Before they were ‘revs’
Our ministers weren’t born wearing robes.
Yet there can be a sense of inevitability surrounding them: it’s what they’ve always done and we can’t imagine them being anything else. So we asked three people about their jobs before, during and after the call to ministry.
Then: I.T. Professional
Now: Chaplin at the University of Newcastle
How would you describe your previous job?
I was a professional computer nerd before I was a minister. I worked in IT project management; specifically in area networks implementation management and design.
If that’s too jargony, I worked for QANTAS. Whenever QANTAS built a new airport or a new call centre, my job was to connect it to all of QANTAS’s other computer systems.
I enjoyed the intellectual side of the job. Looking after a network was good because you weren’t just sitting around programming all day.
You had to be up all the time moving around. I liked being depended on, too. You were the last line of support. And there was something really satisfying about finishing a project. You could see it all working partly because of you.
Once, we moved QANTAS’s systems to a new call centre in Brisbane. We had to move a large number of network connections in the middle of the night when no airports were open. I project-managed the connections with all the other airports and liaised with Telstra.
We started at midnight. At 3 am, everything seemed to be up and working, so I said to them, “Look, I’ve done the job. Seems all good but give me a call if there are any problems.”
At 7 am I get up and there’s a call saying, “We’ve got a 747 in Cairns and they can’t get any people on to the plane.”
When did you start thinking about ministry?
Even back when I was 5 I knew I wouldn’t do one thing forever. That gave me a bit of perspective.
Working at QANTAS was really stressful for other people because, to them, that was their life. What gave them meaning or identity.
For me, that was never the case. Other than making sure I was professional, I didn’t worry about it too much.
I’d grown up in the church, so I always had a sense of being loved by God. I drew great liberation from that when I was a goofy, lanky, nerdy teenager; especially in the late ’80s in Australia, when the only person it was okay to hate was a white South African.
But I didn’t think God’s love demanded anything more than being a nice guy.
Then at Uni, doing Bible studies on Mark’s gospel, I realised, “Hang on — this stuff actually makes demands on your life.”
If you truly understand what that love means, you can’t help being transformed. When I had that conversion to discipleship, it was like “Where have you been all my life?”
So the whole time I worked at QANTAS I was figuring out my call: was it ordained ministry; was it overseas mission?
The call to discipleship came first. The call to ordained ministry was very much secondary. It’s a real shame in our church that we talk so much about the call for ordained people, but very rarely for anyone else.
What does being ordained mean to you?
Ordained ministry? Nobody can really agree what that means. I have some skills in helping congregations to pray, and leading worship, but I don’t think that’s the call to ordained ministry.
To me, my job is to represent the church catholic and the church across time to the congregation — to help a local faith community wrestle with what they should be on about by connecting them to the wider witnesses of the church. And that I certainly feel called to.
Ordained ministry is life-long, but it’s not for every year of my life. There might be a year or two where I go back and do computer science. There are certainly days where I’d like nothing better than to go into an office and play with computers and not have to deal with church bureaucracy.
The preaching I like, though. I find it good but hard. Preaching should be confessional. Every time you preach, you’re preaching as much to yourself as anyone else.
The gospel asks questions of the congregation but it’s also asking questions of you, as part of the community.
Back when I was a teenager, my mum said, “Niall, you never get excited about anything except maths and jazz.”
What the call to discipleship did was show me that following the call is also a passionate thing.
Then: Teaching English as a second language
Now: Candidate for Ministry
What drew you to teaching English as a second language?
I’ve always had a love of the written word and of being playful with language. For a long time, I knew I wanted to do an Arts degree.
I got some flak from people at my school — Presbyterian Ladies College — for not doing something more prestigious. But I’m a big believer in people studying because studying is beautiful and all kinds of knowledge are useful.
I did a Bachelor of Arts with a double major in French and linguistics and then honours in linguistics. After Uni I wanted to do something that I could take overseas and that related to the linguistics I’d done. I really wanted to study language teaching for high school students but I applied really late, so they offered me a place in the adult education course instead.
There’s something really exciting about being with people and exploring new ideas.
One of the fun things about teaching English as a second language is that you’re not just teaching language; you’re teaching culture — and learning it too! You’re acting as a translator to help people have a positive experience of culture.
Students would ask all kinds of questions that Australians wouldn’t necessarily ask you: Why aren’t you married yet? Why don’t you have children yet? Just a different way of approaching these things.
