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Ministry Today - A Reflection

By Brian E Beck.

Recently I was involved in a discussion of the anxiety levels of ordinands. While fully sure of their vocation many, it seemed, were very nervous about what they were getting into. Of course memory distorts the past, but I do not recall such an atmosphere before my own ordination, forty-odd years ago. Were we more naïve? Certainly, on average, we were younger than today's ordinands, but that only makes the phenomenon, if true, all the more remarkable. One would expect those bordering on middle age, with all their experience behind them, to be more confident. But I suspect that, if I were now to be among their number, I would share their uncertainty. Ministry today, it seems to me, is a more demanding business than once it was, for a variety of reasons.

Pastoral ministry has always made demands. The cure of souls, to use the traditional phrase, is no light matter. It calls for sensitivity to others, an ability to 'read people', theological insight and, above all, the pastor's own commitment as a disciple of Jesus Christ. That has always been the case, but over the years additional demands have accumulated.

Take for example the increasingly intrusive nature of secular legislation. Even if he or she is fortunate enough to be surrounded by professionals who take on the burden of the work, the minister of a local church will quickly be brought face to face with such matters as employment legislation, health and safety at work, hygiene for kitchens, data protection, listed building consent, ecclesiastical exemption, accounting for charitable funds, and requirements for the supervision of children. The incorporation of the European Declaration of Human Rights into English law may well lengthen the list.

The last item in that list, the supervision of children, draws attention to our generally heightened awareness in society of the pitfalls. Ministers, along with teachers, doctors, social workers and other professionals, are increasingly under public scrutiny. Sexual harassment, abuse of children, marital infidelity, misappropriation of funds, abuse of power - these are not new ministerial failings, but awareness of them is now greater, suspicions are more easily (and sometimes unfairly) aroused and it is easier for ministers to feel they are treading a minefield. Add the legitimate demands for sensitivity to issues of race, inclusive language, the needs of those with disabilities; the expectations are wide indeed. What is more, we live in an increasingly litigious and confrontational age. There are incidents of legal action by disgruntled individuals against ministers and by ministers against the church.

Then there is the greater diversity of the contemporary church. At one time virtually all ministerial appointments in the Methodist Church could be fitted into one of three crude categories: city mission, urban, and rural. We now have a six-fold categorisation, equally crude. The truth is that size, geographical setting, social classification, income, age, theological outlook and liturgical styles produce a very wide range. A minister's anxiety, notwithstanding all the care taken about an appointment, may well revolve around the question, 'Will I fit'?

The answer to that question depends also on what the minister brings. There has been a growing tendency among ministers to develop special interests and concentrate on a particular style of ministry, either in terms of particular skills (counselling, chaplaincy, local broadcasting), or in terms of theological emphasis (conservative, liberal, charismatic, to use the labels), or in concentration on particular areas of work (teaching, outreach, youth work, etc.). Will the gifts fit the situation?

Underlying this anxiety is a deeper issue, which a report to the 1998 Methodist Conference well brought out: it is abundantly clear that the total ministerial needs of any one local church are far beyond the resources, in time or skill, of any one person. Ministry must be collectively exercised if it is to be all-round ministry. The individual cannot do it all. The tendency toward specialism amongst ordained ministers is a recognition of that. Yet there are many who still see their vocation as generalists. They may easily fall into the trap of trying to be omnicompetent. What is even more damaging is the fact that many congregations still maintain the expectation that their minister will be the local factotum, or at least the consultant on all matters under the sun. At some point in the mid-nineteenth century that might have been a realistic expectation; not now.

To these pressures of expectations, one's own and others', must be added the pressures of the diary. Parkinson's Law operates, and Parkinson today may well wear an ecumenical hat. Co-operation with other churches adds time demands that few in earlier generations ever experienced. So does any involvement, as an expression of the church's mission, in secular agencies, for the homeless or whatever. The ideal inculcated in theological colleges in the first half of the century (study in the morning, visits in the afternoon, meetings in the evening), no longer works, if it ever did. Moreover, many of our expectations of ordained ministers are based upon assumptions about patterns of domestic life which, in most manses as in most other homes, no longer obtain. Managing conflicting work commitments and still maintaining some responsibility for family can be very stressful and not all are good at it. Serious study, often, and family life, too often, suffer in consequence.

