Monday, February 16, 2009

The Crisis of Ministry

I'm begininng to think we are in period of crisis for the trained Ministry in the Unitarian community in the UK.

I'm not talking about the fact that many ministers are retiring, and there's not enough left to replace them (although that is a relevant consideration). What I'm talking about is a crisis of identity.

Many professional Ministers seem quite concerned about "anti-clericalism" in the denomination and the blurring of lines between Ministers and the various forms of "lay" leadership. Whereas some Unitarians see it as undemocratic that Ministers get one vote at general assembly while congregations get one vote per 30 members, which leads some to calculate an algebra of 1 Minister = 30 lay people.

This tension builds up to an outburst here and there in a way that disturbs me.

A while ago I heard that the next Annual Meetings will have the theme of "Valuing Ministers" but I haven't heard anything about it recently. And I can't remember if it was "valuing ministers" or "valuing ministry" and we always get tied on knots over such definitions. The "future ministry" project is still looking at all these questions - and I hope manages to come out with something useful soon.

What I'd like to suggest is that this crisis is, first and foremost, an issue of theology. Unfortunately theology is often the last thing we look at when we approach these kinds of questions.

We've rather backed ourselves into a corner over this one. We don't really know what ministry is anymore. We have never had a sacramental model of ministry - believing in a priesthood specially commisioned to perform certain rites. But the protestant model doesn't really hold for us any more either. Do we believe in an educated and/or spiritually gifted clergy with the gift of interpreting scripture and proclaiming and teaching the Word of God? Well, no. Because we no longer hold to that model of revelation and gospel.

The American Unitarian Universalists have still managed to hold on to the model of educated clergy, not so much with the ability to interpret scripture, but the ability to give well-thought-out essays on political issues, sociology, culture and religion. And in the American educational system Ministers have a graduate-professional degree - something we don't exactly have in this country to the same degree.

So what is the purpose of our professional Ministry? What is it and what does it do?

Well, first let me say that I am a Quaker-Anabaptist-Unitarian. I have absolutely no time for the idea of priesthood. I don't believe that Unitarian ministers should wear special clerical garb, have speical titles, nor advertise their degrees after their name. We are a community that believes in radical equality, in democracy and congregationalism. We need to proclaim and practice a priesthood and a prophethood of all members that rejects the idea of a "more religious" class of people that does our religion for us. Spiritual hierarchy is unchristian and needs to named as such.

So what is a Unitarian Minister?
Someone who has the ability, calling and education to lead, and coordinate the ministry of a congregation;
Someone who is formally accountable (and ultimately sackable) by the congregation and denomination;
Someone who's gifts and abilities have been tested and confirmed at a local and national level;
Someone who is able to give more of their time to ministry than most members are able to do.

So here are my proposals for us then:
Ministry training needs to be tough: at least three years except in exceptional circumstances, and producing theologically, spiritually and psychologically articulate people;
Ministers need to always be involved in continuing education and training
Only Ministers actively serving a congregation should get a vote at the Annual Meetings
No ordination - we should not re-introduce ordination

In other words the response to anti-clericalism is not to build-in articifical defences such as ordination and the defence of certain priveleges and "honours" - rather the response is for Ministry to get better, which is primarily an issue of education and spiritual development.

10 Comments:

Blogger Robin Edgar said...

"And in the American educational system Ministers have a graduate-professional degree - something we don't exactly have in this country to the same degree."

Pun intended? ;-)

11:47 pm  
Anonymous plonkee said...

Is there a difference in practice between a minister, and a lay pastor? What is it about studying theology that trains you to be a minister? In what way are the paid ministers better than the lay volunteers?

Congregations with ministers are anecdotally thought to do better than congregations without, but I think that's probably because one person who sets aside serious amounts of time to focus on the congregation is better.

I have seen lay people who are awesome at looking after a congregation, and I'm not sure they would be better at it if they were trained ministers.

12:53 pm  
Anonymous Tim (S Manc) said...