When did you first think about becoming a minister?
In the back of my mind, I always knew I’d probably end up working for the Church. I had my first sense of call when I was 16. I was helping out with the crèche at a missionaries conference.
I heard a talk by a couple going to Spain. They said that people should really think about whether God was calling them to stay or calling them to go.
I felt that these words were for me, and that I was called to ministry. I was a little bit terrified but I knew a transaction had happened — me offering over what I wanted to do with my life.
After teaching English as a second language in Sydney, I spent two years working overseas. In that time I gave myself some questions to think about: Do I really feel called into ministry? Ordained? If yes, what denomination do I tie myself to?
So, when I came back to Australia, it was to enrol in a period of discernment.
Where are you now?
I’m a month into my first placement, which is at Brighton Kogarah. Over the last six months, I’ve visited a lot of other churches, which has been really valuable.
I don’t come from the Uniting Church, so I’m learning all those different contexts that make up the church.
Being in ministry feels like who I am. I can’t imagine being someone else, or doing something else.
Sometimes that’s hard, because I feel quite fraudulent; what right do I have to stand in front of a community and say, “This is God’s word.” Why would I expect any community to invite me in and pray with them and read the Bible with them?
That can be quite challenging — having this strong sense of who I am, but at the same time, wondering, “Why me? Why not someone else?”
Part of the reassurance I get is that my discernment has never been just about me. It’s about the church discerning with me. On the one hand there’s my own call that’s developed since I was 16. But there’s also the affirmation from the church that’s surrounded me.
Now: Minister at Campbelltown Uniting
Why did you decide on being a lawyer?
I didn’t set out to become a lawyer. I was more into the sciences. But then I got early entry into university and, because I was in Canberra, the only courses that really interested me were economics and law.
I was offered a place and had to decide almost on the spot. It was one of those snap decisions: 48 hours that changed the course of my life.
I was one of the lucky ones. A lot of the people I studied with struggled to find a career path and never ended up practising.
But my next-door neighbour was a partner in a law firm. He offered me a summer clerkship so I connected with their firm and went on to work for that firm. Four or five years later, I was a partner.
What did you like about your job?
I looked after litigation. I did all kinds of law, including working for the evil insurance companies.
By the end it was mostly family law. Understanding family law wasn’t that difficult. The really hard thing was making sense of human relationships and finding out what people needed to happen so they could let go.
I was involved in the life of the church and lots of people told me I could be a minister. I said my skill set was better suited to being a lawyer.
One of the best aspects to my job was being part of a process of justice. It was about being part of a system and trying to change the system to reflect what justice truly is.
I’ve got to admit that I also liked the money. Not just for the money’s sake but because of what it gave you: the sense of people valuing what you do.
I directed my own life. As a partner, I could say yes or no to clients.
What I didn’t like was the pressure. It’s the only job I can think of where you’re on your own and everyone’s against you. The other side are against you. Even your own client, if you don’t make them happy, will be against you.
The frustration (and personal critique) when the court made a decision that you felt wasn’t the right one was also difficult.
What made you decide to become a minister?
There was a moment in my partnership where I needed to think seriously about where it was going. In that moment, I heard God say to me that there was something else. There was a job for me that was about who I was, not about fitting into someone else’s blueprint. And if I didn’t do it, it wouldn’t get done.
Leaving my job was like walking into an abyss. It was a strong time of sensing the presence of God.
I had a feeling that I might be a minister but I’d missed all the cut-offs for getting into the colleges. I had to pay money to get out of the law firm, so I had to sacrifice the security we had in our home.
I spent the time I wasn’t working fixing up our house so, if I had to sell it, at least we’d get some money for it.
When you’re a lawyer, people tend to think you’re intelligent. But when you’re a minister and you’re talking to people who aren’t religious, their automatic reaction is to think you’re crazy because who would want to believe in that?
I was walking past the Supreme Court with my wife once and I must have just had this look on my face because she said to me, “You miss that don’t you?”
Now, as a minister, I don’t get paid quite as well, so you have to ask the question: where does your satisfaction come from?
And for me, it’s in the moments with people where I can talk to them.
Sermons are hard because you stand up there, delivering it, and you never know what they’re thinking. But when I’m there talking to them, I know I have all these resources to draw on now.
I’m still all the things I was before. I’m still a scientist. I’m still an economist. I’m still a lawyer. I’m still a management consultant.
These are all things that I bring to being a minister.