What is to be done?

I read this in an article from the Guardian:

“I teach 400 children. Slightly more, actually, but we’ll call it 400. That means your daughter counts for 0.25% of the children I teach. It is difficult for me to honestly and accurately tell you anything about her, so please forgive me if I speak in vague generalities at parents’ evening and try to avoid using your daughter’s name. I might have forgotten it.
I teach twenty five lessons a week. Despite my best intentions, some of these lessons are boring. To plan an outstanding lesson can take hours. I can’t do that for every lesson I teach. Sometimes I stand in class delivering a lesson I know isn’t as good as it could be. I know how to make it better. I just didn’t have the time to do it. I don’t think the children notice, they are used to this…
Schools are full of middle-management types….The school needs to improve, but I’m not sure it can. Common sense and trust in human communication is being forced out of the profession. A lot of teachers seem to like being told exactly what to do and how to do it. The status quo is just fine for a lot of middle and senior management too. It allows them to wield power, justify inflated salaries and be recognised by their peers as being “outstanding” teachers. A recognition the children in their classes would never give them. Never mind. They never really liked teaching children that much anyway.”

The reason why this article struck me this morning is that – if you change the relevant terms (including ‘outstanding teacher’ to ‘senior priest’!) then the same analysis applies to the life of an increasing number of parish priests. That is of interest, not because I want to share in the groaning – done enough of that recently – but because it shows how far the Church of England has become bound up in the prevailing patterns of our culture.

That culture is one of expecting more and more to be achieved by less and less – and of putting bureaucratic control systems in place to achieve it. So, in teaching, it means a significant increase in central government direction and intervention, carried through by qualified consultants and enforced by Ofsted. Similar things happen in other fields, like the NHS. The church – being behind the times – is only now starting to move in this direction, but it is clear that Common Tenure is from this stable, and this pattern of thought has clearly infected many.

I say that with confidence because I think it has also infected me – and I’m trying to extirpate it (which I do, through things like writing out my thoughts in a blogpost). For example, I am closely involved in Deanery discussions planning for the future – specifically, how to negotiate a reduction in stipendiary clergy of around a third (from 13.5 to 9, covering 27 parishes). My first reaction was to develop a plan to restructure the Deanery around geographical clusters, each with at least two clergy, so that the workload is distributed fairly. So, from an average ratio of clergy to people of 1:120, it will shift to around 1:180; or, using a Deployment Indicator that takes account of local population and number of churches, it will shift from an average of 101 per priest to an average of 144 per priest – either way, it will effectively mean a 50% increase in workload for clergy here. (For comparison, and in lieu of another moan from me, the figures for Mersea are 1:300 on the former measure, and 186 on the latter, so I do have a very good idea of what these implied changes mean in practice). Yet as time has gone on, I become more and more dubious about this type of change – the notion of spreading clergy around in a perfectly balanced distribution seems simply to be about managing the decline.

What, after all, will be the consequences of proceeding with this plan? We will be asking clergy (and bishops) to do more and more with less and less – exactly the situation that the teacher in the Guardian article is describing. We will end up either with ever-increasing levels of clergy burn-out; or with ever-increasing congregational decline and disillusionment; or, most probably, both. This is exactly the pattern of thinking that led us into our present problems, so why do we expect a different result from continuing with it?

So what is to be done? One answer is to ‘re-imagine ministry’ – along the lines that Bishop Stephen is calling for here in Chelmsford Diocese. I strongly support what +Stephen is attempting to do, but I suspect that we are still not digging down into the real roots of the problem. Do we: change our understandings of priesthood; change our understandings of lay ministry; or – increase the numbers of clergy?

After all, one of the great challenges about ‘re-imagining ministry’ is to make sure that we don’t re-imagine ministry away completely. The reason why Killing George Herbert has always resonated with me is simply because the George Herbert model of ministry is so tremendously attractive. To be a pastor and a teacher building up strong relationships with a group of disciples – and through that to enable each of them to live out their calling with joy and giving glory to God – what priest could possibly object to that? If we are to have a truly enabled and energised, inspired and inspiring laity – is there not a role there for those whose job it is to help such a thing come about? That is, I am not sure that the answer to the problem of a shortage of clergy is to do away with such clergy altogether. The answer is two-fold, it seems to me – we need more clergy and we need to have a much clearer idea of what clergy are for.

