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What I’ve learnt as a first-time vicar

Tom Woolford of now (incumbent of New Longton) writes to Tom Woolford of 2 years’ ago (curate in Bispham)

Dear Tom,

Remember that Mark Twain quote? “When I was a boy of 14, my father was so ignorant I could hardly stand to have the old man around; but when I got to be 21, I was astonished at how much he’d learnt in seven years.” Though you never thought your Training Incumbent was ignorant, you have certainly suffered a spell or two of the malady known as ‘curate’s disease,’ when you’ve been frustrated by your TI’s methods and sure that you knew better, more efficient and more effective modes of ministry. Let me tell you that two years’ later, you’ll be amazed by how much he’s learnt.


Your wife, in particular, will delight to laugh at you for ‘turning into Simon,’ as you increasingly adopt barely-modified versions of his customs that you formerly regarded rather sceptically. You’ll also be especially grateful for what you used to find occasionally trying: your TI’s often very detailed explanation of various legalities pertaining to graveyards, church fabric, faculties, PCCs, diocesan structures, and the occasional offices. Yes, you were right, you didn’t need to know them as a curate – but you will as an incumbent, and that’s what he was asked to train you for. You still won’t know enough, as a first-time incumbent, about these matters; but you’ll find that you know more than most in a similar situation and, crucially, more than your PCC. You will even find, much to your amusement, that you will soon lecture on these topics at a theological college that doesn’t yet exist.


Lots of what you expect from incumbency will turn out to be the case. The extra leadership responsibility will be both stimulating and exhausting. Being the ‘number 1’ gives you a more flexible personal diary but also a lot more things to fit into it. You’ll be able to decide lots of things but won’t be able metaphorically to hide under another’s cassock if anything turns out to be a misstep. You’ll still have the same ups and downs of ministry as when you were a curate – encouragements from people’s growth in faith, of a difficult funeral sensitively handled, of a hurting believer well-counselled, of children soaking up your assemblies; and discouragements from a sermon badly pitched, a family that seemed to be newly committed suddenly dropping off the radar, rumours of minor grievances from anonymous complainants. None of this should surprise you.


One slight difference between curacy and incumbency will be the degree to which you take these encouragements and discouragements personally. Before, you could sit lightly to compliments and criticisms: you were there only for a relatively short time and were working to someone else’s brief. Now, it’s your long-term home and enduring reputation that are on the line; and the successes and failures are all on your head (or so you will be tempted to believe). You will tell yourself that you need to develop a thicker skin; but you’ll also be told that feeling things deeply is a sign of an appropriately tender conscience in a pastor that rightly wants to love and be loved. So you’ll resolve instead to build up emotional and spiritual resilience, while allowing your heart to continue to be alternately warmed and wounded by the highs and lows of serving God’s church.


What will surprise you is the extraordinary breadth of your brief. You may be a presbyter whose calling is to pray for the people, preach the word, preside at the sacraments, and pastor the broken-hearted; but you will also be a vicar, whose job is to set and sign off budgets, settle legal land disputes, approve building repairs, apply for faculties, chair school governing board subcommittees, and spearhead fundraising events. The first 6 months of managing these things will be overwhelming, but it will get easier as you get know your way around a spreadsheet, the Church Representation Rules green book, and the supportive Facebook and WhatsApp groups of fellow new incumbents similarly struggling to keep their heads above swirling legal, political, and financial waters.


The urgency of such temporal responsibilities will have the tendency to squeeze out spiritual thinking. It will take an act of will to resist that tendency; to refuse to become the manager of a religious social club. So persevere, for instance, with a bible reading and a reflection at the start of every PCC meeting. Make sure the Mission Action Plan is about Christ as well as being about community. Resist the temptation to focus on numbers – of both pounds and pew-fillers. Above all, be patient. Before you started your incumbency, you talked a good game about change in a church being hard and slow; but you secretly hoped that in your case things would blossom richly and instantly as your Scriptural preaching and teaching set a church ablaze. It won’t. That thing Martin Luther said about just sitting back and drinking Wittenburg beer with Philip (Melanchthon) while the word did all the work? Well, brother Martin was an exceptional man living in an extraordinary time. You’re not and it isn’t. Which means you’ll have to do the long slog with incremental progress (if God is so kind to grant it). Preaching the word will mostly be done ‘out of season’ – but it’s still your vocation. Churchill’s famous wartime phone call sign off will need to become your motto in incumbency: Keep calm and carry on.


So enjoy the final months of curacy. In lots of ways you’ll miss these days that you’re currently wishing away. Listen to your TI, even if you think you don’t need to. Keep fostering friendships with your fellow curates – you’ll need each other even more in the years ahead. Get into good spiritual habits and be determined to keep them. Don’t dread incumbency – it’s super fun as well as super hard (emotionally and practically). And remember, amid all the practical distractions and spiritual discouragements, that Jesus (not you) will build his church – even in your parish – and the gates of hell will not prevail against it. Even when the gates of hell enlist Storm Eunice and break the porch tiles.


Yours,

Tom

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Dr Tom Woolford is vicar of New Longton (Diocese of Blackburn) and tutor in theology at Emmanuel Theological College, specialising in doctrine, history, and Anglicanism. He's a proctor of General Synod and a member of the council of Church Society. He is married to Julie and has five daughters. He trained at Oak Hill and served his curacy under Simon Cox in Bispham (Blackpool deanery).


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