When I was a young girl, I had a horse. He was incredibly gentle but had a stubborn streak to match my own, and I loved him dearly. For several years, I’d spend hours each week out at the barn practicing for Pony Club events and competitions. Through those awkward early teenage years, it was the one place I felt free to be entirely myself. School and family stresses would fall away as soon as I entered the ring, and I’d often finish a complex training session with an amble through the fields and woods, looking for ever more challenging obstacles to jump.
It’s been nearly 20 years since I last rode, and I have moments of overwhelming nostalgia for those days. I’d love to ride again. I’d really love to have a horse again but suspect that will never happen.
I’ve been thinking for some time that there are a lot of similarities between riding horses and ministry. I’m hardly the first person to have made this observation, and as usual, others have said it better than I could.
But when I reflect on riding and ministry, I keep coming back to the experience of falling off.
I remember times when I just had a sense that a fall was inevitable. I’d hear the rustle in the hedges a split second before my horse did. I could feel his weight shift awkwardly beneath me as he began to spook. And I’d move with him. Even if I was unable to stay on, I managed to land on my feet with some grace.
But other times, we’d be approaching a jump we’d jumped dozens of times before. I’d get complacent. My concentration would lapse. Something would go wrong. And before I knew it, I was lying face down in mud and manure, a confused horse standing over me, breath soft against my cheek.
Ministry feels a lot like that.
Often, I can see the fall coming. I can dodge it. Correct my mistakes. Still fall, but land on my feet. Learn and carry on.
But the times that really hurt, the times that stick in my mind, are the times when I thought all was going well. And then, all of a sudden, it wasn’t. A sermon I had carefully crafted falls flat. In a pastoral visit, I say precisely the wrong thing. I lose my way singing Evensong and can’t get back to the right note. Someone approaches me with a criticism that catches me totally off guard and I’m left speechless. Or the countless ways my more serious misjudgments – the ones which, rather than being simple mistakes actually speak of my deep flaws and sinfulness – are suddenly made visible. And there I am, face down in the mud and manure wondering just how I got there.
Only now, rather than it being just me and my horse and maybe a friend or trainer looking on, it’s lots of people. Sometimes a church full. An entire congregation witnesses my falls over and over. And the responses are what you’d expect. Some laugh. Some help me to see the funny side too. Some offer me a hand up. Some awkwardly look away. Some tell me precisely where I went wrong before listing all the parts of me which are in need of a good clean.
And regardless, I have to get back up, aching and bruised, covered in muck, and carry on.
It’s my least favourite part of what I do, the public failure. I – like everyone else I’d imagine – want, if not to be perfect, to at least appear that way. I want my failures and the lessons I learn from them to be hidden away. I want my muddiest falls to happen when I’m alone.
But of course, that’s not how this vocation works. And I’m slowly coming to realise that maybe, standing there covered in mud and muck in front of a congregation is actually the truest, most honest part of my ministry. No, it’s not comfortable. But it’s precisely that discomfort which fills me with empathy when the doorbell goes and there is someone standing there aching, covered in the mud and muck of their mistakes wondering how they got to where they are. And maybe, just maybe, they have seen me there stumbling over the notes at the altar, or getting it entirely wrong in the pulpit, or wrestling with words on a visit, and they recognise a fellow fallen person who might know what it feels like. Maybe it gives them comfort to know they are not alone and the courage to ask for help.
Lent is not a season for wallowing in the mud and manure of our lives. To do so is to continue to turn our gaze away from God towards ourselves. And I find myself at the start of this season, my first Lent as a priest, needing to reflect not on the many times I’ve fallen, but the way I get back up.
How can I preach a radical dependence on God if I don’t embody it myself? How can I proclaim God’s offer of healing and wholeness if I am instead too focused on dusting myself off and hiding my wounds? How can I offer absolution if I ignore my own aches and bruises as I raise my hand to sign the cross?
No, none of it is comfortable. I’d rather have that feeling of freedom, galloping through the fields, clearing a difficult jump with ease. But as I fall and fall and fall again, I sense the calm shadow hovering over me and feel the soft breath against my cheek. And I once more summon the courage to get back up.