In the secular world, to provide resources for training and development is straightforward and obvious. It is an investment in the future. The Church of England doesn’t do this – and I sometimes wonder if there is something in our ecclesiology that says we are only allowed to take the bad bits of management practice and have to ignore the good. If we were serious about priestly ministry then we would invest a much greater proportion of our resources in training and developing priests – and we would then set those priests free to do the work that they have been called and trained to do. There are many ways in which this might be done. Personally I am coming around to the view that anyone accepted for training should be installed as a curate in a parish, with housing and a stipend, and then spend the next seven years doing 50% work in the parish and 50% formational training. I am very aware of the benefits of full-time residential training, but that model only really works with people who are single, and probably young as well.

More crucially, I believe that we need to make a decision about what we expect priestly ministry to look like. This is a long conversation but one key element of it, surely, has to do with the size of the congregation – that is, how many people is one priest expected to pastor? Bob Jackson’s research pertains to this – for me, I would suggest a ball-park figure of around 100 as the limit for what one person can effectively minister to. Beyond that number the possibility of genuine relationships with each member of a congregation diminishes exponentially. If something like this is accepted, then it has a direct implication for the recruitment and training of clergy. If we have 10,000 people needing to be pastored, then we will need 100 clergy, and we will need to ask each of those 10,000 people to give 1% of their income in order to pay for them. All that is happening now is that we are a long way into the spiral of decline that spreading butter over too much bread inevitably causes. Put another way, we need to abandon the use of the Sheffield formula and its equivalents in working out how to deploy clergy.

Personally, I don’t believe that this challenge can ever be met without at the same time addressing the folly of the parish share system. That is, without some sense of direct relationship between what parishioners give, and what they receive there will be no chance of increasing – that is, financing – the necessary numbers of clergy. Of course, this immediately runs up against some of the principal taboos of church culture – taboos which are, sadly, principally twentieth century in origin. After all, one of the roots of the blight of management culture across the different areas of our lives is the huge growth in centralised state control – and the parish share system is simply one aspect of that, as applied to the church. The sort of system that I would like to see – benefices tithing their income, then paying for the costs of their own ministers – is a massively decentralising process. I happen to believe, not only that this is the form that the Spirit prefers, but also that it is in profound harmony with the way that the world is developing at the moment. Yet like all release of centralised power, those who hold such power will not release it voluntarily, they will have to be persuaded by non-rational means.

Essentially, what I am describing is the shift from maintenance to mission – and in saying that, I am depressingly aware of what a cliche it is. I am sure this has all been said before, and much more articulately. So the question becomes – why has there been no change? Why is it that we are still circling the plug-hole? I believe that the answer is to do with our capacity to make decisions. To actually address these issues properly requires painful choices to be made, and it is the incapacity to make those choices which is our fundamental problem. I don’t believe that we can escape from the truth that the church is in crisis because it has lost its spiritual moorings – and this has led to our culture being in crisis (see my book for more detail). We can’t discriminate between good and bad management because that requires spiritual discernment – and in an environment that doesn’t take spirituality seriously (the church) that sort of discernment is not encouraged as it is too challenging to the existing powers.

So what is to be done? I hear the words that say ‘leave with the others’, to which I want to respond to the church ‘but you have the words of eternal life’. What can those who are loyal to the CofE actually do? That is, what do those who actually believe in the gospel as the Church of England has received it do when that very same Church becomes the obstacle to the proclamation of the gospel? I think that my heart’s desire is to do the work of a Samuel, and change the structures in such a way that it becomes possible for the priests to do their job once again. Yet in my darker moments I wonder whether what is truly needed isn’t a Samuel but a Samson – someone to pull down the pillars of establishment and leave nothing but rubble and dead bodies behind.

31 thoughts on “What is to be done?

  1. A fine thoughtful piece, Sam. I’m sure you wouldn’t have taken nearly 2000 words to say something that wasn’t very close to the heart of what you care about.

    Of all the issues I’ve blogged about for five years now, clericalism is without doubt the most awkward. On nearly every other conviction, including the crown jewels of orthodox Trinitarianism, it is possible to possible to have a serious conversation from divergent perspectives. But, it seems the ultimate heresy is to deny ordination itself (which I do). After Christendom, surely it’s possibe to do better than an ontologically divided Christian community.

    It grieves me to say this, but I do think it’s time for Samson. As for ‘rubble and dead bodies’ that’s a bit outside the bounds of Anabaptist nonviolence. More reading in the same vein: http://radref.blogspot.co.uk/search/label/clericalism

  2. Hi Sam. These are enormously important issues, but as you indicate, it goes to the heart not just of our ecclesiological culture but personal identity.

