May 2022: Shaped by Christian Community

Hayley Cohan

Each month throughout 2022, the Church of Scotland's ‘Talking Ministry' series will share 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.

For May, Rev Hayley Cohen speaks about her role as minister of Northesk Parish Church in Musselburgh, East Lothian and we explore the theme: Shaped by Christian Community.

My ministry: Rev Hayley Cohen, Minister of Northesk Parish Church, Musselburgh

What is your background?

I'm originally from New Jersey in the United States and I grew up in an interfaith family with a Christian mother and Jewish father.

My mom is a very faithful Christian and a member of her local Presbyterian Church USA congregation, so I grew up going to church with her and my older brother.

My dad is a secular Jew, so my Jewishness growing up was very much a cultural identity more so than a religious one. We didn't go to synagogue on Saturdays but we did celebrate the high holy days like Passover and Hanukkah with friends and family.

Since they came from different faith traditions, my parents let my brother and I decide which religious path we wanted to follow, which meant that I wasn't baptised until I was in primary school.

Although I was young at the time, looking back on it, I can see now that following the Christian faith was committing to a path that God had already put me on. But in following that path, it was important to me that I never forgot my Jewishness and it remains today an integral part of not just my cultural identity but also my faith.

Eventually, when I felt a call to ministry I devoted a lot of time and energy digging into the relationship between Judaism and Christianity, particularly learning how to construct a theology without supersessionism and avoiding anti-Judaism in my preaching and teaching. This learning became essential, not just to my self-understanding but to my ministry.

I am very proud to come from an interfaith family as it taught me to understand and celebrate difference of belief.

What is your current role?

I am currently the minister of Northesk Parish Church in Musselburgh. I've been there for a year and a half, having been ordained in December 2020 in the midst of the pandemic.

I love my role as parish minister because there isn't one day that is the same as the next and I get to engage with people in such a wide variety of ways.

One particular favourite aspect of my ministry has been helping to run our local Forest Church. I've always had a very nature-based spiritual practice, so engaging people in nature with scripture and inviting them to worship God outside has been very rewarding.

Part of my call to Northesk is working one day a week with our presbytery. As part of my work, I've been fortunate enough to join a team of ministers, readers, and elders, who are running a course to train lay-people to lead worship in their congregations. Helping lay-people gain confidence in leading prayers, organising and implementing worship, and preaching has been such a joy and I've learned so much from our students.

Another part of my call to Northesk was to work alongside my Church of Scotland colleagues in Musselburgh to build up team ministry in our community as we work towards an eventual union as part of presbytery planning.

Parish ministry can be such an isolating call, so the opportunity to work with my colleagues is very energising and enriching to my ministry. The friendship, support and encouragement that comes from working alongside one another is a real blessing.

When did you start to feel a calling?

I started sensing a call to ministry while I was in university.

After being dead-set on becoming a medical doctor, I went to university and found that I did not enjoy the science subjects that I once enjoyed in high school.

I went to a liberal arts school in the US for my undergraduate degree and I took a class on Religions of Early America, which was the only class I enjoyed that semester. So, I took it as a sign that God was leading me elsewhere.

The next semester I took a course on the Old Testament and fell in love with studying religion.

Although I was always very involved in my home church, this initial interest in studying religion was purely academic.

But as time went on and I spoke to the ministers from my home church and the chaplain at my university, I realised that this passion for learning about scripture and faith was leading me to ordained ministry.

At that point, I hadn't even been to Scotland but it was that calling during those early years of university that eventually brought me here in the first place, as an exchange student at the University of Edinburgh. It was through that year at New College that I made connections that eventually led me to seek ordination in the Church of Scotland.

The whole journey to ordained ministry took me over 10 years from that initial sense of feeling called, so I would encourage anyone who is feeling like their journey to fulfil their calling is taking forever to hold fast and trust in God's timing.

Anything you've been surprised by?

Absolutely.

Ministry is full of surprises - good ones and some definitely more challenging.

As much as I felt prepared for ordained ministry through my training in the US and here in Scotland, I have found that there really is nothing like learning on the job.

You just can't be prepared for every eventuality, but that is part of being human.

That being said, it is incredible how God equips you for the role that you are called into.

I've been amazed at how previous experiences in ministry and in life have prepared me for some of the more challenging surprises.

What has inspired you and why?

I've had so many people inspire me in my journey to ministry - many of them ministers, some of them teachers, some of them friends and family. Honestly, if I started naming them all, we'd be here all day.

I would say that the people who have inspired me the most are ones who are authentically themselves and have learned to use their God-given gifts and talents to make a difference in the lives of others. They may not always be conscious they are doing it, but they do it nonetheless.

They've taught me to be authentic in my own ministry, to allow God to work through me to bring others into a deeper relationship with Jesus and to trust that who I am is enough.

What has been the biggest challenge that you had to overcome?

The biggest challenge that I've had to overcome is absolutely starting my first call in the midst of a pandemic. I only had about three weeks of in-person worship before we had to close the church and move online for several months.

The physical separation from the church and parish meant that it took me much longer to get to know people than it would have normally.

There's a lot to be said for a ministry of physical presence and this just wasn't possible during much of the pandemic. We made do the best we could with our online services, offering Zoom sessions for Bible studies and also social gatherings for after worship. But I have really come to appreciate how much of a difference it makes to being able to meet people in person versus online.

That being said, I also realised through that experience that church can be very inaccessible for people. Not everyone is physically, mentally or emotionally able to come to church every Sunday and being able to offer our services online has meant we have reached people who were previously cut off from church life.

