On being a Pastoral Assistant

Alexander Robertson on how placements can provide young people with real insight into priestly ministry and develop their understanding of vocation

More and more young people are leaving university with very little idea of what they want to do with their lives. This should, on one level, be encouraging; university education has never been, and should never be, about gaining a vocational qualification. But worryingly for the Church, this has also created a generation unsure of how to live a life worthy of their Christian vocation. This is combined with a selections process within the Church of England that is determined that young people should be exposed to the ‘real world’, preferably through a placement in parishes.

This affords the Church of England, and particularly the catholic movement, a huge opportunity – an opportunity which it is only just beginning to grasp.

Priestly formation

Before I took up the post of Pastoral Assistant in three parishes in North London an awful lot of people joked that my life would involve the hugely rewarding task of folding and stapling, answering telephones, and responding to enquiries about church hall hire. This is a common preconception about these kinds of placements, but they can be powerful tools for equipping the next generation of clergy for service in the Church. Contrary to worldly cynicism they can provide important formation by engaging young aspirants in real pastoral encounters outside of the parish office.

In my own context the mixture of working across three parishes, with three very different congregations, helping in the parishes’ night shelter for the homeless, beginning a chaplaincy to the local YMCA, working with free church leaders, home communions, and school work on top of the parish admin and services in all three churches not only keeps me busy but provides me with real insight into priestly ministry in the Church.

These challenges can also be added to by the fact that many on placements  of this kind are some of the first Pastoral Assistants that parishes have ever had.

Common life

Moreover, a common life among Pastoral Assistants in their accommodation opens them up to the possibility of developing their understanding of vocation. By the sharing of a common life of work and prayer, young men and women could perhaps come to understand their vocation as being to the religious life. Or perhaps this common life could lead them to work in priestly fraternities such as the Company of Mission Priests.

Whilst I would not subscribe to the common idea within selections processes that at the tender age of 23 I do not have the necessary wherewithal to be recommended for training (a view which is all too common in the Church of England), I do feel that these placements can be a very good way of beginning priestly formation within the context of a parish. Thereby they offer young people with experience of working in the Church the possibility of widening and consolidating that experience, and for those with little Church experience, providing a formational framework for enriching their faith and vocation with actual pastoral experience.

Lay formation

All of this being said, placements are all too often offered to those exploring ordination to the priesthood, and a key part of moving forward and building on the good work achieved by these placements by opening them up to a broader constituency of younger people. One of the great advantages of the schemes is the huge variety of activities your diary is filled with. Parishes take you into schools and hospitals, they involve you with whole ranges of people. By doing so they have the potential to be a transforming experience for young people, pointing them to realize not only where their vocation lies (be it teaching or social work) but also how to live their lives formed by a Christian understanding of vocation.

By opening parishes up to these young people whose call is not to priesthood or religious life, we can form a generation of Christians who can be equipped for mission in the secular world. They can work in professions such as teaching deeply formed by the experience of working in a parish.

Sacrificial giving

All parishes should put some thought to parish placements for young people. It is often difficult to find accommodation, but money can, even in these straightened times, be surprisingly readily available from both Church charities and trusts and local community charities. Churches can receive a lot from young people on placements – young people have a great deal to offer the life of the Church of England, and placements can be one way that these can find expression. Finally, young people who are exploring their vocation, be it to the priesthood, the religious life, teaching, or simply their Christian vocation, should strongly consider taking the time to serve prayerfully in parishes across the country. Dom Gregory Dix, writing a letter to Marcus Stephens, a novice in the Society of the Sacred Mission, wrote that the key to vocation is sacrificial giving: ‘Give, give, give – that is what you have to do – to God, to your brethren, to the Church, to the world – never to yourself.’ Young people must be inspired to give; only then will they find out who they truly are and what they are called to do. ND

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