What’s Church For? A Job for Life?

Should locally licensed ministers have a job for life?

Last time I had a moan about the lack of a clear culture of retirement from Anglican ministry. I want to stay with that idea but come at it from a slightly different angle, and do some thinking about the expectations of lay ministers who have been ordained and/or licensed to a particular parish. Let’s hear about the fictional, though all too real, parish of St Mildred’s Newtown.

In the past St Mildred’s was a moderately thriving church, with well-ordered Book of Common Prayer worship and good community involvement. In its heyday there was an emphasis on vocations which was thought to be highly successful, in that it produced five home-grown Readers and two Self-supporting ordained ministers.

But now the church has grown tired and elderly. The Readers are all in their sixties, one of the SSMs is over 70 and has Permission to Officiate, and the other is in her mid-60s but not in good health. They are all dearly loved by the congregation who have seen them nurtured and growing in their ministries down the years, and who enjoy the pastoral care they provide.

Then the vicar announces his departure to a new parish. As people begin to think towards the future, and set about preparing a parish profile, it becomes clear that they desperately need to attract some young families. They note the research which says that senior ministers are likely to attract people within ten years either side of their own age, so without being in any way ageist they set about the search for a young priest with loads of experience and wisdom, but who is lively and young-at-heart.

File:U.S. Army Sgt. 1st Class Nathan Marshall with the 1st Battalion, 45th Engineer Battalion, 157th Infantry Brigade, First Army Division East, his wife, Amanda and their young family, celebrate the holidays early 131208-Z-IB445-027.jpgJim is eventually appointed. It is his first incumbency, having served a curacy in a thriving church in a nearby diocese. He relishes the challenge of turning around the decline which has characterised St Mildred’s for decades, and brings loads of exciting ideas. He begins to get to know the team he has inherited, and relationships are cordial. But as time goes by it becomes apparent that they don’t quite understand what he is trying to do. If only we could get back to the days of reverent BCP worship, they believe, all our problems would be solved. Similarly they show little concern for Jim’s desire to bring the church into a digital age: they don’t see the need for a website or a facebook page. Soon it becomes abundantly clear to Jim that the team he has inherited have become the single biggest obstacle to moving the church forwards, and of course they have the support of the congregation who, whilst wanting to attract young families, have no idea of the cost and change involved in doing so. Jim tries to win people over, but the opposition is very strong, and is centred around those who ought to be his closest allies. And the worst thing is that there simply is no mechanism for moving them on and building his own team.

Of course this is a made-up story, and nothing like it ever exists in real life, but isn’t it time that we began to think seriously about inherited teams, those whose focus is in the past rather than in the future, and ways for mission-shaped ministries to grow without opposition from other leaders? Are locally licensed ministers really in a job for life, or might it be appropriate for them to move around if they can’t grasp the vision of new senior leaders? One church leader reported saying to his disgruntled colleagues ‘I’m so sorry that you have been unable to catch the vision of what this church must become’. We shouldn’t say that but then leave them in place as leaders of the opposition.

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