“This call to ministry is hard to articulate and it can sound a bit woolly, but it’s something you just can’t escape – it’s in your every waking thought”
When a 15-year-old Martin McDonald was contemplating whether to pursue a religious vocation, he sought advice from someone well placed to give it.
“I went to see this very wise priest who said: ‘Listen, lad – go and get some life experience and then come back and see me’,” Martin recalls. The teen took the suggestion maybe a little more literally than it was intended – because, 32 years later, he was married, with two teenage children of his own and a well-established career in nursing.
His job had taken him as far afield as New Zealand, but he had spent most of it at hospitals across Lancashire – the last 18 of which were at the Royal Preston, where he was a senior nurse in the accident and emergency department. The faith he had had from an early age never left him and he lived his life as a committed Christian – but he never did make the return trip to see that priest to pursue the idea of following in his footsteps.
More than content with the path he had chosen, Martin was therefore as surprised as anybody when, about four years ago, he felt a “pull on his heart” which stirred up the thoughts of ministerial service he first had as a teenager. “I’d built a career, raised a family and I was looking forward, eventually, to retirement – but then God had other plans and, apparently, His are better than mine,” Martin laughs.
“This call to ministry is hard to articulate and it can sound a bit woolly, but it’s something you just can’t escape – it’s in your every waking thought, every song you hear, every sermon you listen to, every bit of scripture you read. It just seems to speak directly to you. You can try and shake it off all you want, but it’s not going away.”
With that calling ringing in his ears, Martin made the momentous decision to quit the corridors of the Royal Preston and move into a part-time role at GP surgery in Garstang in order to give him time to complete a theology degree. But the celestial plan in which Martin had put his trust was one that seemingly did not want to see him stay away from the hospital frontline for long.
So when the post of lead chaplain came up last year at the trust that runs both the Royal Preston and Chorley and South Ribble Hospital, the long-serving nurse “took the chance” of applying – and, with just 12 months to go until his ordination, he got the job. For the last year, that has left Martin juggling his studies with getting to grips with a role that has pitched him back into an environment he knew so well for so long – but now with rather different responsibilities.
Having finally been ordained into the Church of England at a ceremony at Blackburn Cathedral earlier this month, the 50-year-old can now focus on serving patients in a new way. “People are moving away from referring to themselves as religious, but most people would say they are spiritual.
“And when the wheels have fallen off and medicine can do no more for them, people have questions – big, existential questions – like what was the purpose of my life and what happens next. Chaplaincy is able to speak into that – not to proselytise and preach the bible, that’s not what it’s about – it’s about being present, journeying with people and helping them to see their place in the world and their value as a human being.”
Martin is also all too aware of the support needed by healthcare colleagues whose ranks he was a part of for more than three decades. He hopes that his own recent experience of the stresses that they face will help him give them the strength they need to overcome their daily challenges, whether at work or home.
“It’s not until you work in the NHS that you understand the pressure and the desire of staff to do their very best despite trying circumstances. That has been evident particularly during the pandemic. When that hit, the NHS upped a gear – and two-and-a-half years in, they are still working like mad.
“They are still giving their all, but they’re tired – and chaplaincy gets alongside staff and supports them. Someone can come down to the chapel or we can meet them on the corridor – lots of ministry happens on the corridor – and they can just tell us, ‘I’m having a terrible day’ and know that it’s not going to go any further and they’re not going to be judged.
“People can just have an offload and, as part of that, we can offer to pray or to meet them for a coffee to chew things over. We’ll just try and reframe [their situation] and see the positives,” Martin explains.
Now officially the Reverend Martin McDonald following his ordination – a moment he described as a “beautiful experience [that] I didn’t want to end” – he will be attached to St. Cuthbert’s Church in Fulwood, where he will be part of parish life in addition to his duties leading a multi-faith team of chaplains within Lancashire Teaching Hospitals (LTH).
He pays tribute to the support given to him by his wife Tracey – a physio at LTH – and his two children, Daisy, 20, and Tom, 18, all of whom, Martin says, are adjusting to the new “rhythm” of family life brought about by his change of career. “I feel a sense of peace and contentment and I’m really excited to see where God will use me as I continue to step forward in faith.”
In spite of now having hung up his stethoscope, the urge to nurse remains strong – “I’m having to sit on my hands sometimes” – but the urge to care is one which straddles his past and current careers. “Chaplaincy is about understanding folk and where they are – and communicating with them. So there are lots of transferable skills from nursing, including listening skills.
“Sometimes it’s knowing when to be quiet, [when] you don’t need to say anything, you just need to be that presence in that place. But it seems to be a good fit [for me], having been in the NHS for such a long time, and now getting a job doing ministry work in the NHS – it just seems a bit too perfect,” Martin reflects.
So maybe he took that advice about getting life experience all those years ago exactly as it was intended after all.
- 05:30, 1 AUG 2022