July 2023: Rev Craig Lancaster
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 Craig Lancaster, Church of Scotland chaplain at RAF Lossiemouth
Rev Craig Lancaster is married to Katherine and has been a senior chaplain at RAF Lossiemouth for almost three years. Originally from Troon, he was previously minister at Hyndland Parish Church in Glasgow before training as a chaplain.
What led you to feel called to ministry?
My parents took me to church when I was young and although I enjoyed that, I wasn't really engaged until I was 13 and went away to Carberry Tower with the Youth Fellowship. It was there that I had my first encounter with God and, from that moment, I knew that I wanted to be a minister in the Church of Scotland.
That made careers days very easy for me and I knew I had to have two degrees, so I tried to do well at school in order to get to university. I did my first degree in Philosophy at St Andrews and took a year for selection for ministry, then went to Glasgow to do Divinity.
What attracted you to the role of chaplain with the Royal Air Force?
My first charge was parish minister at Hyndland Parish Church where I was also chaplain to a couple of nursing homes and schools and was involved with Strathclyde Fire and Rescue. Chaplaincy was something I was already involved in so when I had an invitation from the Royal Navy to go down to Portsmouth for a couple of days, I accepted. I thoroughly enjoyed it, but I realised I was most enthused and excited when I was on the aircraft carrier, even though the Harriers had been sold and there were no aircraft there. I realised I needed to at least look at the RAF – especially with a name like Lancaster!
I went down to RAF Odiham, where the RAF's Chinooks are based, and then visited RAF Leuchars in Fife. Very quickly, on visiting those two bases, it felt like coming home and my sense of calling towards that form of ministry was pretty firm very quickly.
After much prayer and conversations with Katherine, we decided to go for it. There was an interview with the Church of Scotland to make sure the Church was happy with us moving forward, and then went for an interview with the RAF Chaplains Branch to make sure they were happy too.
Officer and aircrew selection and then initial training takes place at Cranwell in Lincolnshire. It's a shortened course for chaplains, but it includes all the elements that introduce you to the ethos of the organisation and some of the tactics and procedures they use.
The RAF wants to see some leadership potential so they will take you out into a wood and give you a task and put you in charge while the team works with you. People would pay thousands to do that as part of a team building exercise. When the pressure of failing is on you, it can take some of the fun out of it, but I absolutely adored every minute of it because I had gone from being a parish minister with a whole set of responsibilities to having my biggest concern being how shiny my shoes were! That was an absolute release.
First however, I had the bittersweet task of saying goodbye to the folks of Hyndland, which was a real wrench, but a new adventure beckoned.
Has your experience as a chaplain lived up to expectations?
It has been genuinely incredible.
I have met so many people, I have travelled across the world and been to a number of bases across the UK. I have preached on Jonah just 20 miles away from Mosul, which used to be known as Nineveh, the city God sent Jonah to, and my first overseas posting was at Camp Bastion in Afghanistan, where I felt happy to be able to offer my support.
Throughout it all, I have managed to walk alongside people, pray for them and be present with them.
Each of the three services operates slightly differently, but in the RAF you are part of a chaplaincy team and have an opportunity to learn from them. That was really helpful.
Part of the role is to ask questions of folks and that allows them to open up about what they do. Often, I left those conversations having found that they were buoyed by them because they had been given a more objective view of what they do and helped to recognise that what they did made a difference.
Day to day I will have people in my office who wouldn't profess a particular faith. However, they recognise the chaplains are there for them, for people of all faiths and indeed none. They will open up in a pastoral encounter in a way which would never have happened in a parish setting. They will talk about things that really matter to them and which they might never have spoken about to anyone else. That is a real privilege.
Part of the reason they come to us is that they know we are duty bound to love them for who they are, not for what they can bring to the organisation. Our goal is to see them flourish, whether they stay in the service or decide to leave.
In terms of the spiritual angle, I am often humbled by the number of people who would profess to have some form of faith and would express that to me. We have a small, but growing church here at Lossiemouth, and those are all military families that come along to share together.
Has the situation in Ukraine and other conflicts had an impact on your work?
Anything like that makes people recognise what they are here for, which is ultimately the defence of the UK, and that tends to have a galvanising effect. It is sobering to see the images coming out of Ukraine and recognise the cost on all sides. It does place into context what they do.
Would you recommend chaplaincy to other ministers?
