Ministry in Conversation

Normally I confine book reviews on this blog to my bi-monthly positing entitled ‘Books for Today’. However, I want to make an exception to Ministry in Conversation: Essays in Honour of Paul Goodliff (Wipf & Stock, Eugene, Oregon 2022. 256pp: £27), edited by Andy Goodliff and John Colwell. In part this is because Paul Goodliff, who this summer ended  ‘active’ ministry as General Secretary of Churches Together in England, has been a good friend for many years  – and in the course of that friendship served as a colleague on the boards of Ministry Today UK and of the College of Baptist Ministers. In part too, because I have contributed one of the articles. Asked to write something on ‘ministry and travel’, I decided to reflect on how I have sought to encourage ministers to ‘go places’ in their personal and professional journeys; or in terms of the metaphor, how I have sought to give other ministers ‘the travel bug’.

In addition to a bibliography of Paul Goodliff’s writings and a general bibliography, the book consists of fifteen essays, each centring around one of Paul’s interests. From a young age Paul was interested in art, music, literature, poetry, geography and history; into adulthood he added wine, gardening and travel, together with activities associated with ministry, viz. preaching, prayer, education, counselling and ecumenism. In addition to the two editors and myself, the authors are all former colleagues in Baptist ministry: viz. Graham Sparkes, Geoff Colmer, Paul Fiddes, Stephen Copson, Ruth Gouldbourne, Rob Ellis, Pat Took, Sally Nelson, Ruth Bottoms, Myra Blyth, Alistair Ross, and Wale Hudson-Roberts. Of these contributors, I was conscious of how many had specialised in theology and things Baptist, and that I was the only one who had specialised in the New Testament – sadly Baptist Biblical scholars in this country are a rarity. On a lighter note, I also realised that I was the only one blessed with a Cambridge education! However, to be more serious, recognising I have not room to review each of the essays, I have decided to highlight just three essays which for one reason or another resonated with me.

The first essay which resonated is entitled ‘Ministry and History’ by Stephen Copson, the Secretary of the Baptist Historical Society, and a regional ministry in the Central Baptist Association, which consists of reflections on the life of Cornelius Elven, an early 19th century Suffolk Baptist minister, who kept a series of diaries weaving  “a tapestry of personal spirituality, psychology and dealing experience, theological reflection and factual information”. As Stephen Copson makes clear, these diaries were not intended for publication: Elven wrote for himself, “with an eye and an ear for the divine audience… It is a place where he can bare his heart to God and to himself – and he knows that he cannot deceive God”. The concept of such a diary fascinated me. Over the years I have written a good deal about my own experience of ministry and in the process have sometimes bared my heart. But to be totally open is something very different – it is to enter into the very depths of our being. The only times I have tried to do something similar is when I have gone on ‘retreat’ and have engaged with God by reflecting on the Scriptures through writing at great length. I began to reflect in this way as a result of going on a one-to-one retreat with a Jesuit priest, in which every day I was given three Scriptures to form the basis for a day devoted to prayer and then reported back to the priest at the end of each day what God had been saying to me. It proved to be an incredibly purging and emotional experience, which I subsequently made part of my daily discipline whenever I went on retreat.

The second essay which resonated with me was entitled ‘Ministry and Education’ by Sally Nelson, dean of Baptist Formation at St Hild College, Yorkshire, and the Editor of the Baptist Ministers’ Journal. In her opening paragraph she writes that a key task for theological educators in Baptist colleges is “the process of formation – and indeed of transformation” of their students. I thought back to my experience of training for ministry at the Northern Baptist College. It was not good: in the two yeas I was there the Principal was unwell with the result that everything went to pot, and so I simply focussed on my PhD. I then reflected on the six years I was Principal of Spurgeon’s College where we devised the slogan ‘Spurgeon’s Adaptable Leadership Training’. For not the best of reasons, my time at Spurgeon’s proved to be a major learning experience for me and ultimately made an enormous contribution to the deepening of my spiritual life –  but I sometimes wonder what difference my principalship made on my students. Since then, as Sally Nelson’s essay makes clear, Baptist colleges have moved on, Church-based training has become the norm. She describes the college experience as facilitating “a holy dialogue… where all, tutors and students, are formed in exemplary discipleship”. My response is that without the necessary tools for ministry, exemplary discipleship is not enough. I guess I need to spend a few days at St Hild to see this college in action!

Finally, I particularly appreciated ‘Ministry as prayer’, in which John Colwell, a former tutor of doctrine and ethics at Spurgeon’s College, reflected on Acts 6.1-4, where Luke describes how the Twelve resolved to “give our attention to prayer and the ministry of word”. With tongue somewhat in cheek, John Colwell writes: “I suspect that most of us instinctively would sit more comfortably with being separated to a ministry of Word and leadership, a ministry of Word and management, a ministry of Word and pastoral care, a ministry of Word and social involvement, a ministry of Word and political engagement”. Sadly, amongst Baptists at least, that tends to be true: by contrast, for many Anglicans prayer is at the heart of ministry. John Colwell goes on to argue powerfully that “to be separated to a ministry of the Word is to be separated to prayer”. Perhaps of all the essays this is the essay which those starting out in Baptist ministry – and indeed all in ministry – need to hear.

In conclusion, Ministry in Conversation has many helpful insights, of which I have singled out just a few. Each of the essays would form a good conversation starter in any ministers’ group. It is relatively expensive. But what is £27 if one or other of the essays leads to more effective ministry?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *