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Whistling in the Light

By Terry Hinks.

What sustains ministers in their faith and work?

I was ordained in 1986 at the age of 26, meaning that, having completed twenty years in stipendiary ministry in the United Reformed Church, I am, other things being equal, about half way through my full time ministry. So I decided, as part of my sabbatical studies, to research this area and in particular to seek the views of those who had served in stipendiary ministry for more than 20 years. Having experienced a stressful building project and a major reordering of the denominational structures, I wanted to see how best to continue and build an effective ministry and fulfilled life in the future. As I wrote to those I invited to take part in the survey: "I very much want to sustain a creative ministry and a living faith and avoid becoming bored, boring or burnt out."

The Questionnaire

Before my sabbatical began, I put together a questionnaire involving fifteen questions covering the subjects of spirituality, support, stresses and satisfactions in ministry and the background changes in church and society (see appendix). I sent this out to all those still in active, stipendiary ministry in the United Reformed Church who had been ordained for more than twenty years, suggesting that people spent approximately half an hour filling in the questionnaire (I was seeking immediate reactions rather than answers that had been carefully worked upon). The narrow denominational focus was not for any reason apart from practicality: I had access to a simple database, felt that I had a greater chance of a good response from within my own denomination and that the numbers involved were manageable (I also became aware of studies that had been carried out in the Methodist and Anglican churches). I am grateful to a few ministers from other denominations who took part and showed how much common ground there is between ministers of different church families.

In hindsight I feel I should have asked fewer questions. For example, one minister reached question 13 and said that he had spent long enough on the survey. I also would have given stricter instructions about the length of time to fill in the questionnaire. Some ministers took me at my word and spent only half an hour. One, for example, commented: 'Because the responses are relatively spontaneous, some have even surprised me and I wonder what difference longer reflection would have made.' However, the length of some replies (some even eight pages long) suggested that some people spent more than half an hour on the form or else typed very quickly!    I also regret not having spent some time refining or improving the database. I found one or two ministers had retired by the time they received the questionnaire. For a significant number of others, retirement loomed large, which coloured their response.  

Telling our story

However I am immensely grateful to all who did respond with considerable thought and insight. Of the 262 sent out, 132 were returned completed; and additional four ministers took the trouble to contact me to say they did not wish to take part. I cannot tell how representative the replies were of the whole, but certainly in terms of age and gender the returns reflected the total. However, a 50% response rate (without any denominational pressure or personal contact or reminders from me) is quite impressive and shows that this area is of interest to ministers. A number commented that they found the opportunity to reflect in this way on their spirituality and ministry helpful. This in itself may indicate the need to make opportunities for ministers to do this, particularly in the United Reformed Church where ministers often work in isolation, without the strong tradition of circuit ministers' meetings contained in Methodism or the widespread practice of spiritual accompaniment of the Anglican and Catholic traditions. It was interesting to note that, despite a long tradition of ordaining women, the proportion of women was small at only 11% (the proportion of women among all those serving in stipendiary ministry in the URC is now 29% and rising).

In what follows I will look at some of the questions raised in the survey. Regrettably, space and time does not allow a fuller treatment of all the issues raised.

Sustaining ministry

The first question focused on the main question of the survey: what sustains people in their ministry. Some people gave a list of answers - one in fact listed twelve things that sustained ministry. Others gave very simple answers, such as 'the Holy Spirit', 'people', 'reading, reflection, relationships' or quirky ones like 'prayer, regular exercise, the odd beer' (sense of humour was mentioned by four respondents!). The recurring themes were:

  • Family and friends: family mentioned in 45 replies (and friends another 12)
  • Sense of call and that sense of call being renewed (in 42 replies)
  • Faith, prayer and Scripture (in 68 replies)
  • The grace and providence of God (and the Holy Spirit) in 30 replies
  • Supportive churches and fellowship with other Christians in 51 replies

The sense of being part of the people of God was mentioned by a number of ministers. One noted that he could never talk of 'my' ministry - rather 'our' ministry; this was a crucial point in relation to the whole reflection on sustaining ministry. Others spoke of the love of the work, the importance of variety, and the value of spiritual and theological reflection.

A few spoke of 'dogged determination'. One commented: "At times I feel I sink under the work! But when my personal devotional life is healthy, I float better". One admitted that the need to earn a living and the inability to do anything else kept them going, but then went on to say that they didn't really want to do anything else, despite the frustrations.

