I love the Church that has just accepted me as a probationer minister, despite the quirks and issues that one has to deal with from time to time within its ranks. And I also made certain promises from the floor of Synod, including the one where I promised to go to whichever Circuit I would be sent.
But a recent read through some of the documents on the MCSA 2008 Conference website have left me a little confused. In the report entitled "Human Resources, Management, and Development", Rev Brian Smith notes that the results of a recent survey questionnaire completed by clergy has indicated that "far too many Ministers are being placed in Stations which result in separation from their spouses".
As I enter Phase One in 2009, I will be adding to the ranks of "separated ministers", as I will be leaving my family behind in Johannesburg when I relocate to Uitenhage next year. And while I'm in the fortunate position of my wife not having to seek employment outside the home (NEVER say that a housewife "doesn't work", gents!), my problem stems from the fact that my son is currently at school in Grade 4.
"So what's the problem?" you may ask. "Surely there are schools in Uitenhage?" Undoubtedly there are, as is the case in any town or city within South Africa. I've no doubt that there are many good schools where I am going, as there will be in Pietermaritzburg or virtually any place where the MCSA chooses to send me.
That's not the problem. The problem is with the disruptive nature of the placement process during probation.
Let me explain for the benefit of those who are not familiar with the process around placement of ministers within the MCSA. Normally an ordained minister would be sent to a particular station for an initial period of two years (known generally as a "Conference Appointment"). If all goes well and there is mutual agreement between the minister and their Circuit, the minister can be re-invited for a further period of up to three years (making a total of five). The minister can then be re-invited for further periods of up to five years thereafter. In this manner, despite the itinerant nature of the Methodist ministry, the individual minister can remain in one place for a reasonable period of time if need be. (For purposes of this post, I'm not discussing the "ideal" period that a minister should remain in one place - that's a different topic for another day!)
Not so when it comes to probationers. I currently live in the south of Johannesburg, approximately 15 kilometres from a Phase One training centre. However, the "powers that be" have determined that I should be sent 1 000 kilometres away to start my training at the Port Elizabeth Phase One centre. No problem so far - after all, I DID say that I would "go to whichever Circuit I am sent", and there are worse places in the world to live than near the coast!
However, the MCSA has decided that as many probationers as possible are to spend time at a residential seminary, which means that it is likely that I will be spending some time at the new Seth Mokitimi Methodist Seminary from my second year. This seminary is in Pietermaritzburg, which will mean another move of some 1 100 kilometres.
Once again I have no problem with Pietermaritzburg. I have spent some time there during my auditing days, and it looks like a pleasant enough place to live. I've also been told that there are some excellent schools there. However, after a year (or two) at college, no doubt I'll be off again to wherever the MCSA chooses to place me to complete my probation. If the experience of my colleagues is anything to go by, that is unlikely to be a "Checkers" (i.e. "just up your street") move, either.
Now herein lies the rub. My son has been in the same school for 6 years, and although he has done reasonably well since he started school, this has been the year in which he has really started to come into his own academically. At this stage of the year he is well in the running to make the Top 10 in his grade. In addition, he is an avid participant in sporting and cultural activities, and is well liked by both his teachers and his peers.
Naturally, as a parent, I would like not to disrupt this setting if at all possible. Changing schools three times in the next four years (Uitenhage in 2009, possibly Pietermaitzburg in 2010-11, and anywhere in the Connexion thereafter) is virtually guaranteed to do so.
For this reason my family and I have taken the painful (not to mention expensive) decision for them to remain behind in Johannesburg until I come towards the end of probation.
Now I KNOW that the MCSA cannot create a tailor-made situation for each and every one of its candidates. And I KNOW that I can only be sent where there is an available station. And I accept this. But given the Church's concern regarding the separation of families, this is perhaps one area that warrants further consideration?
In my case, if I could have known with reasonable certainty that I would be able to spend even three years in one area, I would not be leaving my family behind next year. As it is, we just simply cannot plan, and therefore need to make the best of a less-than-ideal situation.
However, with God's help, we'll get through this phase of the ministry journey.
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