    As you say, “Do we: change our understandings of priesthood; change our understandings of lay ministry; or – increase the numbers of clergy?”

    I think those are questions many ‘priests’ are unwilling to confront.

    But here’s two suggestions. One is, people should read “The Trellis and the Vine”, which has some useful things to say.

    The other is, why not initiate a gathering of diocesan clergy where we actually begin to confront this together?

  3. I can only speak from my long experience in both the RC tradition in America (where priests are deployed based on a formula and parish boundaries are determined by geography and formulas and priests are so few in number and the seminaries so empty that most priests here are from other countries) and the Episcopal tradition. The latter here has more than enough clergy and not at all like that which you’ve described.

    Priests here are hired by the individual parish through a long process called a “search”. Generally, they start with a process of a parish assessment. Who are we? Where are we headed? How do we want to get there? And finally after all that discernment, we decide what our ideal candidate looks like. During this time, we have a diocesan-assigned “interim” who has specialized training to handle parishes in transition periods. They generally help the parish work through any grief or issues from the last priest leaving and work towards preparing us for our new priest.

    Then comes the application period, and the interview process. Some bishops are involved others not as much, but all candidates are vetted through the Canon to the Ordinary with background checks, credential verification and reference checks. The parish laity on a search committee conduct interviews and secretly go visit the candidate’s current home parish. Then deliberation occurs with the best candidate being given to the lay vestry for final approval. An official “call” is made to the desired candidate and contracts signed and that’s it.

    Financial renumeration is made by each parish through their own self-controlled budgets. If we want a more expensive priest, we hork up more money. Small parishes sometimes share their priests with other small parishes in the area.

    The bishop’s salary is paid by a line-item in each church’s budget commensurate with their overall donation income.

    Overall, it works well, we’ve had a few bad apples and have “encouraged” a few priests to move on to other opportunities. But it certainly seems a lot more logical and spiritual than what you’re describing. The whole search process generally takes a year for a medium sized parish during which time there is a lot of soul-searching on the part of both search committees and candidates.

    I guess it would be a bit Samson to create such a process there. But our priests are energized, generally overworked, but manageable with lay assistance and remember everyone’s name and story. My parish has two priests on staff – we generally have about 300 attendees spread across 3 services and growing like crazy. We are one of 3 episcopal churches in our town of 50,000 and the largest of those. We would welcome a visit if you decided to check us out.

  4. Do we: change our understandings of priesthood; change our understandings of lay ministry; or – increase the numbers of clergy?

    My completely unqualified opinion: all three.

    1) Priesthood should be about sacramental ministry and have a lot less admin in it. I don’t think this is, necessarily, a change in how we understand priesthood in the longer-term, but rather that our practice for the last 150 years or so does not reflect a good understanding of priesthood. 2) Lay ministry does need to shoulder more of the parts of ministry that are not necessarily sacramental in nature. The idea that “laity” (clergy are still laity in addition to being ordained, sigh) can only be ministered to, rather than each having their own distinct ministry, is false. I’d love to know what are the roots of this idea and how to counteract it. 3) The C of E should be making it easier for people to get ordained.

    The latter is, in theory, happening, but not fast enough to keep pace with the decline in attendance, and (in my view from the organ loft) the training is still geared very much toward a fictional one-stipendiary-parson-per-parish model. This particular acute phase of cuts in the number of stipendiary clergy, though, is terrifying for those in training. There are many fewer stipendiary positions available post-curacy than when they started training and many of them have little hope of returning to secular employment. Increases in retirement age are not helping.

    I wonder whether we overlook the potential ministry of distinctive deacons, and (to a lesser extent) Readers. Ministry is not, cannot, be all about priesthood, though I am Anglo-Catholic enough to believe priesthood is very important.

    I don’t know how we finance it, though, or rather how we convince the gathered congregations to finance it. Ten families tithing ought to be able to support one family in ministry… and I wonder, sometimes, whether the ratio of ordained to non-ordained people should be closer to 1:12 than 1:100. Clearly in that case there would have to be some people who are bi-vocational.

    • I cannot speak for the CofE version of the BCP, but the American version, in the catechism section, as answer to the question of “who are the ministers of the church?” says: “the ministers of the church are lay persons, bishops, priests, and deacons”. The order there is not lost on me, as a lay person and active in lay-led ministries. I firmly believe that the days of passive pew-warming by the laity is over and that we are called to all manners of non-sacramental ministry.