Support

Related to what sustains ministry was a question about where ministers find support. Eighty seven (over 65%) of the replies mentioned family or spouse as a key support. After this colleagues were mentioned by 67, such colleagues often being from outside the denomination. Then 35 mentioned friends, 22 the local church, 19 elders or church officers and 13 individual church members. Eleven spoke of the support of God and prayer. Spiritual directors were only mentioned by 8 ministers and Moderators (the URC's regional leaders) only by 5. Among other groups and networks mentioned, only one reference was made to the URC's Church House (which arranges ministers' stipend and pension). The denominational structures are clearly not seen as a major source of support. A numbers of ministers mentioned the lack of support they felt they were given by the denomination. One spoke of how they felt they received good support in the early years of their ministry, but were forgotten in later years. A few spoke of ministry as being lonely, exposed or isolated.

Burnout

Burnout is difficult term to define, so it was understandable that ministers responded in different ways. In terms of experiencing burnout, 37% of ministers simply answered 'no', and 36% qualified that 'no', often speaking of being close to burnout or experiencing some stress related illnesses. Twenty two (17%) wrote that they had experienced burnout and a further 13 (10%) said 'yes', but qualified this in some way. However we interpret those statistics, it is clear that stress has had a major impact on many of our ministers. John Haley and Leslie Francis carried out a study of Methodist ministers in 1997 (findings now published as British Methodism: what Circuit Ministers really think Epworth Press) and found that 45% of respondents felt emotionally drained by their ministry. Exploring this further according to age, they found the statistic to be 53% of those aged under 46, 48% of those between 46 and 55 and 35% of those over 55.   Clearly stress and its consequences remains a significant factor in ministry. 

Inspiration

This question about what people had inspired the minister was in a way one that I regretted asking. The answers reminded me of Paul's experience of the Corinthian church where some said they belonged to Paul, others to Apollos, others to Cephas, and yet others to Christ (1 Corinthians 1:10-17). The modern equivalents might be Walter Brueggemann, Tom Wright and Jack Spong. And yes, three ministers did feel it necessary to tell me it was Jesus who was their chief inspiration (fair enough, but a bit of a put down to the rest of us). Having said this, it was interesting how influential key leaders in South Africa (such as Desmond Tutu and Nelson Mandela) had been on many people. Also many mentioned the ordinary saints - people of integrity, generous hearts and living faiths - and some mentioned their own first ministers.

Frustrations and difficulties

The responses to the questions about the most difficult elements of ministry and the frustrations and disappointments merged in many ways.   Key themes were:

  • Handling conflict and confronting people over issues; as one minister said, "Like many people I prefer a peaceful existence, a reconciling ministry and unity in the church".
  • Resistance to change.
  • Difficult people, those who have wanted to control or bully the minister or others.
  • People's lack of response or willingness to commit.
  • Loneliness, self doubt and the sense of 'never having done enough'.
  • The challenge of staying fresh and sustaining creativity.
  • The challenge of church decline.
  • Fruitless meetings. "Meetings, meetings and more meetings" as one said, or "the angst of time spent in committee discussions that have borne little or no fruit".
  • Particular aspects of the work.
  • Crisis moments in church or personal life.
  • Trust being betrayed.
  • Too much time being spent on building maintenance.
  • The failure to make further ecumenical progress in the country.
  • Denominational structures being burdensome rather than supportive.
  • Bullying or competitive colleagues .
  • Terms and conditions: in particular poor pay, too little time off and dependency on the manse system and the effect of this on family.

One minister commented that, at a conference for ministers about to retire, the leader asked what they would miss least. "Someone said 'Pettiness' and we all agreed".

Satisfaction in work

There is much that brings satisfaction to people in ministry. Particular mention was made of:

  • leading worship (25) knowing that worship that has 'gone well', sensing God's presence.
  • "preaching a good sermon" (15).
  • Pastoral work - being alongside people in joys and heartaches and in their faith journey remains important (27 responses).
  • seeing people's lives changed by faith and the gospel (23).
  • and seeing people grow in confidence, into leadership (25).

Some gained considerable joy from their own growth in faith (10). Others drew encouragement from work in the community (8), interfaith work (6), ecumenical work at grassroots (4) and social action programmes (3). A few mentioned God's surprises - "those moments when every thing falls into place", we see "God at work in spite of us" and we are "surprised by joy".

Spirituality and preaching

Given the focus of this article, I am not here considering the responses to questions 2 and 9 in the survey dealing with spirituality ('walk with God') and preaching.