It's been wonderful to see how much folks have appreciated the effort we have made to bring church to people at home.

May Discernment Resources: Shaped by Christian Community

The value of each ministry

When we begin to talk about and discuss the value of each person within the church and how the whole people of God contribute their individual parts to make up the whole, one of the most obvious bible passages that springs to mind is "one body, many parts" from 1 Corinthians 12. However, in a recent exploration session for those considering becoming elders, it was really fruitful to look at the passages on either side of this well-known and well-worn text.

Read this passage out loud, twice. Listen and hold onto in your mind or even write down on the second hearing which parts jump out and stick with you. How is God speaking to you about the part you play in the ministry of the whole people of God?

Gifts of the Holy Spirit

12 Brothers and sisters, I want you to know about the gifts of the Holy Spirit.

4 There are different kinds of gifts. But they are all given to believers by the same Spirit. 5 There are different ways to serve. But they all come from the same Lord. 6 There are different ways the Spirit works. But the same God is working in all these ways and in all people.

7 The Holy Spirit is given to each of us in a special way. That is for the good of all. 8 To some people the Spirit gives a message of wisdom. To others the same Spirit gives a message of knowledge. 9 To others the same Spirit gives faith. To others that one Spirit gives gifts of healing. 10 To others he gives the power to do miracles. To others he gives the ability to prophesy. To others he gives the ability to tell the spirits apart. To others he gives the ability to speak in different kinds of languages they had not known before. And to still others he gives the ability to explain what was said in those languages. 11 All the gifts are produced by one and the same Spirit. He gives gifts to each person, just as he decides.

1 Corinthians 12 v1, 4 - 11

Recognising our talents and gifts

As well as recognising that there are many different gifts and that you may have one in particular, some or a few or even none that are mentioned here or need a bit of interpreting and nurturing, you may have been incredibly struck by the simple fact that it is God who gives the gifts. God decides what gifts to give but you, you choose what to do with them. Like being given a house plant as a present, we may be filled with a sense of disappointment (because we would have liked something else!) or trepidation because it involves an implied responsibility if we are to value, cherish and nurture the gift. However, if we come to understand and appreciate the gift, it can grow and develop into something beautiful and full of life.

The location of the call to service

1 Corinthians then moves on to the well-known words about the body and its many parts and how they are in relation to each other; a metaphor so rich in evoking the nuances of human relationship and community dynamics. Our gifts only make sense when they are in the context of community. When we read "if the body were only an eye then how would it hear" this not only describes how we all need each other, it also points out that we only discover what we are and what we can do by recognising what we are not and what we do not do alongside others. This is where "one body, many parts" connects strongly with the body of Christ. We are called, each and everyone of us, to have respect and concern for every part of the body and to learn that when one part suffers all suffer, when one part is praised and valued, everyone feels that. This is why there is a shared ordination vow in the Church of Scotland for both elders and ministers: "do you promise to seek the unity and peace of the church?"

To contemplate/discuss

Do I see myself as other see me?

In my church, in my community, is God speaking through others to me?

How do we seek the unity and peace of the church in meetings and in phone calls, in every day arguments and in occasional big decisions?

How do we negotiate and navigate relationships with complex or difficult parts of the body that we would rather not mention or pay attention to?

What are the less "churchy" or less obvious spiritual gifts that are often the most essential in our times of upheaval, uncertainty and transition?

Here is the follow up passage to the "one body, many parts":

You are the body of Christ. Each one of you is a part of it.First, God has placed apostles in the church. Second, he has placed prophets in the church. Third, he has placed teachers in the church. Then he has given to the church miracles and gifts of healing. He also has given the gift of helping others and the gift of guiding the church. God also has given the gift of speaking in different kinds of languages. Is everyone an apostle? Is everyone a prophet? Is everyone a teacher? Do all work miracles?Do all have gifts of healing? Do all speak in languages they had not known before? Do all explain what is said in those languages? But above all, you should want the more important gifts.

Love Is Necessary

But now I will show you the best way of all.

1 Corinthians 13

The eldership affirmation "Do you believe the fundamental doctrines of the christian faith; Do you promise To see the unity and peace of the church; To uphold its doctrine, worship, government and discipline; And to take your due part in the administration of its affairs?"

Surely things apply to ministers too. What do they mean?

Every elder is expected to:

  • Attend worship regularly
  • Remember the work of the church in their own prayers
  • Give sacrificially of their time talents and money
  • Attend Kirk Session meetings and workgroups/ committees
  • Work in partnership with the minister and the other elders
However, individual elders/ministers might use their gifts in:
  • Leadership & vision building
  • Pastoral care
  • Developing forms of worship
  • Administration
  • Outreach
  • Christian education

Do you know what each of these mean? Which ones do you think you could do? Which ones do you think you could not do?

A prayer for elders

Grant them the gift of your Holy Spirit, that their hearts may be set on fire with love for you and those committed to their care. Make them pure in heart as those who have the mind of christ. Give them vision to discern your purposes for the church and the world you love. Keep them faithful to the end in all their service, that when the chief shepherd appears, they may receive glory, a crown that never fades. Amen

Book of Common Order of the Church of Scotland, St Andrew Press 1994, pp.338-339

O wad some Power the giftie gie us To see oursels as ithers see us!

Robert Burns

More information

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 ministry@churchofscotland.org.uk for a Discernment Conversation with one of the Recruitment Team.