A couple of weeks ago, I attended a Bishops’ Advisory Panel (BAP)—the Church of England’s national selection conference for candidates exploring the call to ordained ministry. Since then I have heard that I have been recommended by the Panel for training, which I hope to start in September this year. For me, the BAP had come as the culmination of years of thinking, praying and exploring a growing sense of calling to the priesthood, the last leg of a long journey leading up to this point. Now having come out the other side, I wanted to pass on some words of advice and encouragement (many unoriginal) to those who may be going through this process for themselves, either now or in the near future.
I have entitled this post ‘BAPtism’ not just because it’s a convenient churchy pun, but because in many ways I feel the experience of going to a Bishops’ Advisory Panel is analogous to baptism. First, just as baptism is the point of entry into the Church, so is the BAP the font through which potential ordinands must pass. Secondly, in many ways (as I hope to explain) the BAP is an experience of both death and resurrection. Thirdly and finally, just as in the sacrament of baptism, I found in the BAP a tremendous outpouring of God’s grace.
Before the BAP
If you have got to the stage of thinking about a BAP, the chances are you have already been on this road a while, in the process of trying to discern whether God’s call for your life and the call to ordained ministry intersect somewhere. Likely, you will already have had discussions and/or interviews in your Diocese and have been encouraged by your Diocesan Director of Ordinands (DDO) and others to test your burgeoning sense of vocation on the national level at a BAP.
Before you arrive at your BAP, you will already have had to complete a significant amount of paperwork, to be sent to Church House by your DDO six weeks before the start of your BAP. This is to ensure that the people assessing you have a chance to read through everything well in advance and get to know a bit about you before you arrive.
Most comprehensive of these bits of paperwork is the Registration Form. Basically, this is an opportunity for the Bishops’ Advisors to get to know a bit about you and your sense of calling. Think CV + highly abbreviated life history! This was quite difficult for me because I found that there was always so much more that I wanted to say. It was helpful, though, because it helped me to filter things down to what I thought was most important for these people who had never met me before to know. The chances are there will be things you write in your Registration Form that will form the basis of questions you are asked in your three interviews.
The other significant piece of work you will have to submit before going to your BAP is a Written Reflection. This is an opportunity for you to discuss one aspect of the Mission and Evangelism criterion which you feel particularly called to and why, drawing in your own experiences to your answer. You have between 500-750 words to do this, which is not actually that long when you start writing it. My reflection was right at the top end of the limit and in one of my interviews, I was told it felt a bit too long. I would suggest, therefore, making a point of trying to be clear but succinct. If you’re a wordy writer like me that may take a bit more time at the editing stage; but the ability to express yourself well in limited space is something they are looking for.
Preparing for the BAP
Sorry to disappoint, but the paperwork really is the least of the preparation you will have to do for the BAP. For me, the weeks leading up to the BAP quite were an intense time. I found myself swinging between thinking that the time was sailing past far too quickly and that I was nowhere near ready, and on the other, feeling like time was dragging its heels and that there was not really very much I could do to prepare if I had another year.
For me, the last few weeks before the BAP were spent praying, enlisting the prayers of family and friends, and meeting with wise people like my incumbent and my spiritual director to talk things through. In particular, the big question I felt I had to wrestle with was: “What if they say ‘no’?” There is no point going to your BAP and knowing what the ‘right’ answer is; you have to trust that God is in the process. The fact is that if you have arrived at the point of going to a BAP, there must be a significant body of people who believe you may well be called to ordained ministry. Balancing that with the knowledge that the Bishops’ Advisors could turn around and say ‘No’ is difficult (or at least it was for me). One of the most difficult bits of encouragement I received from family and friends was: “I think they would be crazy to turn you down.” I appreciate the sentiment and the affirmation they are trying to give, but when you are earnestly trying to be open to whatever answer God gives through the BAP, it’s actually quite hard to hear.
