Wednesday, 20 July 2011

The Risk of a Minister

I appreciate comments at my last posting, and I want to repeat and add a bit to my own comment there.

The problem with professional ministry with a denomination at this advanced stage of decline (with some renewal) is that it has found itself in a double bind. On the one hand there are churches that have struggled to finance a minister and then come to a point where the money that is available may as well go into other projects. The provision of services becomes much more collaborative, involving, and with a wide variety of inputs from within and without. But at the same time, there are churches with the money who will not advertise because there are not the candidates. A reason for lacking the candidates is the lack of vacancies.

If the choice of candidates is not there, a session of interviews for selection can be frustrating. If you pick the wrong person for your setting - and if you have a history of picking the wrong person - then you can hardly afford to make the same mistake again. Ministers can have negative impacts, indeed some go around effectively closing churches down. But it doesn't reflect well on the church either: who wants to go where a church has in effect removed ministers before they have helped destroy the place? It is not helped by the minister telling the fraternity about their rough time towards the end of their office; their account of events won't be the same as the church's.

Now most ministers are a plus (crumbs, what if they were not?), and also they have knowledge of the movement and a care for its condition. So if they are moving around different congregations and facilitating those congregations with advice, surely this is to be encouraged. I would have it as more systemic. Our ministers should be more like bishops, in that sense. In the past congregations were big enough and parish-minded enough to have a minister of status in just one congregation - the co-ordination came in their own meetings and through the college system.

In other words, the academies were buzzing with new ideas and in the Presbyterian-Unitarian strain these ideas were welcomed as part of the sphere of concern of the ministers. There was some remoteness, but plenty in terms of the preaching, pastoral and developing. There were many educational and welfare functions, all since gone with the welfare state (and quite right too).

If we had an educational model for ministers - a sort of Paulo Freire model suitable for our situations - then they would travel around even if there was a base.

Here's an odd situation. We have an actual Bishop-elect coming into the Unitarian scene. You can blame me, initially. She is now functioning in Leeds, Hull, Wakefield, chatted to the York minister after attending at Hull. Now with some specific training in terms of knowledge and finding out and more on ways and means, she could end up (with other ministers) actually bishoping in an actual, never mind just titled, sense. I don't think that is a bad thing, if it comes with strategic intentions. She is of course a bishop-elect in another group, but we still have plant, equipment and people on the ground. These ministers must be collegiate (Presbyterian, after all) but surely they should facilitate the folks in the plant with the equipment to use these in a better, more co-ordinated and more faithful way.

Also in such a pattern there is less likely to be a focused disaster in one place from one 'relied upon' person who turns out to be imcompetent.

What is wrong with this?


Tim Moore said...

Interesting post. Clearly informed by your experience of Bishop-elect Mhoira Lauer-Patterson.

Unitarian Ministers (that is, those licensed to be called "reverend") have a long history of serving in the wider denomination beyond their main congregations. It is by no means all a bad thing and it's inevitable that this kind of ministerial role will grow. My problem with this changing role, and the reason I view it in terms of "episcopacy", is that it's creating a hierarchy not only over lay members of congregations, but also over lay pastoral leaders of congregations. This will ultimately undermine efforts to promote lay ministry, when Lay Pastors and lay leaders aren't seen in an equal light to the ministers above them. There should be opportunities for ministers to pursue more strategic roles, as their talents and vocation leads them, but to encourage this as a general rule would remove some of our most talented ministers from pastoral ministry, building relationships with congregants, which is what is needed for even the most intellectually-minded Unitarian communities before teaching, training and preaching.

Some solutions could include insisting on more rigorous training for lay leaders and accredited lay pastors, or encouraging part time ministry or accredited local ministry (while maintaining secular employment but for those preferring a licensed ministerial over lay pastor role). This would help respond to the fact that the majority of vacancies are and will continue to be for part time posts. Any of these measures will require the Unitarian GA and the colleges to be much more flexible and work in a more individualised way, and I'm not certain how cut out they are for that.

Another thing worth mentioning is the interest some UK(-based) Unitarian ministers and congregations have in recruiting future ministers from the United States. I think, "good luck to them" with getting their preferred man or women through the immigration hoops. Yet it raises a very real dilemma: we may have ministers with MA and MTh degrees from Manchester and Oxford, but how would a Unitarian lay pastor or a minister with as little as a ministerial certificate ever compete with a graduate of one of the top American theological seminaries?

Pluralist (Adrian Worsfold) said...

Not only informed by this recent turn of events.

Why can't British Unitarians compete with American seminary products? But I suggest that the British Unitarians were never interested in ministers with strong education, otherwise they might have headhunted a few. I don't want to be funny but I have a Ph.D in Sociology of Religion, a Contemporary Theology MA and a social sciences degree and also a PGCE. I'm also rather well informed about Unitarianism past and present, and the C of E, and a few minor movements, the Bahais and Western Buddhists. But what they wanted was workers to lead congregations. The educational model never attracted them, and they have no chaplaincies in the paid sense, so they have intelligence at about the school teacher level, and a bit middle class.