Methodists especially (but nowadays not only they) are commonly exposed to another pressure, responsibility for more than one local church. This has some advantages. Congregations can more easily be helped to see that it is unrealistic to demand the whole of a minister's time in one place if there are other congregations with an equally legitimate claim upon that time. But for the conscientious minister it can be an added burden. We do not easily practise crop rotation, leaving one church to lie fallow while building up another. Intensive cultivation of three or four churches at the same time is a recipe for exhaustion.

It is not surprising therefore that a major development over the last twenty years (in the Methodist Church at least, I cannot speak for others) has been in support services for ministers. Counselling services for those under pressure have been one aspect of that, but on the positive side, the provision of sabbatical leave, further study opportunities, periodic refresher courses, appraisal schemes and the general extension of initial training into the first five years of ministry and beyond. The outcome, in my view, has been largely for good, though it has taken its toll of scarce resources. Not only have there been benefits for the ministers on the receiving end, but these schemes have often provided opportunities for ministers to develop their theological, pastoral and teaching gifts in the service of colleagues in ways not open to them in the context of the local church. My only anxiety is that it seems largely to be a case of 'to those who have much more shall be given', and we do lamentably little to equip lay people to cope with the arguably even greater pressures of living as Christians in a secular world.

I have just 'sat down' (to use the traditional phrase) as a Methodist minister. The largest part of my ministry has been concerned with theological education. For the last fourteen years, however, I have been involved in the church's national administration and I have tried to survey the scene presented by ministry today, as the Editor invited me to do, from that vantage point. Others, closer to day to day work in a local church, might have described it differently. What conclusions may be drawn or observations made?

(1) First, I do not think there is any prospect that the trends I have been describing will be reversed. They reflect the diversification and compartmentalisation that is going on in wider society (compare Charles Handy's book, The Empty Raincoat (1995)). Ministers differ from most others in that they are privileged to be able still to talk of having a vocation for life, but the forms in which that vocation is fulfilled will change and diversify from time to time. In that respect their experience mirrors that of others in society.

(2) Secondly, it is not surprising in the light of what I have referred to that ministers experience stress. They are in any case members of wider society and it would be more surprising if they did not share its strains. Moreover, if the example of St Paul is anything to go by, an element of stress is inherent in ministry, because it involves taking upon oneself the shortcomings and tensions of the Christian community and its members in trying to help them cope with them (2 Cor. 11:28f). Nevertheless effective ministry calls for the ability to help others handle the stress they experience and this must mean the minister learning to identify its causes and handle its effects in his or her own life. Without this we compound the problem for others.

One aspect of this, it seems to me, is the need for periodic change, not just in moving from one appointment to another but in style and intensity of work. It is not just my Methodist upbringing that makes me deplore the idea of staying in one appointment for half one's active life. We all live off accumulated fat at various times in our life, but cannot do so indefinitely without serious trouble, and when moving from one appointment to another attention needs to be given to anticipated stress levels and opportunities for rebuilding reserves.

(3) Thirdly, against the background of the diversity in ministry today we need to focus clearly on those qualities which an ordained minister particularly should bring to the life and mission of the church. I think there are two.

The first of these is the sort of person we are. In the Protestant tradition we have laid so much emphasis on the work of ministry that we are in danger of neglecting the matter of being a minister. Yet if one listens to what church members say of their ministers it is often of their character that they speak. Of course that is manifested in what they do and say but it runs deeper than either, and people instinctively distinguish a godly man or woman from a mere practitioner.

