My attempted journey into full-time paid Christian ministry is not a nice one. In fact, it is quite discouraging, and should be a warning to those who attempt it.
I am writing this post for the sake of Craig Schwarze who asked me about my history with MTS and what happened. I know that Matt Teakle will want to know as well, as will many who know me personally.
In 1991 I made the decision that I wanted to go to Bible College. I tossed up between Moore Theological College (MTC) and Sydney Missionary and Bible College (SMBC). The problem was that I was unsure of whether I was suitable to enter full-time ministry, and I was eventually convinced that I needed time to work this out. Nevertheless, I made the choice to go to SMBC just for the sake of getting to know God and the Bible better. I decided against MTC because the costs for independent students was high, and if I wanted a subsidy I would have to become an Anglican Candidate - which pretty much meant that I had to be convinced that f/t paid ministry in the Sydney diocese was what I was aiming for. I also had the problem of not being university educated, something that would have made my time at MTC exceptionally hard.
In hindight, my decision to go to SMBC was a good one. I have very fond memories of my two years there. Theology lectures with Neil Chambers and Bruce Smith (the latter being an eccentric and amusing man); Biblical Theology with Stephen Renn; Preaching with David Cook. When I started college, Anna was my girlfriend so I was officially "unavailable" to any of the females there - which was a good thing since the place was a "fishbowl". Anna and I broke up and then got back together late in 1992, and eventually married in June 1993 - halfway through my second and final year (I did the Associate Diploma of Divinity and Mission).
While at college I began to learn how to preach. From very early on people began to speak about my preaching, and how much they appreciated it. I remember one sermon I gave at college chapel I gave on Hebrews 1.1-4 ("God spoke to our forefathers..."). It was a heavily theological sermon, and I remember emphasising how important it was to have a Biblical understanding of Christ as God. After chapel, some students talked to me and discussed with me - spontaneously - about how the sermon had convicted and taught them. Later that day, David Cook, the college principal and one of Australia's better preachers, took me aside and asked me what my future plans were. When I told him that I wasn't too sure and that I'd be going on MTS, he said "You really should seriously consider a preaching ministry". For the rest of the year I was one of David Cook's "specially chosen" students who would occasionally sit down with a select group of others and have coffee with David and his wife Maxine.
The church I went to at the time - which shall remain nameless because I don't want to bad mouth it publically (besides, many of my readers know it) - decided in mid 1993 that they would start up their first "official" MTS (Ministry Training Scheme). Three guys had been chosen from the congregation - Rhett (a youth leader), Wayne (who did a lot of children's work) and Peter (also involved in youth leading). Two of them - Wayne and Peter - had been part of my 1993 Bible study group that I started and ran called the "Ministry Training Group" (MTG). In that group we studied "Two Ways to Live", the Matthias media "Personal Follow-up" course, a course on Hermeneutics ("Postcard from Palestine") and a study in personal relationships ("Encouragement" by Larry Crabb). It was really interesting seeing the people in the group develop, especially Wayne and Peter who were obviously experienced and knowledgeable. After a while I managed to convince the senior pastor that I should also go on MTS.
My year at SMBC ended and I graduated with my Bible College diploma. As graduation got nearer, I was informed by the senior pastor that there was no money available to employ me, even at the exceptionally low wages that MTS people got at the time. A friend at church had a donation drive for me, and managed to scrape together enough financial commitment from the evening congregation for me to receive half the MTS going rate at the time. Another person - Liz - also went on MTS but she was funding herself somehow.
So 1994 began and I started my "apprenticeship" in Christian ministry. My responsibility was scripture teaching, leading Evening church and going through the church's "Green Cards" - cards for member and visitor to fill out during the service - in order to get feedback on the sermons or identify visitors and contact them.
But what I didn't expect was the total lack of preaching. At this point I need to point out that the church in question is a reasonably large and well-known Evangelical Anglican church in Sydney's North. In terms of preaching power, the church was reasonably well-resourced, but the Evening service was essentially run by one of the church's assistant pastors. This guy - Andrew - had gone through MTS and MTC in the 1980s and started ministering in the church in 1992, the same time I started college. He's a nice guy, but I felt that his sermons were a bit laboured. Even then I felt that I was a better preacher. But I kept my mouth shut and rightly reminded myself that spiritual pride is not all that becoming. Besides, I argued to myself, I was doing all these other things that were important for me to learn - things that would complement my preaching.
Andrew was also the product of St Matthias Centennial Park. Philip Jensen, the "Ian Chappell" of Sydney Anglicanism and rector of Matthias, had set up a highly successful and expertly run ministry based around evangelism and expository preaching at the University of New South Wales (UNSW). MTS people from the 1980s had all been from Matthias, and had been put through a training system based around the University ministry. Now the problem was that I was not a uni graduate, and Andrew's paradigm of ministry was pretty much controlled by his own experience. Andrew was my boss and my "trainer".
