Three months ago, I drove from Derry to Newry for the Selection Conference that would determine whether I would be recommended for training towards ordination.
All that is pretty wordy, but people discerning a vocation to ordination get used to couching things in careful terms. For example, 'recommended for training towards ordination' means just that, because you aren't selected for ordination until a couple of years further down the line.
I arrived just on time, and a bit stressed, at Dromantine Retreat Centre, just outside Newry, Co. Down. It had snowed and Mid-Ulster traffic was down to a crawl. This was my first big solo drive after passing my test.
That was the jumble of thoughts the first half hour. Not as I had planned it.
Then I accepted the inevitable: this would be a caffeine-jacked two days. I went to the aforementioned coffee dock. There I met others in the same boat - this was the great thing, we knew each other already from the Foundation Course.
There were three interviews over the two days. My first, by two lay people, was that afternoon. I waited outside the room, and could just hear the conversation as they prepared by leafing through my mammoth application form. I heard 'interesting' - was that good interesting or bad interesting? I heard comments on writers I'd mentioned - Rob Bell seemed to evoke a reaction. Why on earth did I go and mention him?!
I moved away from the door. Not a good idea to overhear interviewers talk about you before they meet you.
What did they ask me? I can't remember much. I do remember thinking some questions were really three different questions, and I didn't know where to start. I think I was trying to say the right answers, more than I was trying to be honest. That caught me out.
I remembered a really good answer that another person had given to the question 'why ordination'. But I couldn't remember it well enough to re-formulate it. So I had to give my own - and I have no idea to this day what I said. (See below for the outcome!)
Thank goodness for chapel that evening. The nerves were jangled after that first interview. I had the distinct feeling I'd said at least a couple of the things they tell you not to say! I knew from the looks on some faces that my answers hadn't exactly elucidated things.
Oh well. At least they fed us well. The gluten-free menu was great - good job for my waistline (and mental health) it was just two days.
The last thing on the programme for that night was a group meeting with the chaplain, who talked openly and frankly about life as a parish priest. The more he talked, the more I wanted it ...
It's so dark out there in the country, and when I pulled the curtains there wasn't the slightest chink of light in the room. Unlike most others, I slept soundly until six the next morning.
On Day Two, I felt very serene. This is what happens when you have people praying for you to stay calm. There was absolutely no human reason to feel this way, because I was about to go into the academic interview with the Director of the Theological Institute!
The focus was on learning in the broader sense of the word. Life experiences, whether these had been integrated. There were a couple of curve balls. What would you say in a short talk on the topic of ... I got Holy Communion (we all soon realized everyone got a different topic). After the interview, I realized I hadn't said any of the more obvious things. I may have gone on a slightly mad tangent.
Some of these questions were probing, bordering on difficult. This was also the shortest interview. One of those ones that's over before you know it, and you wonder what on earth you can have said that was sufficient in such a short time.
Coffee dock. After every interview, some candidates came straight to the group. It might not have been altogether helpful to arrive fresh from an interview and debrief, while others were waiting out the minutes until they were next up. But it's what I needed.
I tried not to go overboard at the three-course lunch, in case it left me sleepy for my third and final interview: clergy (one Bishop, one other ordained person). I also felt keenly aware that I was sitting at a table with selectors. 'More water, Reverend?'
Last interview. I felt wrung out by this stage, and could only be myself. All the interviewers were very good, but the Bishop exuded a sense that it was OK to be open and frank. I think this is where I most opened up.
Some questions were similar to yesterday's - was this a second chance? Others got me excited - church growth, new approaches, parish mission.
And it was over. It was out of my hands completely - not that it ever really was in my hands to begin with. I could do no more.
We said some difficult goodbyes, because unless everyone was selected, this would be our last time all together.
And the next three weeks were the longest wait of my life.
* * *
I was selected. I go 'back to school' in September.
And I remembered recently the great answer someone else gave to the big 'why ordination' question. I'm glad I didn't think of it during my interview, because their answer wasn't mine, and as it turns out they aren't going to train for ordination (yet, anyway).
My advice for anyone going to a Selection Conference:
It feels like a bubble, and it is. Remind yourself of the outside world and call a loved one at the end of each day.
Don't drink way more coffee than normal. It will be tempting to do so. But you need to sleep and not feel twitchy.
Read the ordination service before you go. Think about what appeals most to you about it.
Take a trashy book (as well as something non-trashy). There is a lot of waiting round, and it's a heavy couple of days. Chewing gum for the brain helps.
Take a walk, or similar, for a few moments before and after each interview. I really enjoyed listening to 'Yes and Amen' by Matt Redman. I got to know the words by heart - and they're really good!
Make sure you know (and can verbalize) what you'll do if the answer is 'no' or 'not yet'. It's important that life as we know it doesn't depend on one outcome.
If you can, use public transport. My long drive there got me stressed, and on the long drive home I was exhausted.
And most of all, be honest and don't give other people's answers! I'm so glad I couldn't remember that other person's 'good' answer. No two journeys are the same.