Authorised Lay Ministry is a new role, introduced three years ago and developed in the Diocese of Manchester as a way of enabling lay people (people like you and me) who have a passion for God and ministry to serve their community in various roles, supporting the incumbent and widening the church’s reach. I have nearly finished this year’s course and am looking forward to being commissioned at the end of September. Let me tell you about my experience.
Authorised Lay Ministers (ALMs) are trained for a variety of areas within church life, such as pastoral work, mission and evangelism, children’s work, developing worship and so on. The ALM course is split into two parts; the “core” element, where we explore our call to ministry and what it means to be a lay minister in that respect and the “elective” element, where we study our particular interest and our calling in these specialist areas. I elected to study prayer and spirituality, which is something very close to my heart and something I have wanted to explore further for quite some time.
Before I went into this process I had in my mind what I thought it was to pray and what it was to experience and express spirituality, and I was prepared to find out whether the church did or did not share those thoughts and feelings with me. I was mighty glad to find that not only did the church share them, but was openly embracing of my ways and challenged me into widening my thoughts and pre-conceived ideas along the way.
Let me explain. I have a very formal and traditional background in church life, and praying in that setting, but my personal experience of prayer is something completely different to that I have known there. The God we prayed to in church seemed to be an entirely different God I prayed with by myself. You’ll notice the words “prayed to” and “prayed with” there. That’s because in my personal prayer, a lot of the time I don’t use words and I allow time and space for a reply. I let my emotions bubble up and I allow colours, images, feelings, people’s faces etc. just flow between God and me. It is a two-way communication process, where I “talk” and then God “talks” back to me. Before ALM I thought that if I’d told anyone this I would be branded as some sort of New-Age hippy or something, or written off as a dreamer, or out of touch with the church’s teachings and so on. Actually, what I found on the ALM course was that not only was that a perfectly normal way of praying but it was positively encouraged, as was praying through art, or music, or dance, or meditation and so on.
So you see, where I thought I was out of step I found that I was bang IN step, and my concept of what prayer was has been broadened and strengthened too. I learned a lot of new techniques to help other people engage with prayer and I have already shared some of these with prayer groups and during intercession prayers at church, with the children in our Sunday School and at our local primary school. We have prayed intercessions without words, we have engaged in a prayer-flower session where we hand over our woes to God and watch as he transforms them into something beautiful, and we have prayed using cut-out “flames” at Pentecost which we then lay before the altar to name just a few.
During the first part of the course, the core element, I was inspired because of the other people on the course and their enthusiasm for what they already do in their own churches. Our tutor, Chris, was engaging and challenging in equal measure, and he made us think about all the things we are called to be when we become Authorised Lay Ministers. There is a course poem that we took as our inspiration for what we are called to be, and we prayed this at the start of the course as an introduction to the things we were going to be exploring. We will also be praying this prayer at our commissioning service in September but here it is so you can see for yourself what it is we have been working to:
Lord, you call us to be story-tellers:
Planting your explosive news into our defended lives;
Locating us in the script of your human history.
You call us to be trailblazers:
Living in your future that we receive only as a gift;
Subverting the fixed, fated world of low horizons.
You call us to be weavers:
Tracing, stretching, connecting the knotted threads’
Gathering up unravelling, disconnected lives.
You call us to be fools –
For Christ’s sake: bearing life’s absurdities and incongruities;
Puncturing our seriousness and grandiosity.
You call us to be hosts:
Welcomers of the sacred, intimate, transfiguring;
Lavish celebrants of our communities and homecomings.
You call us to be poets:
Artists and illuminators of inner space;
Naming, invoking, heralding your ineffable presence.
You call us to be gardeners:
Sowers, cultivators, nurturers of fragile lives;
Benefactors of your gratuitous harvest.
You call us to be conductors:
Celebrating polyphony, coaxing symphony;
Orchestrating the praise of your inhabited creation;
Lord, you lavish gifts on all whom you call.
Strengthen and sustain us and all ministers of your church,
That in the range and diversity of our vocation,
We may be catalysts of your kingdom in the world,
Through Jesus Christ our Lord.
Roger Spiller (1944 – )
The biggest thing that I got out of it was that we are called to be story-tellers. We are all here because of our story and I believe that whatever is in our past we have a responsibility to use that experience to help others. Just by sharing a bit of our story can have a massive impact on other people – even the negative and the messed up bits have value!
I found the whole of the ALM course to be interesting, encouraging and empowering, and it has really lit a spark inside me where I want/need to share my own experience of God with other people. It has been an enlightening experience and I’m looking forward to the journey ahead, both for my own spiritual growth and for the others with whom I will journey along the way. I would definitely encourage anyone who is hearing the call to become an ALM to go and speak to their incumbent about it. For me, it has been a life-affirming process and I am so glad to have heeded my own call when it came.