Ever wonder about your place in the ministry of all believers? Wherever you are in life, a Period of Discernment (POD) may be just the ticket for exploring the way ahead. Dianne Jensen reports.
“Discernment” is a word that gets a lot of mileage in Uniting Church circles. We use it in meetings (a lot), in spiritual direction (consistently), in communal prayer (frequently), and once in a while to add a divine stamp of approval to our theological viewpoint.
As a self-defined pilgrim people and a church which overtly values the diverse gifts of all its members, discerning the path ahead is part of Uniting Church DNA.
It’s what we do, and the Period of Discernment (POD) is a national process for individual seekers to begin the journey and find companions on the way.
The POD is a presbytery-based process of mentorship, hands-on ministry and theological education for anyone considering where God might be calling them.
While those testing a call to ordination are required to enrol in study towards an accredited degree such as a Bachelor of Theology, other participants can enrol in short courses such as those available at Trinity College Queensland or presbytery courses such as Learning for Living.
Moreton Rivers Presbytery currently has 11 people engaged in the POD program, and another three about to start. Presbytery POD coordinator Rev Mark Cornford, minister at North Lakes Uniting Church, points out that all people are discerning a call to ministry—the only question is what kind.
“While there are set components including experience, study and mentoring, they can look different according to what experience, qualifications and interests people bring. In general, the process is split into two six-month halves,”
“The first half, Go Wide, is about getting an experience of the breadth of ministry and mission in the Uniting Church so that people can see what connects in terms of passion and gifting. The second half, Go Deep, is about going deeper into a particular ministry area to see where God might be calling you.”
What’s the biggest learning curve for most POD participants?
“Learning to not just do and study, but to reflect on doing and studying!” says Mark. “Ultimately it is in prayerfully reflecting on the experience with someone else that we hear God’s call.”
Linking rural and remote communities
Online accessibility has opened the POD to Uniting Church members across Queensland, and Central Queensland Presbytery POD coordinator Rev Jim Pearson from Emerald Uniting Church believes that the program can support the building of a trained, confident laity in remote congregations.
“POD is most commonly associated with candidates for specified ministries—a time-honoured and well-proven use of the practice. But POD training when it’s well done can be another avenue for equipping isolated lay people who are having to shoulder increasing burdens, including regulation and compliance as well as worship. Not only does a good POD provide some formal biblical instruction but it augments that with personal links—that personal contact has a value all its own,” says Jim.
He’d like to see candidates in regional and remote communities come forward and explore the possibilities.
“We’ve been preaching through Paul’s missionary journeys in Acts. Those early elders had the Old Testament, the kerygma, the Holy Spirit in huge measure, and the unwavering, perennial support by letter, visit and re-visit of apostles like Paul, Peter, Barnabas and others true to the faith.
“I would like to think POD can play a part and provide, not just for specified ministry candidates but for others in this presbytery as well, a source of learning and succour similar to that experienced by those early church elders.”
New perspectives on the everyday
For Louise Crittenden from Howard in the Mary Burnett Presbytery, the POD experience has expanded her vision of ministry.
“Wherever this journey takes me, I know that my faith will have grown and my life will be forever enriched and blessed by it,” says Louise, who works in the Hervey Bay Uniting Church office.
“Had I not started the POD I probably would have never taught Religious Instruction (RI) … teaching RI has blessed me so much. I am gaining as much from it as the children. School chaplaincy is another thing I have been involved with that I would never had done, helping in breakfast club—being one small part of a big thing is wonderful.”
While life has continued to throw challenges at Louise, her faith has helped her find resilience and hope.
“The POD has been a wonderful journey of ups and downs. It has opened my eyes to things that I have taken for granted. It has helped me see things differently. My love for my neighbour has grown and God has revealed more to me than I could ever have imagined.”
Exploring different callings
Mike McMillan,—Youth and Young Adult Pastor at Glebe Road Uniting Church, Ipswich—is studying for a Bachelor of Ministry at Trinity Theological College while he undertakes a POD.
“Although I’m a youth pastor, with a background in youth work, I’m trying to seek God’s direction for me … I guess that’s the beauty of doing my POD; I can explore a number of different callings and see where God is leading me.”
The POD process has taken Mike out of his comfort zone and allowed him to explore different aspects of his faith.
“My POD experience so far has given me a deeper appreciation for the various amazing people that work throughout the different ministries of the Uniting Church. It has been both humbling and awe-inspiring.”
Outside the comfort zone
Gemma Ward from Kenmore Uniting Church, Brisbane knew that something needed to change in her life if her faith were to have meaning. The POD program she completed last year gave structure and purpose to her search.
“It’s amazing how God works when you start listening,” says Gemma. “When you begin a POD, you are given a basic structure to help focus/challenge yourself, and a mentor to talk and work with through the journey.
“Studying the New Testament at Trinity, and a small group led by an amazing theologian, were probably the biggest sources of self-confrontation and challenge for me. All the activities I took part in over my year of discernment, and the people I met, encouraged me to learn and grow, and I definitely passed through the refiner’s fire with their help.”
Gemma learnt that she was already a “real” Christian.
“I am much more confident now sharing my faith with non-religious friends. I met so many wonderful new people, and I feel much more connected to our wider family in Christ. I also learnt new spiritual practices, and I’m much better at stepping outside my comfort zone than I ever have been.
“I know the discernment doesn’t stop here, and I feel equipped to face the future. I didn’t discern a massive call on my life, or a call to ministry. God helped me discern what was much more useful for me now. He taught me who my Saviour is!”
Is it time to get serious?
For Eric Woodrow, Youth and Families Pastor at Moggill Uniting Church in Brisbane, the past few years have been a time of discovery as he explored various ministry possibilities through the POD program.
“The Uniting Church understanding of ‘the ministry of all believers’ created new possibilities and opportunities, so I jumped in. I found myself asking—where to from here, what am I preparing for, and is it time to get serious about
the next season?”
Eric likens the POD learning experience to making a cake: “You think you have all the right ingredients but until you open the oven at the end you are never sure what you are going to get!”
At the heart of Eric’s POD journey was exploring his call, even if it meant disappointing the expectations of others.
“The result of the POD for me was the confirmation that my current placement at Moggill was where I am meant to be. I am a card-carrying member of the POD Appreciation Society. It really is such a great gift to me and to ministry in the Uniting Church.”
Companions on the way
Mentoring is a key element of the POD journey, and Rev David MacGregor (Wellers Hill Tarragindi Uniting Church, Brisbane) says that being part of the shaping of a fellow disciple’s faith and life is something every Christian should consider.
“All Christians are called to ministry in some way, and mentoring is a marvellous opportunity to help someone get a handle on where, how and with whom God is calling them,” says David.
“I have appreciated how through regular conversation, practical experience, guided reading and much more the POD sojourner is given space to ‘join the dots’ in aligning God’s call with their own gifts, passions, personality and Christian experience.
“Mentoring has enabled me and all mentors to help the aspirant go wider and deeper beyond existing comfort zones in faith, theology and church experience. At its best, mentoring will be part of a broad shaping and encouraging; not one limited to the church’s specified ministries and pathways.”
Contact your Presbytery Minister to find out more about the POD process.