  5. One alternative

    The Deanery numbers imply 60 people per parish. Assuming only one church building per parish (often more), that is 60 people per building. That is not viable.

    Solution? Shut 18 buildings, getting the number up to 180 per building. Save £15 – 20k per building – say £300k all up. That allows you to employ 7 more clergy (if they are available – and if not, train them on the job, like he original disciples). So you are up to 16 clergy – an increase of nearly 20%.

    Trouble is, you Anglicans prefer buildings to people. That is one of the reasons why you are declining so fast

    • You nailed it right there. We prefer buildings to people. Lord, have mercy. Our temporal view is that we have to keep the buildings going for future generations (or for a connection to the past), what was lasts forever – buildings or people? Where, then should we invest our resources?

  6. On the general point of modern “management” culture. organisations, etc. you might find Petersen’s critique in “Beyond Rules in Society and Business” of interest:


    The irony is that whilst there is a demand to “more with less” the conventional modern method (with its endemic bureaucratic control systems) is a voracious consumer of resources, so even less is available to do the real work.

    If you are faced by a shortage of “staff” it’s the very last approach you want to adopt.

  7. Here is yet another alternative.

    The Ordinariate of Our Lady of Walsingham will shortly have 81 priests servicing about 1250 of the faithful – a ratio of about 1:15.

    Join the Ordinariate and life will become much easier.

  8. It makes as much sense as “re-imagining medicine” lets get people who say they feel called to be pharmacists or surgeons, give them half the salary and put them to work for seven years while they study. Balderdash!

  9. I don’t know enough about the CofE to pretend to tell you what should be done. As someone raised in a tradition (the one associated with Alexander Campbell) which is based on pulling down the whole structure and starting from scratch, I can tell you that while such an approach does have its strengths (which have allowed for considerable expansion over the past few decades) it also has its weaknesses.

    Regardless of what is to be done and whether it is to be done, thanks for providing a candid look in for a brother over on another side of Christendom.

  10. Get rid of the parish share except for £600 per congregation that goes to pay for a bishop (with no support staff) per 50 congregations. Decommission the church buildings that are not profitable to the local congregation. Allow priests and congregations to negotiate salaries with a strong link to performance and money raised. Congregations that cannot afford to stay in the old church building should rent worship space when needed. Most “church” should be done in homes and common spaces such as pubs and community halls (outside for free in Summer). If a congregation cannot find a priest who will work for the money they can afford they should merge with a congregation that can. Allow congregations to spend the money they raise however they like and encourage church plants and mission congregations. If that favours the evangelical congregations that’s only because the rest of us can’t be bothered to sell our brand creatively.

  11. Just to give a brief account of my experience in the Anglican Church of Australia (mostly in Melbourne), each parish pays for its own staff and then has to pay an assessment to the diocese – usually about 15-20% of its income – to cover the bishops and diocesan services. The upside to this is it gives parishes much more flexibility to appoint the number of staff they want to support the ministry they are doing, and makes the parish the focus of ministry rather than the deanery or diocese. It also means unviable parishes are shut rather than struggling on subsidised by other parishes, and the building proceeds are used to fund church plants in new suburbs.

    The downsides to this approach are:
    – Tends to lead to super parishes with large staff teams (like HTB), while the smaller parishes tend to wither and die.
    – Less sense of collegiality between parishes, and between parishes and diocese. As long as our parish is doing all right, things are ok.
    – Diocese usually increases assessments to balance the diocesan budget, rather than reducing costs or empowering parishes to grow so that the total income is increased.

  12. 15 to 20% seems a huge amount of money to give to the centre. How does it profit the church at the local level? I think we need more bishops with fewer congregations to serve but we also need to restrict their work to pastoral, liturgical and teaching functions only.

    • 15-20% is quite a lot, and the parishes usually complain about that amount. As I said, the diocese usually uses increased assessments to balance the budget. The benefits the parishes get are the diocesan services – leased cars, credit cards for ministry expenses, centralised payroll, low interest loans through the Development Fund, cheaper purchased services (phone calls, removals, etc). More bishops means higher diocesan overheads, which most parishes would refuse.

