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.

What’s Church For? Church as ‘Retirement Home’

When is the time to retire?

Here I am still ranting on about the elderly nature of my bit of God’s church. Last week I made a plea for the active recruitment of younger clergy: this week I want to talk about the other end: retirement. My thesis is simple: we don’t have a culture of retirement in the church, and this is profoundly unhealthy.

In a recent visit to the Church Times jobs website there were 49 British parish posts on offer, of which 11, over a fifth, were on a House for Duty basis. (In other words, for non-Anglicans, they were expecting mostly retired clergy to work for nothing but get free housing.) I don’t know what proportion of Anglican parishes are currently being run by ‘retired’ clergy, but I know that we’d collapse overnight if they were all suddenly raptured.

Of course for many retiring clergy the offer of a free house is a life-saver. If you’ve lived in tied accommodation all your life and haven’t somehow managed to get on the property ladder it can be a very difficult thing suddenly to acquire a retirement home. But I’m more concerned about what our increasing reliance on elderly people is doing to the church, particularly when coupled with our relative failure to recruit younger ordinands. I’m also concerned about what it is doing to them.

‘Ah, but …’ I hear you say. Surely there is no place in God’s church for retirement. Nowhere are we told that St Paul stopped gadding about and settled down to grow vegetable marrows. Good old Moses was still at it on his 120th birthday. I’ve heard all sorts of sermons on this very theme. But I think there is another side to this. For a start you can’t simply read a 21st century retirement lifestyle, complete with state pension, B&Q Diamond card and bus pass, back into biblical times. With a low life expectancy most people simply did not have much of a chance to grow old gracefully. And what about the claims of St Paul (or whoever wrote the Pastorals) in 2 Tim 4 that he had fought the good fight, finished the race, kept the faith, and was now awaiting the crown of righteousness in store for him? What about Jesus throughout Hebrews having finished his earthly work and sitting down? We’re not good at finishing things. We prefer facing a task unfinished.

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I once heard that in the USA 80% of those who resign from Christian ministry enter the construction trade. It was suggested that this is because at the end of a project you have something concrete (literally!) to show for it. But the work of Christian ministry rarely has these built-in end points. There is always more to do, and we are socialised into feeling guilty if we’re not busy doing it. Many of us have been so busy, and so bad at work-life balance, that once we retire we fear we’ll have nothing at all to live for. I once worked with a guy who had given his life on the mission-field in Asia. He was unmarried, had no close family, and in fact had no life at all outside his voluntary work for his parish church. Well into his 80s he was still going, although to be honest not particularly strong. Another parish I knew had a priest who had been there since before some watershed date and so did not have to retire ever. He was well into his 90s, and people were simply waiting for him to pop his clogs so that the church could move on.

So what should we do? I believe we should be helping Christian disciples to believe that retirement is an honourable estate, and preparing them more thoroughly to enter it healthily. We should mark it with a significant rite of passage after which life does not simply go on as before. We should make space for the considerable gifts which older people have to contribute to the life of a church, but without expecting them to run it themselves. We should find a way of ending our dependence on retired clergy to keep the C of E show on the road, and if that means some churches have to die, so be it.

Let me say again that chronological age is not to be equated exactly with youthfulness or otherwise. But I leave you with a question, one which I often ponder myself: when I do eventually get past my sell-by date, and am doing the church no favours by continuing, how will I know?