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Ministry or Midden - the new dumping ground?

I rejoice in the work that the Methodist Church has done in the last thirty years to diversify the ministries it is prepared to recognise. No longer is it appropriate to speak of 'the ministry' (though many still do) as if that referred to a single group or designation. Rather the ministry of Christ in the Church is now exercised in a greater diversity of roles, orders and authorised ministries.

But here's the rub: as new 'vocational pathways' have been created, so the difficult, unpalatable or humdrum parts of ministry have been visited on the unfortunate few - mainly presbyters, Superintendents and Circuit Stewards. So we see the emergence of more categories of ministry 'freed' from the burden of institutional maintenance - chairing those pesky church meetings or making sure the paperwork is filled in - at the same time as recruitment to the presbyterate is falling and it is becoming increasing difficult to fill the key lay offices. No wonder so many presbyters decline the offer of a Superintendency when it comes to stationing, especially those who have already done it!

Have certain ministries and office become the new dumping ground for our Church?

Firstly, I want to decry the way that lay ministry has been over-functionalised in the last twenty years. In CPD, the Methodist 'rule book', the section referring to lay ministry has gone from being titled 'Lay Ministry' to 'Lay Workers' to, now, 'Lay Employment'. Despite Biblical warrant for administration as a ministry of Christ in the Church (1 Cor 12), we insist in regarding administration as the obstacle to ministry - get that out of the way and proper ministry can happen. Those who process our expense claims, type up minutes, or clean the toilets, are engaged in lay ministry as much as Local Preachers or Class Leaders, so how do we honour that? Why do we not talk in vocational terms about all lay ministry in the way we do about ordained or preaching ones? It takes years to become a Local Preachers and seconds to become a Circuit Steward - what is that saying about the value we place on each office?

Secondly, I want to raise a huge concern about how 'ordinary' presbyteral ministry is being spoken of and viewed. I have spoken with a number of colleagues recently who are, frankly, fed up and worn out. Not tired of the gospel or less passionate about mission, but tired of being denigrated in order to prove the worthiness of other ministries. The repository of others' anger and disappointment, whether things are changing too fast or not fast enough. Shortages and illness mean that barely covering the bases is increasingly all that presbyters in Circuits can do, leaving no time for the 'luxury' of new mission opportunities or proper spiritual renewal. As someone approaching their 20th year in ministry, I worry that these sentiments are not just being expressed by those long in the tooth like me, but by those still in their first appointments. I am not surprised at all that numbers seeking to enter the ranks of the presbyterate are falling.

Thirdly, I want to challenge District Chairs in their primary role as pastor to the pastors. Whilst most people recognise the stress that Chairs are under and the need to sort out crises, I hear more and more tales of presbyters feeling isolated and even abandoned as they tackle personal and church crises. Trust in the stationing system is declining because there is a growing feeling that the really difficult situations now have priority over both the skills and needs of the presbyter, and appointments that offer genuine opportunities for mission and growth. Presbyters being sent in to clean up messes is nothing new, but the resources have diminished and the need for back-up much more pronounced.

Where to from here ...? I have become increasingly convinced that there is a need for a major renewal in our theology of lay ministry. From the office of the Vice-President to the cleaners we hire to clean the chapel, there is a need to reassert the fundamentals of lay ministry and find new ways of honouring, valuing, equipping and rewarding those who offer for service.

In the light of that theology, we then need to re-describe presbyteral ministry in ways that are gift-affirming and life-giving. The future pattern of presbyteral ministry will be more team-focussed, working with a variety of ministers - lay and ordained, paid and voluntary, local and connexional - in serving Circuits, communities, institutions and churches. This has profound implications for ministerial formation which needs to include volunteer management, human resources, fundraising and grant-making, leadership and team work, and strategic planning, as well as a grounding in the Biblical and theological traditions. This also means a re-description of other ordained ministries.

And, in the light of that, there is a desparate need for Chairs and/or Superintendents to be released to focus more fully on the pastoral care of those in presbyteral ministry. To be literally alongside them in their daily work, spending quality time with Circuit teams, not just being at the end of an email or phone. I have heard of good practice in some places where the Chair spends a few days in a local Circuit, shadowing the team, seeing the work at first hand, sharing in worship, and wonder if that should not be the norm.

Being a Presbyter in the Universal Church is an extraordinary gift, privilege and calling. I am more sure of that today then when I was first called nearly thirty years ago. I rejoice in the colleagues I have had the honour of working alongside, and even to help train, and want to see all of them flourish. In the power of the Spirit of Life, it can be so.

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