My circuit trial service was yesterday, and it seemed that if anything COULD go wrong, it did!
For starters, one of my pet hates is lateness - whether it's me or someone else - and I always try to ensure that I get to a service that I am conducting at least 15 - 20 minutes before the starting time.
I wasn't anticipating any problems yesterday, with us having our annual Covenant Service at 8 o'clock at our own church, St Andrews, and them moving onto Eldorado Park for my trial service at 10. Surely, even with Communion, 2 hours should be more than enough time to complete the first service?
Well, let's say that we cut it rather fine, with the result that our minister suggested that I leave our service early so as to get to the next one on time. However, while a full parking lot would normally be a sight for sore eyes for any minister, it has its drawbacks when you are the first one in. With about 10 cars parked behind me, there was no way that I was going to be able to leave until the service had ended.
Thankfully the Eldorado Park congregation has a strong worship team, so they got the service going while I did a bit of "low flying" through the streets of Eldorado Park in an attempt to not to be too late.
Now I had never preached at a 10h00 service in this particular church before, and while the resident minister had briefed me on the "norm" when it comes to their order of service, nothing could have prepared me for the way in which the Holy Spirit swept through that service. The congregation was singing as though their very lives depended upon it, while the spontaneous outbursts of prayer were both refreshing and uplifting.
In fact, it was such an untypical Methodist atmosphere that I was wondering if I was in the right place! However, the presence of the examining panel sitting at the back of the church (why, Lord, do they always sit at the back?) confirmed that I was indeed in the right place.
And this particular panel was quite intimidating, comprising the Superintendent Minister, two highly experienced Local Preachers, and the local minister who, being a Phase 2 probationer, was the relatively "junior" member of the panel. All in all, these four men have a combined preaching experience of over 100 years, where I have been on trial as a Local Preacher for just over a year! Now I know how the Israelites must have felt when facing Goliath!
Anyway, the service went well, and I felt that I didn't make too many mistakes (except for a tongue-twisting moment during the sermon which was soon sorted out with a liberal swig of water, trying to cope with a pulpit that had a surface for my notes that is angled at about 60 degrees and drops almost to my knees, and committing the unpardonable sin of forgetting that the closing song was to be rendered by the choir, not the worship team). The congregation seemed happy, and I received a number of favourable comments as the members were leaving (after the service, not during - phew!).
Then it was the Moment of Truth - the evaluation of the service.
After some time spent in deliberation, the panel called me into the meeting, and proceeded to go through their report. At my request, they focused on things that I perhaps didn't do so well, and came up with a number of suggestions for improvement. I was beginning to feel relieved that I had survived without threat of excommunication, then one of the panel members dropped the bomb: "Steve, how would you feel if we gave you an "E"?
My heart dropped. "I didn't think that I had done that badly", I stammered.
The Superintendent then climbed in. "Well, Steve, I have to confess that I didn't find too much of Jesus in your sermon." (My message was on global warming and our response as Christians thereto). "You left me with the distinct impression that if I am to have any environmental consciousness, I should rather become an atheist (reffering to a point that I made that athiests and those into New Age tend to have a greater consciousness for the environment than your average Christian)".
Not sure whether I should burst into tears at that point, one of the Local Preachers cracked a huge grin, and said, "Oh stop it guys - you shouldn't tease him like that," at which the entire panel burst out laughing!
I recovered sufficiently from my near-stroke to hear that they had in fact awarded me an "A".