I think I agree with you that the crisis in the role of ministers is a matter of theology. I think that a congregation's expectations of a minister, both on a day-to-day and long term level, are rooted in their understanding of "what does a minister do in the spiritual community". It is fundamental to a successful ministry that a leader's vocation, abilities and personal aims are matched up with the mission and expectations of the congregation(s) they serve and the needs of the wider community.

I think the theology not just of ministry, but also of vocation comes into play here. I've met ministers of various denominations (and hear of many more) who become deeply disillusioned - or just depressed - when their initial ambition and sense of calling to be a spiritual leader, a Pastor to a wide community, and/or minister of the Word and rites of passage translate into being little more than a geriatric carer.

Ministerial training needs to be challenging, but is raising the bar of qualification to M.Div level - as is often required in the States - really necessary? I doubt that this will help that other crisis in ministry concerning "recruitment" of new, younger clergy. It would be much more costly and require greater resources, including from serving ministers who would mostly be better placed in churches. In my opinion, it would also discourage those without a strong background in Higher Education from considering a vocation to full-time ministry. Maybe an expansion in the options would be appropriate here, is there any such thing as an accredited Lay Preacher in the Unitarian movement? The URC has a few people called Church-Related Community Workers, who usually work on a stipend from a supporting congregation. Or maybe a more work-based rather than lecture-room-based route to ministerial certification.

I share your theology of a priesthood and prophethood of all believers, but I disagree that ministers should not have titles, where special garb, or refer to their qualifications. While I believe a full-time minister is as equally entitled to spiritual guidance from God as anyone else, he or she is still DIFFERENT and has been set apart to become a spiritual leader. It is not always appropriate for a minister to refer to his/herself "Rev Dr.. MA(Oxon)" but the minister needs to be prominent, so seeing his/her title on a Church sign or on official stationary, or wearing a dog collar (and even robes on Sunday) can assist in making a minister visible and send a positive message to people outside the church community that the Minister is a person who can be turned to for help and guidance.

I've waffled enough, but concerning accountability, church leaders, whether paid or lay, need to be monitored and be accountable for their actions, however they should also be allowed to LEAD. There exists among some the perception that the next David Koresh is sitting in their church's pulpit and needs to be rained in. Yet those same people are often among the attention seekers and control freaks who exist in almost every congregation, who go way beyond expressing sincere reservations about things, and instead blight progress and ultimately damage the communities they are part of. It is those who also need to be made to be accountable.

9:25 pm  
Blogger Stephen Lingwood said...

Phew, a lot of issues there.

Your questions, plonkee, are at the heart of the issue.

I think there would be a huge difference between someone who has studied scripture and theology and someone who hasn't in terms of preaching and teaching. Isn't one of the purposes of ministry to help people to know more about the faith? How can you do if your own understanding is too shallow?

Tim: I think passing a bachelor's in theology should be a minimum. You don't have to be a huge intellectual to do that, but you need a good level of intelligence. If someone needs an access course to get there first, then we should support that.

What you suggest about educational is already taking place. I have a qualification in contextual theology which integrates work-based and classroom based learning.

I'm not sure the message is so positive that Ministers send out with their visible clerical trappings. I agree that "I'm one of you" attitude can go too far, but I think the message we're sending out is an acceptance of the love of status. I think Jesus said a huge amount about how dodgy that kind of stuff is. I don't think leadership is wrong, I just don't think leadership needs to be propped up by status.

4:33 pm  
Anonymous plonkee said...

I'm not sure the extent to which your clerical status is visible, but I can see situtations where it would be counter-productive. But then that's all in the eye of the beholder - I do not think better of someone if they are a minister (nor worse).

You imply that the primary function of a minister is to preach and teach. Practically speaking, is that really the case? There's an argument that beyond the ability to create coherent worship (which many lay people do admirably given their time constraints), in reality most of a minister's training should be along the lines of counselling and care. Most ministers (etc), I know spend a lot of time visiting the sick and infirm, and taking funerals. Does a deep understanding of theology prepare someone better for this, than a deep understanding of say, human psychology?

