fridge Magnets

By Geoff Colmer.

In 2000 I took a sabbatical and, among other things, wrote an article for ‘Ministry Today UK’ reflecting on pastoral ministry. I gave it the title My Collection of Fridge Magnets. Subsequently, I used it as the basis for a talk for ‘Ministry Today UK’ at the Baptist Union of Great Britain Assembly. Then upon my appointment as a Regional Minister/Team Leader for the Central Baptist Association, I was asked to give the opening session at the annual Ministers’ Refresher Conference using this material. I have to say even this wasn’t the end because I’ve returned to it when I’ve met with Ministers’ Groups. Consistently it has found something of a resonance.

I called the article My Collection of Fridge Magnets because I used to be a Filofax devotee and, as a person with mild obsessive tendencies – some might say not so mild – not only did my Filofax contain the usual sections - a diary, phone numbers, finance, notes etc. – but there were other sections, and sections within sections!

One sub-section consisted of 'Jottings', and another, 'Learnings'. I started the 'Learnings' during a particularly difficult time in church life, when it helped to provide a tool for reflection and also some stability when things were unsettled.  At that time especially, and at other times, I have needed to remind myself of those things learned.  Some of the learnings are once and for all.  Others need to be revisited from time to time.  Still others are on-going, 'learnings in process' if you like, and I continue to add to them.  Many of them aren't specifically about ministry, but about life.  Some of them tend to read like fridge magnets (short sayings containing wisdom or humour) – I was given one for our fridge which says, “Life's too short to drink bad wine”.  Some seem obvious, but I have needed to acknowledge them for myself.

How did they come? Sometimes they came directly from an experience, a conversation, or a discussion. Sometimes they came from hearing someone else speak, either in person, but often in a book or article.  Sometimes they came from a period of reflection. Nearly always they came like a butterfly on the shoulder rather than a thunderbolt to the head.

When I became a Regional Minister, I dispensed with the Filofax and got a PDA, but I still continued the practice, and now that I use an iPhone and an iPad, I still have Jottings and Learnings.

I made a decision early on that I’d begin a ‘Regional Ministry Collection of Fridge Magnets’ and eight years on, this is what they are. These so-called ‘Fridge Magnets’ aren’t comprehensive and some are quite ordinary but they come out of reflective practice.

Life is rarely dull – ‘Just when you thought it was safe to go back into the water …’

My role has many different facets, with pastoral care of ministers and churches at its heart.  While this involves some ordinary, more general contact, it also involves responding to crises.  So, when the phone goes, I never quite know what’s at the other end, and for some time I had as a ring-tone on my mobile Frank Sinatra singing ‘There may be trouble ahead …’  This consistently made me smile, because it was and is the case sometimes. 

Having said this, regional ministry isn’t only ‘ministry on the dark side’, responding to church life when it goes wrong. There’s also the opportunity to be proactive and help initiate something, or to be there for a celebration in the life of a church.

Taking this a stage further, I am not in control, and I can find this quite a challenge!

Much of my ministry is responsive.  I am in control of aspects of what I do, but I don’t set the agenda for a lot of what happens.  This doesn’t mean that I’m purely reactive, but I do need to be available to the particular needs of ministers and churches.  That might be planned, but much of it isn’t initiated by me, and some of it might change the shape of the diary quite drastically!

I’m an irrelevance until I’m needed

We all see things through our own lens and it’s easy to delude myself that the Central Baptist Association together with its Regional Ministry Team, and the Baptist Union of Great Britain, are in the consciousness of our churches for most of the time. The reality is quite different. On more than one occasion I’ve gone into a situation and the church hasn’t previously known of my existence, or even the Association and the Union.

However, when I am needed I really am needed, because whether it’s a crisis or an opportunity, mostly there’s no-one else.

I can make a difference by doing not very much

I do this by providing what no-one from within the situation can provide, and in particular by being what the Family Systems understanding of congregations describes as a ‘non-anxious presence’.  Congregations are inherently anxious institutions, and it doesn’t take much to upset the equilibrium, somewhat like a mobile suspended from a ceiling.  And it’s difficult to self-regulate that anxiety.  Anxiety tends to beget anxiety, which has a disabling effect on the ability to think creatively, the very resource that’s needed at such a time.  What’s then required is a non-anxious presence to help bring some stability and reassurance to help restore the equilibrium.

So I conclude that my greatest gift is not so much what I do, but who I am.  I do some stuff as well, but that proceeds from who I am.

What I do is hugely appreciated. It may be quickly forgotten; appreciation may turn to something else; but generally I find people are very grateful for what regional ministry contributes.

But I need to keep in mind that …

‘There is a Redeemer’ and it’s not me!

I use this expression a lot with ministers and deacons and it goes down well, but it’s not just them that need to hear this.  I do to.  It is God’s Church and it is God’s mission in which we are invited to participate.

Tidy endings are a rarity and a cause of celebration when they happen

Many years ago I recall Nigel Wright, the Principal of Spurgeon’s College, talking about modest expectations, and this is never more apparent than in my role.  Endings can seem quite ragged and incomplete, and for those who like closure, this can bring frustration. 

What is the least that needs to be done?

I learned this in the local church, but was grateful to Pat Took, my colleague for a number of years, for supplementing it when she made the comment, “Keep out of a troubled situation for as long as possible”.  Sometimes I do need to make an immediate intervention, but much of the time I don’t and to do so can actually make the situation more anxious and not help people to take responsibility.  It is a matter of judgement and I may get it wrong, but I think there’s wisdom here. 