The chances are that as the time gets nearer to go to your BAP, you will start getting more and more advice. “Be yourself—that’s who they’re interested in,” said one. “Be seen leading the group going to the pub—that will show good leadership skills,” said another. Advice will come flying at you from every side (especially in my experience, the clergy-collared side). By far and away the most succinct and helpful piece of advice came from an eccentric archdeacon I had never met before, but who had heard I was about to go to the BAP. He said, “Remember: you are not there to get past them, they are not there to stop you; together, you are trying to work out what God wants.” This is advice I would whole-heartedly commend to you if you are preparing a BAP yourself. The most important thing in all this is to have both eyes on what God wants and to learn to pray (and mean) the words of Christ, “Yet not my will, but yours be done.” Indeed, I do not believe we will ever be effective ministers of the Gospel until we are able to pray those words and mean them. With all the focus that there is inevitably going to be on you and on the Church, it’s important to remember who this process is really all about: a God who calls and who has many services to be done.
Which leads me on to recommending what was the single most powerful prayer I think I prayed in those final few weeks before the BAP: John Wesley’s Covenant Prayer. Traditionally, the prayer has been used at the start of a new year as a way of encouraging Christians to consciously and seriously re-commit themselves to God in the year ahead, no matter what that might mean. It is a searching and difficult prayer, but essentially, a fleshed-out version of Christ’s words in Gethsemane. I was fortunate to have had the opportunity to be part of leading an ecumenical covenant service in the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, so the prayer was in forefront in my mind as I looked ahead to the BAP at the end of January. I would seriously encourage any Christian to consider making this prayer their own, but it seemed especially appropriate as part of my preparation for the BAP.
“I am no longer my own but yours.
Put me to what you will,
rank me with whom you will;
put me to doing,
put me to suffering;
let me be employed for you,
or laid aside for you,
exalted for you,
or brought low for you;
let me be full,
let me be empty,
let me have all things,
let me have nothing:
I freely and wholeheartedly yield all things
to your pleasure and disposal.
And now, glorious and blessed God,
Father, Son and Holy Spirit,
you are mine and I am yours. So be it.
And the covenant now made on earth, let it be ratified in heaven.”
The words about being “employed for you” or “laid aside for you” were especially poignant considering what the potential recommendations the BAP might make. However, to pray this prayer is to trust that whatever the outcome, we are held in the love and grace of a God whose purposes are infinitely greater than we can imagine. That is important to remember.
Arriving at the BAP
Now, a word about the BAP itself… There are two places you may be invited to go for your BAP—Bishop Woodford House in Ely or Shallowford House just outside of Stafford. I went to Ely and I enjoyed being able to walk out into the city (just a few minutes away). Shallowford House, I understand, is a bit more remote. The official start time was 5pm on the first day, but I arrived about 1pm and used the extra time to settle in and have a quick wander around Ely. It was a three hour journey for me to get there, so others may not want to arrive quite so early. Personally, I was glad to know I was there in plenty of time rather than having to worry about traffic or a bad connection and getting there late.
At my BAP there were 12 candidates, split into two groups of 6 for the presentations and the interviews. A ‘full’ BAP will have 16 candidates (two groups of 8). Each group has 3 Advisors (a mix of lay and ordained, men and women) and on top of that, there is the Panel Secretary running and overseeing the whole thing. Although you are split into two groups for some things, there is a lot of time to mingle all together such as over mealtimes, when you are encouraged to move around different tables to get to meet and talk with everyone there. I have to say that mealtimes were something I was a bit anxious about before I went to the BAP; especially knowing that we were being watched the whole time; but in reality, you forget that when you’re there and you just enjoy a bit more informal time to sit and chat.
As I said, the official start time was 5pm, but before that as people were arriving, we gathered as a group and started talking. It felt like starting university all over again in some ways with all the familiar questions: What’s your name? Where are you from? What do you do? Candidates were arriving right up to 5pm, but personally I can testify to the benefits of getting there a bit earlier and being able to settle in. Obviously, however, I recognise that this may not be possible for all.