    • No, not necessarily. Bishops would be restricted to the functions I previously suggested and paid no more than a parish priest. The cost of a bishop in England would be £480 p.a. per congregation plus carefully scrutinised expenses (local travel, stationary etc.). Bishops would become part of the life of the congregations, a staff member almost. I know a bishop in Scotland who operates in such a manner and he is well respected for doing so.

  13. When I served in the Diocese of Athabasca – a small diocese in northern Alberta with only 25 parishes, flung wide over a huge geographical area – the assessment/apportionment (as we called it) was 25%, which paid for a bishop, an archdeacon, a half-time secretary, support for assisted parishes, and of course provincial and general synod assessments (I think the diocese was paying 11% of its income to the national church to help cover national expenses – no church commissioners in Canada!). And, as spicksandspecks says, we paid all our local clergy expenses.

    In the Diocese of Edmonton (55 parishes) the situation is somewhat similar, but the assessment/apportionment figure is around 16% – it’s hard to put a percentage figure on it because the formula is complicated. We have a somewhat larger diocesan staff with a number of ‘missional’ positions. Also clergy costs are higher because there are no rectories so clergy are paid a full salary and are responsible for providing their own housing.

    • My experience just a bit south of you in the States is almost exactly the same and while I agree with MP that the percentage seems high, I think it really depends on what services you get for your diocesan tithe. We too, expect our clergy to be “real” employees in that their salary goes towards supporting their families with regular household expenses.

    • In England I think we should be asking “what services do we need?” rather than what services do we want?” For a start I don’t want my bishop spending loads of money flying around the world attending conferences or employing a chauffeur or cosying up to local and national politicians. I don’t want him to live in a big house and have a big staff. I don’t want him to earn more than any other priest. I just want him to be the focal point of the sacraments, a pastor to his priests and a teacher of his people and I would make this possible for him by increasing the number bishops so that they are not responsible for more than 50 congregations at the most.

    • And… What services can laity be performing to help out to free up time for the clergy? We have a huge contingent of lay-led ministries and it works very well for us.

    • I think the laity should be asked what they want their priests to do (I think we would find the answer very old fashioned and simple). The the priests should be restricted to that and the laity should do everything else (paid in necessary and possible).

  14. My friend Harold Percy used to talk about the basic questions we need to ask when we start talking about ministry (ordained or otherwise):

    1. What kind of disciples of Jesus do we want to deploy into the world to make a difference for the Kingdom of God?

    2. What kind of congregations do we need in order to evangelize people and then form them into those disciples?

    3. What sort of leadership do we need in order to nurture those congregations into being?

  15. Tim, sit down, mate! I agree with you. Work out what we are about (regardless of what we have been doing) and then get rid of everything that is superfluous to that. This is a money thing but more importantly it is a time thing. Our priests and bishops, and our committed laity, spend far much of their time doing stuff that is just not anything to do with our basic commission as Christians. They then stress out at the same time as achieving very little.

  16. “Prevailing patterns of our culture” (“meme” for short) is where I came in, in management of institutions in general. Better arrangements are counter-intuitive to that received wisdom of objective and scientific management.

    The latter creates measures of effectiveness and efficiency that have little to do with the intrinsic value of the job (yours as much as anyone else in any other line of business.)

  17. Surely Scripture should be the starting point for this discussion. reading what it says there about ministry it is clear that the task of ‘ministers of the Gospel’ (which I trust is what those in ministry in Christian churches are, for if they are not then what are they doing there?), the task is to be devoted to:

    “…prayer and to the ministry of the Word.”

    Therefore this can’t be approached as a structural issue, but as a spiritual one. Until that is done, and people live like that as ministers, then it doesn’t matter one bit what structure you use.

  18. The ministry of the Word is “surely” the ministry of Jesus Christ who is the Word made flesh. To carry on Christ’s ministry is something to which all Christians are called. Ministers of religion are4 called to such a mission a long with everyone else. But they have specific tasks that are defined by the denomination they belong to. In the Church of England I think we have lost sight of our definition and have replaced it with an administrative definition.

  19. Just seen this – very interested in the whole question of how unhealthy our attitude to work is getting (particularly in the fields of education and care.) What is driving our values? Why can we not seem to share work around so that more people contribute and fewer are dienfranchised? Then there is the thorny question of why the church actively is moving into the same culture. I don’t know the answers but I agree that some drastic re-imagining needs to happen. However, the courage to act and to hold our nerve seems to be missing. You might be interested in
    http://www.archdeaconinthedales.blogspotco.uk To Much Recording To What Purpose?

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