I don’t do trivia

This might not be strictly true, but that was one of the things that struck me most about my role when I came into it.  Let me be clear that what Eugene Peterson terms ‘The Ministry of Small Talk’ is an essential part of being a pastor and one that I embrace.  I just don’t do it so much.

I need to be an expert in blagging

Again, this was an early lesson.  I recall the transition from being the Minister of a local church to being a Regional Minister as a very steep learning curve and I could only appeal to being ‘new in post’ for so long!  What I found happening, however, was that what I call ‘blagging’ actually turned out to be quite effective as I drew upon what I didn’t know I knew. This is what is termed unconscious competence.

I need to be something of a chameleon … but I need to have integrity

The Regional Ministry Team I lead has oversight of 156 churches, and not one of them is the same.  They are all Baptist, and there are many similarities between congregations, but they have different characteristics.  While theologically we are not a very broad denomination, with most of the churches describing themselves as mainstream evangelical, some of our churches are more conservative than others, some more liberal.  In my meeting with ministers, one day I can be talking to someone who holds to a Creationist theology and has the End Times mapped out according to the Left Behind series, while on another day I will be with someone whose theology is influenced by Process Theology. There are many congregations who embrace charismatic worship while others are more liturgical.

Again, this is a ‘being’ thing rather than a ‘doing’ thing, and I need to be fully with that person or that congregation even if I don’t share their theology or practice.  At the same time, I need to maintain a grasp of what I think and practise even if I don’t express it.

Just to add, frequently I find the experience of meeting with other ministers stimulating and enriching as I hear what they’re reading and thinking about, and the situations they are facing, often imaginatively and courageously.

I need to resist the downward drag of cynicism about the Church and remember that I’m part of the Church and one of its ministers.

To be quite honest there are times when I find this challenging, but cynicism is deeply corrosive and damaging to the soul, so I need to return to those who have inspired me with a big vision of the Kingdom of God and the Church, and the privilege of ministry.  Some of those are ministers who I know have stayed the course and testify that it’s worth it.  Others are writers such as Eugene Peterson, pastors who don’t gloss over the reality of church life, but remain orientated towards God with their eyes fixed on Jesus. 

I have to take opportunities to connect with God as they arise, and be rigorous in my own spiritual disciplines

I value times of prayer with colleagues informally and particularly when we set aside time to worship together.  Most months I meet with Regional Minster Team Leader colleagues for what we call ‘Settlement’, the task of helping ministers find churches and churches find ministers.  The second day always begins with what is effectively a Service, each Regional Minister taking a turn to lead in worship, prayer, and the ministry of the Word.  This is a special time which one colleague described as ‘my church’, expressing a sense of detachment from more normal church life.

The older I get the less enamoured I am with a laissez-faire approach to personal spirituality.  This may say more about me than about spirituality!  However, two thousand years of church history seem to testify that relationship with God, though all of grace, requires our cooperation.  Discipline is an unfashionable word, but just as it isn’t an optional extra for the musician to practise scales and studies, I don’t believe that it’s an optional extra for the Minister to pray and meditate upon the Scriptures. 

I’ve been closely involved in the formation of an Order for Baptist Ministry and I moderate the Core Group.  The Order is in part a response to this need with an emphasis upon a commitment to prayer and a commitment to gather.  Evidence shows that when people make shipwreck of their ministry, often there hasn’t been that discipline of daily prayer or accountability to others.

Local church membership is a challenge, certainly for the Regional Minister, and possibly for the church

Initially, it was a strange experience moving from the very centre of a local church to the periphery of another, and it took some getting used to.  While at any time I have close involvement with a number of churches, often I have little to do with the church of which I’m a member.  Attendance at services is occasional and even if I am able to attend a church meeting I find myself questioning the wisdom of doing so!  The church to which I belong has been consistently supportive, but it remains an unusual relationship, especially so during the two pastoral vacancies through which I have steered the church. 

I need trusted friends more than ever

It is my conviction that Ministers really need true friends, and the same goes for Regional Ministers.  The Baptist Order, mentioned earlier, emerged out of a meeting of four friends which has been going on for seventeen years.  I’ve shared a huge amount with these trusted friends, and value them enormously.  They have been there in seasons of sorrow and joy and I’m especially grateful for their encouragement and challenge, and the laughter that we’ve shared together.

In a role which is trans-local, these relationships and others provide some anchorage in what can seem like a constantly changing sea.  I also value the Regional Minister colleagues with whom I work in my own team, and across other teams.  The collegiality we experience is a gift not to be taken for granted.

Finally, I need to be reminded of the privilege of service

When I became a Regional Minister/Team Leader, I came as a pastor.  I’ve made it my intention to remain a pastor, seeing ministry through this lens. 

From the different perspective of ministry which I have acquired, I have come to be even more respectful of the pastoral office.  Being a Minister is a challenging role in our increasingly complex society and I honour those who discharge this duty.  This being said, ministry remains a huge privilege, and if there are times when I lose sight of this, I need to be brought up sharp! 

The Revd Geoffrey Colmer has been the Regional Minster/Team Leader of the Central Baptist Association since 2004. Previously he served churches in Rye and Melton Mowbray.His special focus is on the pastoral care of churches and ministers.

In earlier life, Geoff was a professional musician, playing bassoon in the English Northern Philharmonia. Geoff is married to Cazz, a primary school teacher, and they have two grown-up sons. They live in Milton Keynes.

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You are reading Regional Ministry Fridge Magnets by Geoff Colmer, part of Issue 58 of Ministry Today, published in August 2013.

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