September 2023: Rev Elsie Macrae
Each month, the Church of Scotland's 'Talking Ministry' series shares a personal story from those serving in Christian ministry, along with resources filled with questions, prayers and reflections to help encourage reflection on how God might be calling you at this time.
My ministry: Rev Elsie Macrae, Minister of Word and Sacrament in the unified parish of Moffat St Andrew's Kirkpatrick Juxta and Wamphray in Dumfries and Galloway
Has church always been a part of your life?
I was born in Malawi in a Christian home, my grandfather on my dad's side was a minister while my other grandfather was a deacon.
My mother, though not a minister, was amongst the first women in the pulpit. I remember how difficult this was for many people, but it never stopped my mother, who is still a lay preacher and a very active member at her church. Church has always been a part of me. It is where I made friends and felt accepted.
I went to a mission school in Swaziland and church was at the centre of everything we did. Coming to Scotland in 1997 was a struggle as church was not the same. The lack of a peer group in the church and picking up extra shifts to survive meant church dropped from the important list.
Then I discovered St Machar Cathedral, where Rev Richard Frazer was minister. He reminded me how fun church ought to be. Richard and his wife Kate did great things, held student evenings and international days, and they took me under their wing and treated me like their own. I was made to feel at home and once again belonged to a church family. Sadly, the Frazers left Aberdeen and I was back to working weekend shifts as there was nothing interesting at the church. It was only after I married and had my first child that I found a church I called home under Rev Elsie Fortune. The church was vibrant, and Elsie was ever-welcoming. I was ordained as an elder and, as my daughter grew, I too was embedded in the church life and activities.
What made you decide to study for the ministry?
I studied engineering and loved my work, working offshore, travelling and meeting all sorts of people of different backgrounds. It is amazing how, if you really take stock and look back, one sees God's goodness.
But in 2009 I was made redundant, and struggled to get back on the work wagon, so I took time out and moved back to Malawi, opting to live in a small fishing village by Lake Malawi.
Every morning I woke, studied, and learnt the simplicity of life. I managed my brother's fishing boat, watching the men sew the fishing net and set off on the lake to fish every evening. As the night fell, all you could hear was the sound of the waves and as you looked upon the water, you would see the fishermen's dotted lamps on the lake. As the sun came up, there was bustling and noise as the fishing boats would pull in and villagers came for a wash, to collect water or to buy fish.
My role was that of an observer, watching how life can indeed be so simple. This is when I started reflecting and drawing closer to God, as I imagined the life of Jesus on the shoreline and the many people he met and blessed.
I started volunteering at the local school and being involved in the life of the community. I was very lucky to have electricity at my chalet and many of the young people would come in the evening to study under the light on the veranda.
It was here I found myself talking to God and really questioning what my purpose was. I stayed in Makawa-Mangochi for 11 months and though I had no clear answers, I knew I had to return to Scotland.
Ministry was never really on my radar as a profession. After going back to engineering I worked for a year before I handed in my notice and walked out of work with no plans of anything.
My work colleagues thought I was crazy, but I had this peace that God will indeed provide. I was the youth leader at my church, and one Friday I got a call from the session clerk who asked me to take the service that Sunday as there was no one else available. I refused, but she said: "You do plenty children talks, just imagine we are all children and instead of 10 minutes you have 20 minutes to speak."
The next morning on my run, I heard clearly: "Elsie, who do you say I am?" [Mark 8:29]. Let me just say that is the sermon I preached on the Sunday and those that were in the service shook my hand and asked if I had ever thought of being a minister. My answer was "never before, nor will I think of it now".
But a friend who works for the Church of Scotland Stewardship team gave me a leaflet about the vocations conference and suggested I could think about Readership or OLM (Ordained Local Ministry). I went and somehow ended applying to be a minister of Word and Sacrament.
How was your experience of studying for the ministry?
