I haven’t blogged for some months, but now that I have taken up a new position at Union Theological College in Belfast I thought I might give it another go. On September 4 I was installed as Principal and Professor of Ministry at Union, and last Sunday evening, I was officially “farewelled” from First Presbyterian Church, Portadown. It has been a long period of transition. I had first informed the Session in Portadown of my nomination for this new post last April.
I will miss the regular pastoral work and preaching among the good folks of Portadown, and I am feeling the pain of leaving that charge. Pastoral work brings one close to people especially in those challenging times of illness and bereavement when deep and close connections and friendships are forged. But I am confident that the Lord will guide the congregation to a new minister who will pastor them and lead them forward. I must now turn to new responsibilities.
This week, new and returning students have been arriving at Union to prepare for the new academic year. We have 15 new ministry students, bringing the total complement of students preparing for ordained ministry in the Presbyterian Church in Ireland to 39 for this year. I am reliably informed that another good batch of applications has been received this September which are about to be processed by the presbyteries. So we anticipate another good intake of ministry students this time next year. Given the low numbers applying for ordained ministry in other denominations, the Presbyterian Church in Ireland has reason to be thankful. It seems that we are moving to a situation where, in the next few years, all vacant pulpits will be filled and we will have a surplus of ministerial talent. Is this a time for PCI to re-assess and re-invigorate its mission at home and overseas? Is it time to formulate a new and innovative church-planting strategy across Ireland? The state of the Presbyterian witness in Belfast, on our own doorstep, needs some urgent re-thinking if the steep downward decline is going to be slowed or halted.
In addition to our ministry students, we expect to have around 140 undergraduate students from Queen’s University, Belfast, taking their theology courses at Union, as well as another 50 students pursuing postgraduate degrees. My conversations with the new arrivals this week have been very stimulating, and we look forward to engaging with this generation of able and gifted young people from a wide range of backgrounds. The mix of students has created a stimulating intellectual environment at Union College and I look forward to all the conversations and discussions that will be generated both inside and outside of the classroom during this new academic year.
My new post requires me to reflect, not only on the task of preparing people who will lead Christ’s church, but specifically on the practice of Christian ministry. Christian ministry has always been a challenging calling, but in the current climate in Ireland, and within our denomination, it is particularly so. So, with my intellectual and emotional loins girded, I press forward into the new academic year. The first stop on this journey is my favourite north Antrim town of Bushmills where the ministry students will convene later this week for their pre-term retreat.