I made mistakes - I'll freely admit that. But they weren't moral or spiritual or theological ones. I found unstructured time hard to deal with, and I also found that I was quite at sea when it came to being super-organised. I was also living around Parramatta - 15 minutes from church but still a long way. Wayne also lived in the same suburb, but I was limited to travel by motorbike while Wayne had a car where he could pack lots of things into.
As the year progressed, I became quite frustrated by my lack of preaching and how difficult I was finding my type of work. I need to point out here that I was scripture teaching, and I was also leading a Bible study group, and was the "MC" for Sunday night church. All these things I did well. It was in the area of organisation that I was having problems.
In 1995 - my second year in MTS - Andrew suggested that I get involved with the Christian group at Macquarie University. Even though I was not a "uni person", I nevertheless swallowed my doubts and went on campus to do evangelism and lead Bible studies. The problem was that there were political issues in the Christian group. A number of years earlier, the Anglican university chaplain had had an argument with the official AFES group (Australian Fellowship of Evangelical Students) and had gone off and formed his own, independent, group. His group was called UBS - University Bible Study, while the official AFES group was CU - Christian Union. UBS, however, was based more on the UNSW model, and the former chaplain who had created this group had actually been the head of AFES for a number of years. As a result, there had been some acrimony between the people who ran the two groups. When I turned up, efforts had been made to join the two groups together - a process which occurred while I was there. However, the CU student board were very suspicious of my presence. To them I represented a power play on behalf of AFES officialdom and I was treated very coolly. It didn't make for good ministry. Nevertheless I still managed to study the Bible once a week with a PhD student at the uni who also went to my church. We had great times talking about God and praying together.
In addition to this, my 1995 workload included meeting with a group of single Christian guys for breakfast once a week. They all lived in the same house together, and I would get there at 7.00am to have Bible study and breakfast with them every Friday. Two of the guys had major problems with one another - one guy was unreasonably homophobic while the other guy had been converted from a homosexual background and was still working through issues. I spent quite a bit of time talking to latter guy.
Anna and I also ran a weeknight bible study group that I fondly refer to as "The Bible Study Group from Hell". All the people in the group were fringe members who often didn't turn up to church. The reason was simple - they had big chips on their shoulders about the church culture and certain people in leadership, and were not afraid to express their displeasure. They also often forgot to bring their Bibles to Bible study (duh!), and when they did remember to bring them, they would very rarely look at the text when discussing the meaning and application of the passages in question. They were a hard group, they were bitter and twisted, but God was able to use Anna and myself. Gradually God softened their hearts and opened their minds to the Bible. One married couple in the group moved out of Sydney and attended another church where they became heavily involved in the music ministry there - which was better than the nothing they were doing at our church. Another couple - a boyfriend/girlfriend who later got married after the group finished - became regular members at our church and involved themselves in all sorts of activities. As far as I know they are still at the church, faithfully serving God's people there. The group was certainly the hardest I had ever encountered, but is certainly the most rewarding because of the way God used Anna and me in their lives - they could have easily given up church in anger and bitterness and/or fallen away from the faith.
I was also scripture teaching in High schools in the local area. I learned how to control a class and prepare scripture lessons. I was able to speak the Gospel to many non-Christian kids, and also had the opportunity to speak to an entire school (one of Sydney's most prestigious and successful selective schools) where I was able to tell hundreds of kids the Gospel.
So what went wrong? Despite the fact that God was using me to teach people the Word and the Gospel, I was still struggling to organise myself in other areas. The "Green Card" system wasn't really working for me, and I was also asked to set up and run a "Welcomer's ministry", which meant that I would get a group of people from the Sunday Evening church and co-ordinate them so that they would be able to identify and welcome any newcomers to the Sunday evening service. We had upwards of 250 people every Sunday night, so newcomers were often present, but I always felt strange about having to create a ministry that should be happening naturally. If people on Sunday nights were not welcoming newcomers, then why set up a special "group" to do it? It irked me that I had to set up a structrual and organisational solution to a problem that was spiritual in nature. I also remember reading about a church where newcomers were surprised at the warmth of greeting they received from people, but, after a few more weeks, were not impressed when they realised that the only reason why people were nice to them was that they had been rostered on to a welcoming committee. To them it sounded false, and they left the church soon afterwards.
