FrTim Pike on the benefits of the North London Pastoral Assistant Scheme
Think of the things we could do if we had a bit more time, or a few more people, or a little more money!’ This is so often the cry of the parish priest who is acutely aware both of the new areas of ministry that could be explored and of limitations in capacity.
This was certainly the situation we found ourselves in working across three populous parishes in Hornsey and Haringay. However, then a generous parishioner offered us the use of the upper stories of her house, and an idea arose. Working with another parish with experience of such a project, we employed first one, then two and eventually three pastoral assistants. Indeed the idea has now expanded into the North London Pastoral Assistant Scheme which employs eight pastoral assistants across three clusters of Catholic parishes in Camden, Hornsey and Tottenham. The ministry of each of these parishes is enormously enhanced by the energy and enthusiasm of young adults who are keen to give a year of their lives to God by sharing in the ministry of urban churches.
Running a scheme such as this is hard work. The fundraising is a major task and young people experiencing ministry for the first time require a vast amount of supervision, encouragement and support. Pastoral assistants require formational and theological input and attention needs to be given to living conditions, finance and pastoral care. It takes constant attention to get the balance right between offering a challenging experience and accidentally taking advantage, and there are frightening stories around of young people who have been exploited by parishes who have underpaid, overworked and under-supervised them.
However the benefits can also be immense.
Prayer and companionship
I am in awe of those priests who can maintain the discipline of the daily office alone over many years. The presence in Hornsey of three PAs means that we have a pre-formed community of prayer which makes the Office a joy and which encourages other laypeople to get involved. It also gives a chance for the PAs themselves to be formed in the disciplines of the Daily Office and Daily Mass.
Ministry can be a lonely business, especially in an urban environment. Whilst the role of a pastoral assistant should never be confused with that of friend and a certain professional distance is necessary, there is no doubt that working with others brings a fresh joy and unleashes much-needed energy. With the constant questioning and gentle challenge that a person exploring ministry provides, it is also almost impossible for one’s own ministry to become stale or complacent.
The companionship that forms between the PAs themselves is also important. These schemes are at their best when two or three PAs live together in intentional community in a separate house. In the context of this community, the PAs learn a great deal about themselves and can reflect on how they relate to others. They also form friendships which will last well into the future.
It is no coincidence that many of the parish churches involved in the scheme have experienced growth either in numbers or in depth of believing or in both. The existence of a pastoral assistant simply means that more ministry is possible. It means another pair of hands for administrative tasks, so allowing the priest to focus on other things. It means another friendly face at Mass on Sunday to help with the ministry of welcome. It means another person available to visit and offer pastoral care. And of course young people ath act other young people and so a pastoral assistant can be a focus for ministry to young adults.
The aspect of ministry that most young adults enjoy is that which lies at the fringes of Church life. Our pastoral assistants play a key role in the winter night-shelter for rough sleepers and other church-based community projects. They volunteer with external organizations such as community centres and the YMCA. They help out in church and community schools, besides much else. Not only does this provide excellent experience of urban ministry, but it also means that the parish can be in touch with more people and make a bigger impact on the community in which it is set.
Over the years the North London Pastoral Assistant Scheme has become increasingly focused on vocational formation and on preparing people for the Church of England’s selection processes. The evidence-based selection process used by Ministry Division can sometimes militate against young candidates whose experience of the world is rather less than that of older ordinands. But a year in a parish soon provides the necessary experience. This means that schemes such as ours are now providing a steady flow of competent young ordinands who have had a rich experience of Anglo-Catholic ministry.
There are of course some disadvantages to running a scheme such as ours. Pastoral assistants are not `curates on the cheap; and they often need to build stamina and require time to recover from new experiences. Moreover, there is always the risk that a paid pair of hands such as a PA can detract from the need to form and prepare other laypeople for Christian service. The priest needs to be sure that the PA is not doing work that could just as easily be done by a layperson.
Our parishes in Hornsey and Harringay are now unthinkable without their pastoral assistants. Members of the congregation stay in touch with those who have moved on and have gained great confidence from the knowledge that they have been responsible for a key part of the formation of so many young priests. I am sure there are many other parishes or groups of parishes for whom the existence of such a scheme could be a real engine for growth.