Helen Harwood talks to Debbie Veel, a deacon ordinand studying for a graduate diploma in pioneer ministry with CMS.
Hi Debbie, I know you first considered doing a pioneering course in 2012 when you were training to be a Licensed Lay Minister. You told me your friend rushed into the tutor group waving a newspaper article and said “This is you.” How did you feel at that time and what made you wait until you joined us in 2019?
When I read the article, I thought “That really is me.” I wanted to do things differently and outside the church. I still feel like that. Someone once told me I had a hundred ideas day…and I thought “Yes, these pioneers are like that too.”
I didn’t start in 2012 because I had another year of my LLM training to finish and to be honest I had had enough of studying when I finished and then it just fell off my radar.
So you joined us in 2019 for the graduate diploma. You say of this it’s “not your usual study”. What was it that appealed to you about the grad dip?
I had CMS saved as a webpage and I was just looking at it and I downloaded an up-to-date brochure. When I saw the grad dip modules I was so excited and thought I actually would love studying these – justice and the environment; chaplaincy (which I have done lots of); the arts and community development – literally everything I am interested in.
Tragically, breast cancer interrupted your studies and you had to put off some of your modules for a year. If it’s not too painful to talk about it, how did you manage through those very difficult months?
I had had breast cancer in 2007 so to have it back again after 14 years in the other breast was a huge and very unwelcome shock and in the middle of a global pandemic really wasn’t good. Fortunately, it hadn’t spread to the lymph nodes (as it hadn’t last time either).
The time from diagnosis to surgery was 40 days: a nice biblical number if ever I saw one!
I had my surgery and this time I needed four cycles of chemo and other treatment, some of which is still continuing. I was fortunate in that I didn’t have too many side effects from the chemo though. I did lose my hair, but I had this amazing purple wig. My hair is growing back now and is very curly, but it was always dead straight. I spent a fortune on having my hair permed when I was younger so that’s quite funny.
My community development module clashed with my chemo and I didn’t think I could concentrate enough to do my dissertation, so they have both been put back to this academic year. Everyone at CMS was so helpful and made it so simple to sort this, so thank you all.
What kept me going was the prayers of my church and the support of my amazing family and friends. Several people had visions and the sense that God was holding me in the palm of his hand, which they shared with me so that was encouraging.
Because we were all in lockdown and initially my church was recording services from home I was able to continue to preach, so that bit of normality helped too.
“The mask represents my cancer journey.”
A piece of Debbie’s coursework from the module on Creative Arts and Christian Ministry and Mission.
“The pink is the joyful happy side. My hair was long, grey but in good condition. The grey represents sadness and the pain of this journey. The purple represents my purple wig. The make up brush represents my drawn eyebrows now as they have got a bit thin. The nice long nails (green) were long pre-chemo nails in good condition, but not always varnished though.
“The hand covering the mouth is actually quite significant although I hadn’t intended it to be – it kind of covers the mouth and actually you don’t get much say in what happens. Sometimes there is a choice but mostly the treatment happens to you without really having any say in it.
“The zig zag represents my feeling of both being utterly supported by God and at other times only hanging on by my fingernails because of the prayers of others.
“Also that I have been blessed and have been largely very well with few side effects and the chemo finished in February, but also still being grumpy with God that after 14 years clear this has happened again. So, very mixed emotions.”
You said at one point “I did think about being a pioneer ordinand but I couldn’t convince anyone including myself about the ‘ordained’ bit.” However, you have now become an ordinand, so please tell us how that all worked out?
It was all very odd. My minister went to a vocations day just before lockdown number one and she said they were talking about Distinctive (permanent) Deacons and that my name came into her head. She asked if I had ever considered this before and I said that yes I had but a) at the time my diocese weren’t particularly supportive of this role – as they now are, and b) my minister at the time didn’t see it in me.
At about the same time, before my diagnosis I had been doing lots of work with our new housing estate and could really see and feel that this was my calling. The way I explain it is like a stick of rock with ‘deacon’ running through it.
With her support I started to pursue this calling. What is most bizarre is that every step along the way has been tied up with my illness.
- Meeting the examining chaplain was the SAME day as my mammogram, ultrasound and biopsy.
- The local panel (that had been set for months) ended up being the same day as the consultant’s appointment.
- My eight-months-post-surgery follow-up appointment with the consultant, which should have been at six months but got put back because of Covid, was the same day as the results of the Bishop’s Advisory Panel.
- And my year since diagnosis was the day before my first residential weekend at Ripon College, Cuddesdon, so I really feel God has walked with me through both of those journeys and that they are inextricably linked.
But what I love is that although my CMS modules are termed ‘pioneer’ they fit so very well with my diaconal calling. I obviously wouldn’t have chosen to have breast cancer, but bizarrely, if I hadn’t been ill, I would have finished my studies and would have been on a ‘normal’ ordination study pathway now.
Everyone has worked so hard to make it possible for me to finish my grad dip and do the ordination modules alongside it – without overloading me. I am so very grateful for that.
I wondered what it’s like being a patient when you have been a chaplain, has it given you extra empathy, or was it just very hard?
Well, I was a workplace chaplain in Winchester rather than a hospital chaplain, so it was almost like two different worlds. I did some hospital chaplaincy before I was diagnosed at the start of Covid but it was all working with staff not patients.
But God seemed to quite often send me people who had someone in the family with cancer and wanted to talk about it.
I know God keeps telling you ‘timing is everything’, how can we pray for you and for the right things at the right times?
I feel I have been called to minister to the wider town of Basingstoke and to women particularly. I was offered a paid job recently that does fit with both of these. Yet I feel that the Taizé chant ‘Wait on the Lord’ keeps being said to me.
I would particularly value prayers for discernment as to whether I should take this job or whether I do need to complete my studies first and to see what doors God opens up.
I also want to rebuild our connections with our new housing estate, which have all been largely lost during the Covid lockdown, so prayers for how to do this and when, which is also about timing.
So, prayers to discern the right things at the right time and choosing the right support too would be hugely appreciated.