The Personal Inventory
After an introductory session with the usual ice-breaking exercise, the first task was to complete your Personal Inventory. We sat in a room in exam-like conditions for 40 minutes (you can get more time if you need it) and did more writing than I imagine most of us have done for a long time. If you are used to writing almost everything on a computer, sitting down and writing intensely for 40 minutes may come as a bit of a shock! The questions you are asked are used to support and inform the three interviews you will have later in the BAP. As such, you should be prepared for the questions to cover all nine of the selection criteria in one way or another.
The Personal Inventory consists of three double-sided pages of questions (one page for each interview covering three of the selection criteria). The maths suggests, therefore, spending 13 minutes on each. Try and stick to this. I tried to write full sentences on the first page, went over the 13 minutes and was playing catch-up for the next two. It’s much better to have short, succinct sentences or bullet points than to try and write wonderful prose. Perhaps unsurprisingly, it seems fairly common for people’s answers to get shorter and shorter through the Personal Inventory. In my final interview with the Educational Advisor, they said that that page is often neglected—either half-finished or very short, rushed answers. To a large extent it doesn’t really matter, but you really want to make sure you have decent answers down for every question.
The Personal Inventory is almost impossible to prepare for and my honest advice would be to write down the first answer that comes into your head. There are no right or wrong answers, and if you feel that you didn’t express yourself well in what you have written, you will have a chance to go back and say that in your interviews. What I would advise, however, is to try and think through examples of different situations you have been involved in, for example: times you’ve experienced conflict, or criticism, or the need to exercise leadership, etc. I am pretty terrible at thinking of those kind of things on the spot, so if you are like that too, I would advise you try and think through some of those possibilities beforehand. Even if you are never asked any of those questions in the Personal Inventory or the interviews, it may just help you feel better to have thought through it.
After the first supper together, we gathered back together for a briefing about the Pastoral Exercise. Basically, you are given a complex pastoral situation and you are asked to respond to the person involved in the form of a letter (and you are to do this as you are now, a potential ordinand, and not imagining yourself as a priest). In many ways, this is the wildcard of the BAP because whereas you may have some idea of the questions you may be asked in an interview, you really have no idea what kind of scenario you will be presented with. Mine was so complicated, it could only have been adapted from real life. Nevertheless, what is important is to read and pray through the situation very carefully and many times over. I would suggest that if you can get a first draft done Tuesday afternoon/evening, you will have a healthy amount of time to look over it and edit it as necessary. Essentially, what I think the advisors are looking for is for an ability to engage thoughtfully, compassionately and sensitively to a very messy human situation. It is impossible to give much more advice than that. I came away from the Pastoral Exercise feeling like anything I had written would probably have been inadequate; perhaps, though, that is healthy to an extent—it would be unrealistic to think we could solve or fix such a complex set of conditions in one 500-word letter!
Presentations and Discussion
It’s Tuesday morning and the chances are you had a rotten night. I did. I got in bed about 11pm and simply could not sleep. It turns out I was not alone; in fact, I don’t think I remember anyone saying they slept particularly well. The main event of the morning session is the presentations and group discussions. When you come into the room with your group, you will each be asked to draw a card at random to determine which order you will go in. I actually found this time quite enjoyable and I wish that some of the discussions we had were able to go on a bit longer. I think it was during the presentations that I really got the sense that we were all on each other’s side. The BAP is not a competition between candidates; you are all there for the same reason and everyone was very encouraging and affirming to everyone else.
What I would recommend is that you spend plenty of time practicing your presentation before you go to the BAP, by yourself in front of the mirror with a stopwatch going and even better, in a group. Because the situation is quite artificial, even an experienced public speaker is likely to be nervous, so it’s worth making sure you have rehearsed what you are planning to say. Your presentation is to last up to 5 minutes, followed by 13 minutes set aside for discussion. You will be warned when there are 2 minutes remaining of the discussion time and you are meant to bring the conversation to a close and summarise the main points. I found this the most difficult bit. Really try to pay attention to the contributions each person makes and be sure to give a summary which reflects the breadth of the discussion, not just your favourite points. In the report sent to my Bishop, the summary was something they flagged up as an area needing improvement.