There is never going to be a single model for ministers, so the pastoral role will be important, but I don't think people should be too worried about 'spiritual hierarchy' in the sense that a minister has more time and effort at these matters than even lay leaders (except the retired). It still allows, surely, lay leaders to be trained up, trained more, assisted. There is already hierarchy in the titles to some degree, but there isn't hierarchy in any formal sense in terms of functions.

The model is educational and service, ministers being people who are made available. Having some 'higher' allows others to be higher, I'd have thought.

Also we need ministers with a sense of being outside a bit in order to tackle what I call 'congregational possession', that sort of negative side of runing a church as an inner circle want and the place not being open and achieving its potential.

Tim Moore said...

Having "higher" ministers may well allow others to be higher, but will be worth little if it doesn't increase the qualifications of the licensed and lay leaders below them. Training/supervisory posts are very well, but I don't think this is the right time to create another tier in the Unitarian movement concentrating authority on a small group of people.

We should certainly stay with the different lay pastor/minister models, but I think the training of lay leaders should be levelled up with that of licensed ministers. The decision to become a minister or lay pastor should become a matter of personal theology, not of preference for full/part-time/non-stipendiary ministry or the academic demands of training.

We have hugely varying levels of education among our ministers and lay leaders in the Unitarian movement. Some have qualifications comparable to your own. Some ministers have been trained with BTh and MTh degrees, and have the pastoral skills and broad life experience to count them among the most educated clergy in the UK. These few can certainly compete with graduates from Yale/Andover-Newton/Harvard, etc, but those UK ministers with "ministerial certificates" plus a secular BA probably couldn't.

Louise said...

We need to have conversations about what we expect of ministers, lay-leaders, community leaders and others within our Unitarian communities. The world is changing and has changed since many received their training - what is it that each minister wants to do and what does each community expect?

The vast majority of our congregations only pay for a minister and yet many of us work many hours each week for our communities. Some more paid non-ministerial roles would be an exciting way to test out what we as communities need. I know that at least one congregation has had a development worker.

I remember writing some time ago somewhere that if we wanted better ministers we should pay them more. If we paid ministers £40k p.a. (or staring at 30k rising to 40k after a few years) and had some real on-going quality control things would improve.

We could do on-the-job training - so that they could start working straight away. But why try to do something so simple rather than endlessly talking about a problem which, using the current model, is unsolvable. xx

Tim Moore said...

Completely agree with you, Louise. The current models of ministry are not sustaining the movement at present and it's not going to improve in future without change.

There's definitely room to explore non-ministerial paid roles, too. There are lots of options: admin workers, pastoral assistants, development/community workers, professional musicians. The latter two could be combined with pastoral roles.

Here's hoping for some action soon!

Pluralist (Adrian Worsfold) said...

This is where I agree - that the numbers of folks taking services could be raised up with more training. And where I worry is that the 'two strand' training available is rather thin in outlook. Yes, there are other tasks too. To me, specialisation has narrowed the field of what is wanted: the churches in Victorian days could have had paid staff in tourism for example!

Louise said...

Tim re ... Here's hoping for some action soon! ... action and soon - two words which seem to be missing from our Unitarian dictionary :)

I went on the Worship Studies Foundation Course and despite some good input it was a real disappointment. It was a service de-constructed - so a session on prayers, one on children/story telling, one on music, one on readings etc. I suggested in my feedback that each session should be about constructing a different type of service - so that we saw it as a whole and we valued the structure rather than just to items of content.

I also said that constructing services for your home community is very different to preparing one for another community - and this needed recognising - if it is within your own community then there must surely be an element of community building. Looking on the Worship Studies website I see that the Foundation course has remained the same. So you get taught about the individual elements but not how to create the whole.

It disappoints me when our supposed experts cannot grasp what is needed. Meanwhile the Executive Committee is focused on restructuring our commissions and panels (or whatever they will be called). Fiddling while Rome burns.

I keep waiting for something big to emerge proving that they have really been focusing on these issues whilst pretending to focus on the bureaucracy. Hope springs eternal ...

Tim Moore said...

@Louise. I share your experiences and feelings in your last comment. I agree most that "it disappoints me when our supposed experts cannot grasp what is needed."

I took part in this year's WSC Foundation Course. I'll say that I thought the course was well organised and I enjoyed meeting Unitarians from across the North and Midlands. Without going into details into the many frustrating aspects of the course, I and others felt that the single point of entry provided by the Foundation course doesn't work.

I certainly learned from the course, but it was unable to meet the needs of such a diverse range of people in the group: this included a life-long Unitarian who had never led worship before, as well as a newer Unitarian who regularly leads worship in her own congregation and has years of worship-leading experience in mainstream Christian churches.

I wrote in my first comment to thie post that the GA (and more specifically the Joined-up Education Panel) needs to work in a more individualised way with Unitarians seeking worship leader/ministry training, but I'll reiterate that I'm uncertain whether this is a way of working they can really grasp.

Louise said...

Thanks Tim - I would add ... or to work with groups of people and create the course tailored to that group, using the strength, knowledge and personalities of those in the group to meet the growth and development needs of that same group of people. How exciting could that be? xx

Tim Moore said...

Thanks, Louise. I think what you've describe is how a more personalised approach could work best.