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Submitted by Rev Hector Morrison on 6th July 2016

With much of this month’s issue given over to Assembly reports, the item that caught my attention this time round was the feature article on ‘Ministers of the Future’ in which we are given a progress report from three Church of Scotland candidates for ministry who are at different stages of their training: John McCulloch, former lecturer in Hispanic Studies at Glasgow University, who has just completed his theology degree at Highland Theological College; Lynsey Brennan, former Speech and Language Therapist with the NHS, who is at the end of her second year of study also through HTC; and Dawn Laing, former primary school teacher, who is coming to the end of her first year of theological training at St Mary’s College in the University of St Andrews.

Part of my interest in this article lies in the fact that John and Lynsey are two of the students I’ve had the privilege of teaching – and being taught by – over the past few years as they’ve studied with HTC by means of live video-conference classes from their own homes, a flexibility that an increasing number of candidates, especially those with young families or living too far away for daily travel to one of the church’s accredited training centres, are benefitting from.

John and Lynsey’s returning to degree level studies – and the same will be true of Dawn – may have brought its own challenges for them (some of which they share with us in their brief accounts) but, having significant life experience on top of previous academic studies in other disciplines as they do, means that their contribution to class discussions has been highly enriching for their fellow students. In John’s case, his interest in postmodern and process theologies has added even further to the diversity and richness of class discussions.

From each of their stories, I have noted a recurring theme of the pressures on their time as candidates who have to fit in full-time studies, plus 10 hours per week church placements, plus additional church conferences and retreats on top of what can often be busy family lives as well. This is something that has often concerned me about what we put our candidates through, though there is, of course, a sense in which it does prepare them for the busyness of future ministry. But I do wonder whether we require so much of them that they may not have the time they need to reflect theologically on all that they have been reading, learning and experiencing.

Indeed, Dawn’s account is developed around an experience of a Ministry Candidates’ Retreat that she was not looking forward to at all simply because she had so many study deadlines to meet. Yet, through the discipline of attending that retreat she found herself learning an important spiritual lesson. ‘This weekend,’ she confesses, ‘I have realised that in sharing fellowship, stories and taking ‘time out’ to be with God and His people, whilst listening to Him, can only bring blessing and enrich my ‘busy’ life … The large cross at the centre of the garden here at Braehead House continues to remind me of God’s love through our risen Saviour, the centre of everything … Despite my reservations … it was indeed good to be there, experiencing the peace and presence of the Lord.’

A similar sentiment is expressed by John, this time out of his experience of driving through what he describes as the ‘incredible landscapes’ of Argyllshire where he has been serving in his final church placement in the parish of Ardrishaig and Knapdale. ‘These long drives,’ he writes, ‘have given me time for personal reflection. In a world dominated by activities, deadlines and demands we can neglect our central calling to be renewed by the God of peace.’

Another feature that stands out in each of the candidates’ accounts is the role played by the placement congregations in their development. John, who has had placements in the urban priority area of Govan and Linthouse, Bearsden, Jerusalem and in Argyllshire, writes warmly of the ‘commitment of those I have met, living out their journeys of faith in such different contexts.’ Dawn writes enthusiastically of her God who has given her ‘such amazing blessings and opportunities to worship and share in the lives of those in my placement congregation’ (St Bryce Kirk, Kirkcaldy). While Lynsey, who speaks warmly of her placements at St John’s-Renfield, Westerton Fairlie Memorial, Bearsden and Faifley Parish, writes that ‘One of the perks of ministry training is that along the way you become part of different church communities and families that stay with you in your training.’ She continues, ‘Learning to lead worship whilst staying open to the Spirit’s guidance has been simply indescribable. Nothing gives me greater pleasure than sharing my faith and my love of the Lord Jesus Christ and bringing the scriptures alive.’ May she never lose that passion for sharing the scriptures and sense of wonder in leading worship.

As John moves on to his probationary placement, and as Lynsey (with the additional challenge of another baby on the way) and Dawn look forward to continuing their studies, our prayers follow each of them – and all our other candidates – with the prayerful longing that the Lord would continue to raise up many more people of faith like them to fill the vacant pulpits of our land.