The vocational interview is intended to cover the first three of the selection criteria: Vocation, Ministry within the Church of England, and Spirituality. For me, this was the most enjoyable of my three interviews. This was also the interview for which I felt best prepared; probably because I had been thinking about the kinds of questions that came up here with my DDO and others for a while. One thing I would say is that if you are going to BAP as a candidate for the priesthood, I would advise that you have a really good idea in your mind what you think a priest actually is. If you have not done so before, I would recommend reading one of a few books to help you formulate your own sense of what it means to be a priest. The books I found most helpful were John Pritchard’s, The Life and Work of a Priest and Michael Ramsey’s classic, The Christian Priest Today.
The pastoral interview is intended to cover the selection criteria for: Personality and Character, Relationships, and Leadership and Collaboration. In my experience, this was the most searching and challenging of the three interviews. My interview really seemed to delve deep into who I am and what makes me tick, uncomfortably so at times. Perhaps what also made this interview harder for me was that it seemed to involve a lot of questions asking me to think of examples of this, that and the other; questions which I am generally not very good at answering. There were quite a few questions starting, “Tell me a time when…” Be prepared for that. This was the interview I found most emotionally draining and afterwards, to be honest, I just wanted to go and have a lie down!
The education interview looks at the final three selection criteria: Faith, Mission and Evangelism and Quality of Mind. I went into this interview feeling quite relaxed. As much as anything it just seemed like it was an opportunity to speak with someone about your journey of faith and your openness to having it expanded and altered. To help prepare for this interview it may be helpful to ask yourself the question: If recommended, what would I hope to gain from training? Remember, the Bishops’ Advisors aren’t looking for the finished product; they are looking for people with the potential to hold post in ordained ministry.
The BAP is framed with opportunity for corporate worship. You are told from the outset that attendance at worship is purely optional and that you are not being assessed or monitored during times of worship. In reality, it would be pretty foolish not to go and it must be impossible for an advisor not to observe your demeanour when they are doing so the rest of the time. The worship we experienced took a variety of forms from BCP Evensong to a fairly high Eucharist. I really valued the time of worship as an opportunity to re-focus on God, centre on him and keep offering this whole process back to him.
After the BAP
You are told before you leave the BAP that it may take up to two weeks to hear their recommendation. That seems like an interminably long time when there is such a big decision at stake. The Bishops’ Advisors stay behind on the Thursday to confer and compile their reports on you. Although the report is made by the three assessors assigned to your group, their recommendation has to be unanimous. Once the report is written, you are told to allow five days for the report to go through Church House (like getting a cheque cleared).
Driving home Wednesday evening, I was pretty tired. Be advised to take extra special care on the road leaving the BAP because you probably won’t realise how mentally, physically and emotionally wiped you are. It was hard getting back to work on Thursday morning, and if I had had any holiday time spare, I probably would have tried to take the rest of the week off to recover. That weekend I was exhausted. I had deliberately left that weekend completely open and I am so glad I did. It was a very lazy weekend, but just what the doctor ordered after a very intense few days followed by the nervous wait for news.
Thankfully I didn’t have to wait too long. I received a phone call from my DDO late afternoon on the following Thursday telling me I had been recommended, which was followed by a phone call from the Bishop’s office Friday morning arranging a time to meet. Since it is a Bishops’ Advisory Panel (emphasis on the advisory), no decision is final until you hear so from the Bishop. I met with the Bishop a week later and he told me then that he would accept the Panel’s recommendation and that the way was clear for me to start training.
Now we are looking ahead to a new chapter of our lives with excitement. Wycliffe Hall, here I come. The only question now is: What have I let myself in for?
If you are in the midst of discerning whether God’s call may be leading you to ordained ministry in the Church of England, I hope this post has been helpful to you. As well as what you have read above, here are some links to blogs I found useful in the lead up to the BAP:
Regardless of the BAP’s recommendation, remember that everyone is called. Jesus first calls to each one of us saying, “Come, follow me.” To paraphrase the words of Coach Irving Blitzer from Cool Runnings, “A clerical collar is a fine thing; but if you’re not enough without it, you’ll never be enough with it.” Thank God that he is a God that calls, not some but all. God bless you.