Then the big day came, around June 1995. Andrew called me in to talk about my future. My plans were simple - in 1996 I would go to Moore College as an Anglican candidate. I was already learning Greek and reading theology. Andrew told me, however, that he and the Senior pastor had determined that I was not yet suitable for ministry. My lack of organisational skills was a major point, but this was linked to some supposed psychological or emotional deficiencies I had. Therefore they could not support my candidacy. Maybe later on in life, Andrew said, would I be ready.
I was shattered. I did not expect a refusal. I went home and my wife and I discussed this in tears together. We prayed that God would lead us and help us.
At no time did I doubt that Andrew was wrong. I had implicitly trusted his judgement. My time on MTS was there so that I would learn skills in ministry and to be assessed by older, wiser Christians. Although I "felt" led to be in ministry, I had also determined that God would guide me through the wise counsel of others that he had provided. This didn't make it any easier though.
I decided that I would quit straight away and find work in the secular world. I finished my 18 months on MTS at the end of June 1995 and became officially unemployed. The only ministry I kept up was the Bible study group from hell. At the time I also went away for a week with a musician mate of mine, Greg Dixon. Our holiday was a song-writing experience for his new album, and I wrote the following song:
(Neil Cameron/Greg Dixon)
The future seemed so clear cut, now it's fallen with a thud
I could see years into the future, but now it's clear as mud
What to do, what to say, enjoying life or bringing home the pay?
A willingness to serve, yet direction gone astray
I can't believe the state I'm in, I don't know what to say
What to think, what to feel, jump back on the Ferris wheel
The paths are many, the goal is clear
The clear headed vision should ward off fear
But for now let me shed this tear
A few odd jobs later and I eventually found myself applying to go to Macquarie University (the same place I had ministered in) to study to be a High school English and History teacher. I started this in 1996, which was a hard year for us spiritually. Anna and I often failed to go to church. It got so bad that the senior pastor took me aside one night after church and gently reminded me that we should keep meeting together as God's people. Anna and I led another Bible study that year as well, but we had had enough for a while and decided we needed a rest in 1997. In 1998 we moved to the Wednesday Night church where we struggled to fit in. In 1999 Anna starting having grand mal epileptic seizures, and I was failing a few courses at uni.
During this time something was going on at Evening church that concerned me - it was a guy on MTS named Simon. Simon headed up the Evening church service and was a very gifted individual. He was a blond surfer and had a naturally exuberant personality. I also remember him as part of a Bible study group in 1992 I had. He was still quite young then - I think maybe 20 or so when he was in my group. However, despite his good points, he was quite often critical of things that I would do. It got to the point where one night I had to sit down with Simon and Rhett to work things out. Rhett assured me that Simon's critical nature was only temporary. It wasn't. When Simon continued into MTS and gained responsibility, it appears as though he trampled anyone who was opposed to his ideas. Lay leaders in the evening service were driven mad by his controlling behaviour. One - a woman who led the singing - was driven to tears on a number of occasions by Simon's attitude. She even needed mediation with an associate pastor to try and work things out between him and her. Unbeknownst to me, she and maybe a few others spoke to Andrew about Simon's problems. Andrew responded by saying "well, another six months and he's finished MTS and will be at Moore College and out of our hair" (or words to that effect).
A few years later, Simon was the student head for a Moore College Mission to a church in Sydney's North Shore. He stayed at the house of a rather rich and well-to-do church member who, chance would have it, was also a good friend of Anna's mum, who was staying there at the time. Both Anna's mum and this woman were driven mad by Simon's actions. At one point he tried to squeeze more people into a church hall than what was legally allowed. Both the woman and Simon got into a battle over this. Anna's mum remembers Simon exhibiting all sorts of controlling behaviour that was totally out of place for a Christian, let alone a Christian leader.
These revelations were important for me. Andrew had not approved me for ministry, but he and the senior pastor had approved Simon for ministry - yet this despite his obvious behavioural shortcomings. Simon was rude, controlling and proud. I don't get into ministry but Simon does. What does that say about Andrew and the Senior pastor's ability in spiritual discernment?
Let me quickly look at the Bible here. In 1 Timothy 3 it gives the qualities that an Elder should have. Simon failed to be "sober-minded", "self-controlled" and "not quarrelsome." These parts of his behaviour were obvious and he should never have been allowed into Moore College (and certainly not have been able to be ordained and serve as a church pastor, as he is now doing).
But what about me? Do I fit these qualifications?
It is hard not to sound like I'm big-noting myself, but I know that I am "able to teach". I'm very conservative and reformed in my evangelical doctrine, so no one can accuse me of speaking through my rear end. So what about my Christian character?