As a matter of interest, I've read that some of the best training in how to take funerals and cope/deal with the bereaved is provided by the British Humanist Association for their celebrants. I have no idea what it is that they do, but I doubt very much that it includes theology.

I'm still interested in the difference between a lay pastor and a minister.

12:19 pm  
Anonymous Tim (S Manc) said...

Do you believe it is never appropriate to wear clerical garb? I don't think status or even "hierarchy" are the same things as "superiority" and I think there is nothing wrong with wearing a dog collar in a Church setting and even robes on a Sunday. It indicates that the person wearing it has a special role. It does not necessarily mean that they are somehow better, and any good clergyperson needs to be out there to show that they're not

If a community never sees a minister in normal clothes, however, then I think there is something wrong, as its unlikely that he/she is getting stuck in and becoming involved in community life very much, creating a hierarchy for him/herself.

12:08 am  
Blogger Stephen Lingwood said...

I'm not sure the "primary" function of ministry is teaching, but it's up there. If it's not happening, then a community is impoverished.

I would see the realisation of your own mortality as one of the primary subjects of theology - "Religion is the human response to the dual reality of being alive and having to die." Forrest Church. You need psychology as well, and of course we're all lay psychologists.

Tim: I wear a stole during worship because I'm quite happy to acknowledge that I have a priestly role in that moment, but that role is functional and temporary - it ends when worship ends, and I would be quite happy for a lay person to wear a stole for leading worship too.

10:11 am  
Blogger Unitalian said...

Appearances, rituals and symbols are important for worship, to take us out of the everyday and place us in the holy space.

I don't know the details of the study ministers must undergo, but I hope there is as much emphasis on the communication and presentation skills required to nurture their communities toward spiritual wholeness, as well as knowing the letters of the laws... ;-)

8:11 am  
Anonymous Tim (S Manc) said...

In that case, Stephen, I don't think our disagreements on clergywear are very far apart!

Plonkee (and others): I too think your questions are completely valid, and they relate to my own thoughts on what a minister feels called to become, which is not always the same as what a congregation wants its minister to be! I agree that having the time to devote to (ad)ministering a spiritual community is key to the vitality of a Church, but it is only one factor.

I think the first part of Stephen's definition of a (Unitarian) minister is a good one: "Someone who has the ability, calling and education to lead, and coordinate the ministry of a congregation." This leaves the specifics of one's calling or abilities open. Some called to full-time ministry might feel more disposed to leading worship and teaching, others more towards pastoral care. The reality in most Unitarian-sized churches involves the minister doing all of these as part of weekly duties.

Congregations need to allow a minister to take on or delegate responsibilities as necessary, so that his/her abilities are best utilised. This may mean that congregations reconfigure what they expect to get out of their minister. Ultimately, it is the minister (perhaps along with Church trustees or management committees) who is liable for worship, education and pastoral care.

Ministerial training needs to cover a lot of things, probably all of the things that have been suggested on this thread so far: theology, preaching, pastoral care, management and PR. All trainee ministers need to receive training in these subjects, so that a congregation can be led professionally. Ministers may need to spend more time on some areas than others: a well-resourced theological college with an effective tutoring system should be able to individualise ministerial training in that way. Luther King House and Harris Manchester College have a big problem if they're not already doing that.

5:29 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Bearing in mind that the average congregational size in GAUFC is 22, future Unitarian ministers in the UK need either to have private means,be frugal to a fault, or have a high earning partner or a mixture of these, as the level of stipend will never attract quality candidates.Churches need ministers ; potential new members often shy away from joining lay led bodies conversely,poor quality ministers will quickly empty a church even if it has been previously flourishing - sadly,UK Unitarians in my opinion have suffered quite a bit in this regard in the past. The future pattern would seem to be that many chapels will have to use lay pastors a great deal more for their week by week services, with the full time ministers having a more superintendent role. Every effort needs to be made to identify some younger members to become lay pastors, as the age profile of the denomination is heavily weighted towards the post 55 sector of the population.

2:13 pm  

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