Wholeheartedly. What are the sacrifices? The moving every two to three years. For those that need stability, that is a sacrifice. The operational deployments, which are for four months at a time in our case, can be difficult, but, you know you are on adventure of some kind. But in terms of the ministry, that opportunity to walk alongside people and manifest hope sometimes in dark places, is a real privilege.
As chaplains, we work alongside SSAFA, the armed forces charity, the Hive, which is an information charity which can provide information about what is happening in the local area, and we have the community support team who put on events, particularly for families where one of the parents is deployed. That means when someone comes to see us, we can link in with any or all of those agencies. No matter what the issue is, we have colleagues who can see someone that day if they really need help. That kind of support is vastly more than I could call on in parish ministry. But we are here to grow people spiritually and that is what makes us unique and encouraging people of all faiths and none to explore what those deeper questions mean to them is a really vital part of what we do.
What do you think your chaplaincy experience will bring to your future ministry?
I have so many stories now with which to bore future congregations! But I have dealt with the full panoply of life that I wasn't exposed to in the parish. Some of the corners have also been knocked off in terms of the language that we use and the way we approach scripture. You have to learn to communicate to people who don't have any understanding of those things.
What would you say to someone contemplating a future in ministry or chaplaincy?
Prayer is vital to it all. In terms of discernment, chatting it through with other people and finding out if they are seeing or feeling what you are. Within a military context that involves visiting a base to see round and have a sense of the organisation and what it does and if it is right for you. Each Service has a chaplaincy recruitment team who would be happy to chat things through and organise such visits.
July Discernment Resources: Where the Spirit Leads
What is God saying?
God calls every believer to a life of service and gives each of us gifts and talents so we can serve. Sometimes we know exactly what it is we are to do. That can be great news, but not if we'd rather do something different.
Sometimes we struggle to work out what our calling is. We're not sure what God wants.
Sometimes God's signals are contradictory. One day we think it's one thing, the next another.
God guides us by the Holy Spirit. One of the pictures Scripture uses to describe the Holy Spirit is wind.
When the day of Pentecost came, they were all together in one place. Suddenly a sound like the blowing of a violent wind came from heaven and filled the whole house where they were sitting. They saw what seemed to be tongues of fire that separated and came to rest on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit enabled them. (Acts 2:1-4).
Sometimes the wind is strong, unmistakeable and inescapable. Sometimes the wind is gentle, subtle and unobtrusive. Sometimes the wind changes direction, swinging round from the east to the west. Whether it's a gale or a breeze, and no matter the direction it comes from the wind is intangible, uncontrollable and irresistible. So it is with the Spirit of God. We cannot contain the Holy Spirit. We cannot bend the Spirit to our will. The Spirit will not be co-opted to our agenda. Where the Spirit leads we must follow.
Such a simple idea … until we try to put it into practice.
What do I do if the wind is blowing strongly in a direction and it's not the one I want to go in? What do I do if I sense God is calling me along a path that will throw all my well-laid plans into confusion?
What do I do if the breeze is very gentle and I can't work out which direction it is coming from? What do I do if I can't work out what God is calling me to?
What do I do if the wind keeps changing direction, one day from the east, the next from the west? What do I do when I get strong prompts from God but they are not consistent?
Breathe through the heats of our desire
thy coolness and thy balm;
let sense be dumb, let flesh retire;
speak through the earthquake, wind and fire,
O still small voice of calm!
- John Greenleaf Whittier
God's people often find discernment to be frustratingly intangible, just like the wind. Perhaps these questions may help you.
If you don't want to go in the direction you are being pointed towards …
Why is it that I am resisting the direction God seems to be blowing in? Who might I talk to about this to help me work out if this is genuinely the Spirit's leading?
If you can't work out where the wind is coming from …
How might I create a pool of quiet, or a pattern of stillness so I can listen for the Spirit's gentle prompts? How might I reduce the volume of background noise in my life so I can hear the 'still small voice of calm'?
If you are pulled in different directions …
In what direction is the prevailing wind blowing? Keep a record over a period of time: what is the persistent thing I'm aware of God saying to me?
Holy Spirit, wind of God, show me the way to go.
Holy Spirit, breeze of God, give me courage to follow.
Holy Spirit, breathe of God, calm my anxious heart.
Holy Spirit, life of God, enable me to serve you.
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.