Since moving to Newcastle in 2000, I have preached more than ever. In fact, in 2001 I preached more sermons in one year than all the sermons I preached from 1992-2000 combined. Anna and I, and our kids, are now Presbyterians and we attend Charlestown Presbyterian church. Much of my preaching has come at our Swansea and Redhead parishes, as well as other churches around Newcastle. I have preached at the Presbyterian churches at Raymond Terrace, Stockton, Wallsend and Cessnock, and preached once at Hamilton Baptist Church. In the time since 2000 I have learned a great deal as a preacher - enough to know that God has still gifted me in this area. In 2003 I convinced Anna that we should apply with the Presbyterian Ministry and Missions department to see if we could become Home Missionaries - a sort of non ordained Presbyterian minister who works in smaller and less financially viable churches.
The interview in August 2003 went well. Nevertheless I was knocked back - but only because I had yet to be more experienced in Presbyterian church polity. The head guy at M & M even emailed me to assure me that I should re-apply again in the future. I discussed this issue with our minister at Charlestown, and he agreed that the best thing for me was to become an elder and be appointed to the church's session. One of the things that needs to happen in this process is that the church needs to vote. Although Elders are sometimes chosen on ability, a focus upon Christian character is paramount. If my "life and doctrine" were unsound, the church would not accept my ordination to the Eldership.
Again, it sounds like I'm big-noting myself here, but I have to point out that no one at our church complained about my life and doctrine. When the vote was held, I'm fairly certain that there was no opposing votes. What this meant was that my Christian brothers and sisters had formally and publically stated that my Christian character and morals fitted that of an Elder as defined by 1 Timothy 3.
In August this year, Anna and I again applied as Home missionaries with M & M. This time around we were interviewed in exactly the same way as we had been before. In fact, at least half the questions that were asked could have been answered if they had read my application letter from 2003. A few days after the interview I was contacted by the 2ic. He said that the committee did not think that I was suitable for full-time ministry. More than that - they had decided that they were not going to inform me of the reason why. All this despite the fact that our pastor and many of the Elders think that I am suitable.
There is one missing element to the puzzle here - I suffer depression. In order to manage it, I take Efexor, an antidepressant. I have also been through some cognitive-behavioural therapy with a Christian psychiatrist. These have helped immensely. Moreover, I am managing my depression well. My last major depressive episode was in 2001, although I admit that I do get "down" occasionally - but not enough to be debilitated. As part of my interview process this time around for M & M, I asked my psychiatrist to give his professional written opinion of the state of my mental health. In his opinion, my mental and emotional state should not affect in any way my performance as a pastor.
So I really should finish. What was wrong with MTS? In my opinion, when I went through it, it made the assumption that successful ministry depended upon various forms of organisational structure rather than upon the ability to preach and teach the word. I am one who believes that a successful pastor is one who is able to model the Christian life to those he cares for. A successful preacher is one who allows himself to be deeply affected by God's word, rather than being able to just identify 3 points and a one-sentence summary of the passage's meaning. A successful discipler is one who is able to get alongside people in their joys and sorrows, not one who is able to delegate this reponsibility to others.
In 2003 I met up with Wayne again. Wayne was one of the guys who was on MTS with me, and was in my Ministry Training Group in 1993. He had gone through Moore College and ended up working as a school chaplain. Unsubstantiated charges of inappropriate behaviour were levelled towards him by another chaplain, and the guy went through a depressive episode - a breakdown if you will. He eventually left the school and, in 2003, was pastoring an Anglican church in Sydney. When I met up with Wayne again, I asked him if there was anything about my time on MTS that he was worried about. "Well", he said "I know you were having trouble organising yourself, but I still have problems doing that now. To tell you the truth, I could not understand the reason why Andrew and the senior pastor didn't think you were suitable. I certainly had no major doubts about you."
About a year ago I went to the baptism of a friend's baby in an Anglican church in Sydney's west. The minister of the church was the same guy who had organised funds for me. Also there was the woman who had been driven to tears by Simon's behaviour. Another guy there was Steve, the PhD student who I read the Bible with regularly at uni - he is Dr. Steve now. Steve, after finishing his PhD, went on MTS as well. His experience wasn't great either, and he related to me that his trainer (a different person to Andrew) had also recommended that he not be suitable for ministry. He struggled with this, and is managing to continue M.Div studies at SMBC. But he also told me that, abotu 3-4 years after his major discouragement, his former trainer, in a moment of clarity, admitted that he had got it wrong about Steve.
One more thing - I know of one guy who also did MTS at the church who was treated exceptionally badly. I don't know why, but the guy just found his experience there to be soul-destroying. I don't know where he is with God at the moment, btu I know he is no longer at that church.
Maybe more to come - but I have to feed the baby. Make comments please.
From the Theosalient Department
© 2005 Neil McKenzie Cameron, http://one-salient-oversight.blogspot.com/
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