Conference Bites 2 - Stationing

The report from the Stationing Committee makes for interesting/depressing reading. As expected, the number of successful matches in each round remains extremely high, since there is more choice in the appointments to which ministers may be sent. But the anticipated loss of another 100 presbyters in the active work in the next two years, and a decline in active deacons, means that the crisis in ministry for the Circuits continues.

Reading the first and last sections of the report, you would be forgiven for thinking that two reports had been wrongly conflated. The opening paragraphs speak of the current situation offering 'increasingly challenging circumstances' and the lack of available ministers as a 'major concern and is likely to remain as a concern in the future'. The reader is left with the impression of the 'urgency' of a situation that has reached crisis point.

Skip to section 8, 'Moving Forward', and there is an altogether more relaxed feel about everything. There is talk of more work and conversation, shaping policies and a calling 'to examine the nature of presbyteral and diaconal ministry in a changing Church and a changing world'. The idea of a 'significant challenge' seems remarkably absent and there are no substantive proposals to map a way forward or manage the crisis.

I wrote a blog on stationing towards the beginning of the process back in October outlining some concerns. This prompted a conversation in which I was assured that 'work was being done' to address the current difficulties and implement short, medium and long term solutions. If this report is anything to go by, we seem a long way from any of those. This blog comes by way of encouragement to those who are working behind the scenes.

I want to suggest that the current system for the deployment of ordained ministry is broken and needs an urgent and thoroughgoing reform. It is predicated on a myth, namely that the appointments that become vacant in any one year will match with the available ministers' gifts and strengths. When there were enough ministers to go round, that wasn't true, and it is certainly not true now. As a Church, Methodism spends a great deal of time convincing candidates they must have a personal call and must maintain it right through to ordination. 'Are you as convinced of your calling...?' is a question asked just before the moment of ordination. That kind of focus on the particular calling of the individual raises expectations that no system of deployment can meet. At the same time, too many Circuits still live with the notion that ministers are much of a muchness and that, therefore, a like-for-like replacement can be found for the one moving on.

Since I came to the British Conference, we have been through a number of iterations of the Stationing system. Interestingly, each time it changes, the influence of local lay people seems to diminish. There was a time when Circuit Stewards had authority to contact potential ministers themselves. Now they have the dilemma of whether they reject the match they are given just in case it counts against them next time. There is also a big question about what the system incentivises. It would seem that Circuits would be well advised to create crisis appointments that meet the 'Must fill' criteria and avoid any notion that their appointment could 'cope with a vacancy'.

One of the huge gaps in our current system is the failure to address lay ministry at all. Stationing only affects the ordained in a situation where it would appear team ministry with the majority lay (paid and voluntary) will rapidly become the norm. How can we successfully deploy ministry for mission when we only deal with half the story?

The lack of appetite for whole-scale reform of the system puts an extraordinary stress on the shoulders of those who currently operate the system - Chairs and Lay Reps. They are doing an incredible job, trying to make an impossible system work. The longer this goes on, the more likely it will lead to a crisis of confidence in Circuits desperate for staff.

I have previously suggested one of two short-term proposals that may help the currently system to work more smoothly. This included ministers and Circuits keeping 'live' profiles so that Chairs and others had a good sense of the gifts, strengths and skills of all the ministers in their care. Here are some further musings.

It may seem an odd place to start, but I would begin with a focus on Lay Ministry renewal. We keep talking about this and never seem to get there. In the current crisis, there is talk of appointing Local Lay Pastors but where are the trained individuals to take up these posts? For many currently serving in ordained ministries, they began their journey as lay pastoral assistants. Since the 1990s, these pathways and the training for them seem to have diminished. We need to renew our commitment to full-time lay ministries and provide the necessary support and training. This could once again be the route to ordained ministries for some, but we need to find a system for deployment that gives proper recognition to the presence, and necessity, of lay ministry.

Biennial stationing – instead of the annual process with clergy beginning appointments on 1 September, would it be possible to initiate two processes per year, with moving appointments beginning in, say September and March? This would mean that each process would be shorter with fewer rounds, but would potentially allow vacancies to be shorter. Again, this only becomes practicable with 'live' profiles.

As a way of managing periods without an ordained minister, might we learn from the URC and Baptists in the appointment of an Interim Moderator (lay or ordained) to ‘hold the fort’ and/or 'prepare the ground'? I know how disruptive stationing can be when a Circuit is in a period of significant change and things have to be put on hold until we hear from the Stationing Committee. Can we make better use of vacancies, using the talents of retired lay or ordained ministers to address particular challenges before a new match is made?

Increasingly, it seems it was a mistake to discontinue recruitment to Ministry in Local Appointment. Why don’t we re-open it as District Presbyters (DP), beginning by recruitment older people, up to 70, as long as they can offer a whole first appointment. They could do a part-time year of discernment, selection and study before being deployed in their own or a neighbouring Circuit in the District. Stationing could be done by the DPC and Supers meeting. They could be given an honorarium in addition to expenses and would be expected to live in their own house.

DPs would continue in service training as well as offering at least a 50% appointment and be ordained after 2 years’ probation. Whilst they would be expected to retire at the end of their appointment, provision could be made for them to extend an appoint by up to 4 years. Should they wish, and be able, to continue beyond that period, they would have to be stationed elsewhere in the District.

At the moment, Lay Stationing Reps seem to be underused in our process. In order to free up more of Chairs’ time, the Stationing Matching Process should be done with equal numbers of lay and ordained reps.

We obviously need a complete rethink on the nature and role of itinerancy. This is not something restricted to the ordained as there is a major issue with the lack of transferability of lay ministry within the Connexion. This is a significant piece of work that needs to look at theological, sociological and pastoral issues and collect proper data for analysis. Too much mythology surrounds this aspect of ministry in the Methodist tradition and needs to be examined.

Pre-qualification for Superintendents – it feels as if Superintendency is a bad experience once tried and never to be repeated. Can we learn from the teaching profession and have a pre-qualification for Supers, whereby people are identified as potential leaders and given training by way of discernment of gifts and preparation? Can we also increase the allowance to at least 15% to recognise the significantly increased burden Superintendency brings?

All presbyters and deacons to have part-time Circuit roles – why are many presbyters and a few deacons completely removed from any Circuit involvement? It is key to any leadership role to remain grounded and would also alleviate some of the pressure on the Circuits. When I was working in the Sectors, I always tried to maintain a link with the local Circuit. That meant offering appointments on the plan (or plans in several London Circuits), serving as Local Preachers Tutor and Secretary, and even helping to pastor local churches. I am very grateful to local Superintendents for putting up with this interloper and helping me to fulfil my calling as a presbyter in Word, Sacrament and Pastoral Responsibility, whilst serving as a chaplain or academic. How about if all presbyters and deacons - Chairs, tutors, the Warden of the Order and the Secretary of the Conference - commited at least two sessions per week to a local Circuit?

There are much bigger questions to address around ministry that have an impact on recruitment and retention which we don't have space to develop here. I do hope that this offers some food for thought about how we might move beyond the current crisis in creative ways. And please remember, I am only speaking for myself!

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