After graduating from my MA in 2010 I swore to never go back to university, and truth to be told let's just say I was not very pleased when I was told I must go back and do a three-year degree!
The staff at Highland Theological College were amazing, and the mode of studying meant I could still be a mother and wife and still work part-time in my first year. Everything was virtual but the open days were a blast and very memorable. I loved the training conferences run by the Church of Scotland as they allowed you to meet other people in the same situation, but more especially opportunities to pray for one another.
What keeps you motivated?
I love parish ministry as it allows me to be authentic and be the fun-loving person who is very involved and engaged in the community. Reinstating the Church to be part and parcel of a vibrant community is a challenge, but nothing is impossible through God. The greatest delight of being a parish minister is the humbleness this position offers and the encounters with so many people. As a Church, we forget what makes our heart beat and if we don't invest in our communities, then we will indeed be dry bones, but like Ezekiel it is time to prophesy over the valley of dry bones and bring life into the communities we serve. After all we serve a mighty and Sovereign Lord.
Like everyone else, Presbytery Planning has been the greatest challenge, but in it, God has been amazing. We are seeing the work of the Holy Spirit break through barriers within the Church of Scotland, and it is inspiring meeting some of the prayer warriors, not only in my own congregation but further afield, that want to see God's moving power in the new forms of church that await us.
Who has inspired you along the way?
I can never point to any one particular person for ever inspiring me other than God Himself. Only in God can I do all things for he is my great strengthener.
I think if we really reflected and tuned in to that small quiet voice of calm, many would hear where God is calling.
September Discernment Resources: Ministry and me?
When we start feeling a pull towards ministry, our call can sometimes seem as if it were a call to a busier form of life for God. We didn't do much in the Church before, and now we're being challenged to do a lot more. Or so it seems. But is it as simple as this? Consider the story of Mary and Martha:
Now as they went on their way, he [Jesus] entered a certain village, where a woman named Martha welcomed him into her home. She had a sister named Mary, who sat at the Lord's feet and listened to what he was saying. But Martha was distracted by her many tasks; so she came to him and asked, ‘Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to do all the work by myself? Tell her then to help me.' But the Lord answered her, ‘Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things; there is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her.'
This is a complex passage, which draws out some of the contrasts and paradoxes of ministry. We have the contrast of activity versus apparent inactivity. We see different understandings of what it means to listen to God, one focussed on tasks and another on spending time with Christ. We notice the contrast between a ministry based on practical service and administration and one focussed on teaching and prayer. We see that, though Martha opened her door to Jesus, we can open the door to Christ in one way while closing it in another.
Mary and Martha also remind us, however, that whether we seek to serve God with busyness or with deepening intimacy, God loves us the same. For while they served God differently, because they kept faith with him, he worked wonders for them, and raised their brother Lazarus from the grave.
Questions for Reflection
- In my restlessness for something new, am I being called to do less or to do more?
- Is ministry mainly about doing, or being who God wants me to be?
- Am I being called to teach, or serve, or both?
- Do I need to deepen my relationship with Christ before being ready to serve him?
- What does it mean to lead?
Lord Jesus, we do not understand ourselves. We rush to activity when we should rest, and slumber, when you would command our attention. Help us not to lean on our understanding, or on the opinions of those around us, but to lean into you, and there find our purpose, our identity, and our place. In your strong name we pray. Amen.
Each one of us has some kind of vocation. We are all called by God to share in His life and in His Kingdom. Each one of us is called to a special place in the Kingdom. If we find that place we will be happy. If we do not find it, we can never be completely happy. For each one of us, there is only one thing necessary: to fulfill our own destiny, according to God's will, to be what God wants us to be.
If you would like to consider how God might be calling you to serve at this time, you may want to discuss further with your minister or be in touch with your Presbytery to explore local opportunities.
If you are interested in exploring a call to the recognised ministries of the Church, you can find more information on our vocations page and can contact firstname.lastname@example.org for a Discernment Conversation with one of the Recruitment Team.