A few weeks ago an e-mail came into my inbox that made me stop and pause for quite a long while. It was the list of Methodist circuits seeking ministers in 2017. I had been expecting it for a long while as I had known we would be moving for some time. Methodist ministers are ‘itinerant’ (i.e. we move about fairly regularly) and we we generally don’t stay in places for more than five or seven years. Even though I knew it was coming, though, when the letter finally came, it was still quite a shock. I realised that one of these places would be our new home from September next year, with a new house (or ‘manse’), new churches, new people and new communities. I had been talking about this process for so long that I thought I was quite blasé about it all. However, as we all know, it’s quite another matter when reality bites!
The list contains 154 locations, starting with the Welsh-speaking congregations of North-West Wales (not one for me, I think!) and ending with the churches of North Kent. Geographically, they are spread from Jersey in the south to Perthshire in the north; from the Isles of Scilly to East Anglia and the Fens. Some places are seeking ministers to be superintendents; others are looking for someone to take charge of three, four or more churches; while still others are looking for people to be part of brave new mission ventures and exciting building projects. It is a wonderful reminder of the breadth and depth of our truly national church, and a stern warning against narrow parochialism. ‘The Church’ is not just limited to ‘my church’!
The list has already caused a number of sleepless nights and no doubt will cause more even after we are finally matched. This will be the third time I have packed up my belongings to serve the church, leaving familiar things behind, but it remains a hard prospect – especially as we have been made very welcome in Watford. Compared to so many people, though, I know that we are very lucky in being part of such a well run and prayerful process. Friends in the armed forces, for example, have much harder transitions to manage.
As so often in my ministry, I am reminded of the Exodus story, which we read about in our Old Testament and which I believe remains one of the most important metaphors for our life with God. In the Sinai desert, the prophet Moses fears that God will not travel with his people when they finally enter the Promised Land of “milk and honey”. Moses cries out: “‘If your presence will not go, do not carry us up from here.” (Exodus 33:15) He would rather be left in the wilderness, or return to slavery in Egypt, than go on to freedom without God. It is a cry and a fear that we find repeatedly in the pages of our Bible and in the lives of God’s people: the fear that we shall travel into uncharted territory and find ourselves alone.
Our scriptures reassure us, though, that this is most definitely not the case. Wherever God’s people have travelled – physically, mentally or spiritually – they have found God already there waiting for them. Be it the Israelites in Canaan, the exiles in Babylon or the apostles in the Roman Empire. Even in the deep waters of death, we know we shall find Christ waiting for us to bring us safely home. This does not mean that such times of change will not bring about fear or confusion – or sleepless nights. Nor does it mean we will always be happy about where we are sent. It is the assurance, though, that ultimately gives me courage to face what is to come. Whatever God may have in store for us, I know I shall not travel alone or find that God is not there waiting for me.