Often the importance of this distinction comes out at the point of retirement. There are those for whom it cannot come too soon; a sure sign that the pressures have been heavy. But there are also those who put it off as long as possible and those who cannot cope with it when it comes. The latter group, sadly, includes some who had longed intensely for it. The end of 'active' ministry with its routines, its commitments and above all its circles of colleagues and church members, can seem a mockery when one remains in name and vocation a minister, now retired or 'supernumerary' with nothing to do. That is the point at which one has to ask, if the question has not been asked before, 'what is a minister for?' to which the only adequate answer is, 'to be a sign of the gospel to the church and to the world', a vocation fulfilled as much, if not more, in what we are as in any functions we perform. Such a vocation does not wear out and we are not incapacitated for it by age. The best definition of a supernumerary minister I ever heard was contained in the tribute to one elderly colleague, 'a person worth visiting.'

Which leads on easily to the other essential quality of an ordained minister, theological insight. Of course ministers are not the only ones who have received a theological education; there is no monopoly. It is also true that one can be theologically educated and still lack theological insight; I fear that is too often the case. But the ability to articulate the essentials of the faith in language which is one's own and not merely borrowed from books, and the insight to interpret life from day to day in terms of that faith, for oneself and for others, while calling for basic theological knowledge, are not identical with it. And while ministers hold no monopoly of such insight, it is, as I have suggested above, an essential ingredient of the pastoral office. We fail the church if we lack this. All our other competencies, necessary as they may be, are add-ons. Since the church is a body of people that believes passionately in God, converse about God (which is what theology is) is the oxygen which gives it life.

(4) It is vital to see ministry as arising from within the church and not external to it. In recent times a small number of ministers have decided to join a trades union. That saddens me, not because I am against trades unions in principle, nor do I think they are incapable of providing a professional service which is sensitive to the distinctive conditions which apply to the appointments of ministers within the church. I understand the insecurity which some ministers feel when they find themselves up against a national institution (as in the Methodist Church) or a powerful local body (as may be the case in the Independent tradition). But I fear it points to a trend towards seeing ordained ministry as a job rather than a vocation, and, on the part of the church, a tendency to see the minister merely as an employee and not as an integral member of the Body of Christ, differing only in calling from the rest. In such an understanding minister and church become outsiders to each other. True ministry is within the body. Only when ministry is seen in that way is it possible to develop a truly collective understanding in which the contributions of lay and ordained are integrated and complement each other, both in service within the church and in witness and mission beyond its doors.

There is a further aspect to this: the importance of the minister being willing to be ministered to by others, particularly by lay people in the congregation who have much more to give, often, than they or the minister may realise. There is no failure or loss of face in receiving ministry from those to whom one has been appointed to minister. Many ministers would be spared avoidable stress if they were willing to accept this, and the church as a whole would be enriched. If the image of the body in 1 Cor. 12 means anything by its insistence on mutual dependence, it surely means this.

(5)So far I have referred to God in only one sentence. That might be considered odd in an article which has stressed the importance of theological insight. Theological judgements, I would argue, do lie behind much of what I have written, but there is one particular aspect which, finally, I want to bring out. It is to do with what one might call the 'feel' of ministry, that is, whether one sees oneself as isolated, burdened, overwhelmed, by responsibilities and demands, or as somehow carried along. That is tied up with one's understanding of grace, particularly prevenient grace, and with one's view of the relation between doctrine and experience. The experience, without question, is often negative, harassed and anxious, as demands multiply and changes overtake each other. To move by induction from experience to an affirmation of what God is doing can be very difficult. If, on the other hand, one starts from an understanding of God as active in the world in his own right, as it were, independent of the church and its ministers, then one can begin to see one's own part in ministry, whether within the church or beyond its confines, not as initiating work which God somehow follows up by 'blessing', but as entering into what God is already doing. That is for me a profoundly liberating perception, for it brings the assurance that one is being sustained by the Spirit whatever the experience may turn out to be. A lot is written about experiential theology. There is much to be said, conversely, for allowing theology to interpret experience.

The Revd Dr Brian Beck is a supernumerary Methodist minister and former Secretary of the Methodist Conference. Previously he served in theological education at St Paul's United Theological College, Limuru, Kenya, and at Wesley House, Cambridge. His published work has been on the New Testament and on Methodist theology.

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You are reading Ministry Today - A Reflection by Brian E Beck, part of Issue 15 of Ministry Today, published in February 1999.

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