Changes in church and society

All were aware of the huge changes in society, church and the role of ordained ministers since their ordination and identified many different elements of this change. This is hugely important as we consider how to sustain and refresh ministry and to allow our sense of call to be renewed in each new context. I am continuing to work with the responses received so this area again remains outside the scope of this article.

Interests outside work

These ranged widely with most ministers giving three or four varied interests. Worryingly a few only gave one outside interest, and some of these related very much to service in the community (such as work as a magistrate and help at an army cadet group). It was also clear that circumstances can restrict the ability of some ministers to pursue their interests. For some family was their primary interest, yet this is hardly a hobby! Finance might also be a factor. I wondered what special income allowed one minister to pursue an interest in fine wines!

Moving into different forms of ministry

It has been said that after 20 years in pastoral ministry, ministers should have the opportunity to serve in a different area of ministry (such as chaplaincy, training or oversight ministries). Asked if they would like the opportunity to exercise a ministry outside the local church, 21 said they were doing so already (as moderators, staff at church house, etc). A number of  these ministers said how grateful they were for the opportunity. One spoke of being resentful of criticism such ministries evoked in some quarters; another said it had brought a real sense of liberation, though another felt it had taken him away from the coalface. A further 12 said that they had undertaken such ministries in the past. One commented how this had been positive experience helping them now in pastoral ministry; another of how they were enjoying being back in pastoral ministry.

Forty-seven said they would that they did not want to leave pastoral ministry - "no never" as one wrote. Thirteen said they would like the opportunity, a further 8 possibly so and 6 said that they would have liked the opportunity in the past. Another 12 said that the question was no longer relevant: retirement beckoned!

Ministers' hopes and dreams

This question brought mixed reactions, with 9 leaving it unanswered. "I don't like this kind of question", one minister commented. "I don't know if I have any", another wrote. Those who expressed their thoughts responded to the question on all kind of levels, ranging from 'good health' and 'a happy retirement' to 'that Jesus will return soon'! Between these were an emphasis on personal faithfulness and effectiveness; church growth and health; Christian unity; peace in the Middle East and a world free of fundamentalism in all its forms. Hope is alive in the URC, but clearly it takes many shapes and sizes!

Conclusion

This is very much work in progress and I hope to analyse the replies more fully over the next few months. My overall impression from the replies was that despite the stresses of the work and the deep concern over church decline, for most ministers, most of the time, 'life ain't half bad', full of good things spiritually, intellectually, socially and even materially. We need not feel guilty about this, but neither should we ignore the blessings we receive or the privileges we have. Of course, the fact that for many of us life is pretty good may make it harder for colleagues who are going through very hard and testing times - where financial pressures are real (especially in comparison to members or friends), where close relationships are in crisis (in particular divorce or bereavement), where the stress of the work is taking its toll or where their faith and sense of call seems to have dried up.   The fact that most are getting on all right will be no comfort to them.   There were some important warning signals in the responses I received, leading me to conclude:

  1. The high emphasis on family support should highlight the difficulty ministers face when they have no close family or where family relationships are in crisis or a burden rather than a blessing.  
  2. There were some who felt very isolated in their ministry. One minister had felt well supported in the early years of ministry, but received little support from the denomination in the second half of their ministry. It can be assumed that 'senior' ministers should be giving support rather than receiving it. Colleagues can be of considerable support, but the relationship between ministers across the country varies considerably. In some areas there are effective ministers' meetings; in other places they are non existent or riven by rivalry or theological divisions. The area of mutual support among colleagues needs to be addressed.
  3. The sense of God's call remains fundamental, but this call is not static. One minister regretted being "carefully trained for a style of church that no longer exists". Yet Jesus' call to follow does not presume that we can settle into one eternal pattern of service; the wind of the Holy Spirit blows where it wills. There does appear to be a need to give ministers the opportunity to reflect regularly on their ministry, to ask if they are still being called to ministry in the situation in which they are placed, what form this ministry should now take and even if they are still being called to Christian ministry.   Only one minister expressed directly the feeling of being trapped, but without the freedom to move on or change direction, it is all too possible for joy to leave people's ministries.
  4. There seems to be a crucial interaction of vulnerability and power in ministry, which reflects very much the Gospel experience. Ministers all too often have a role to play and tasks to achieve and this can mask their own humanity. There need to be opportunities where ministers can be totally themselves, especially those who have suffered a betrayal of trust at some point in their life or ministry.   Ultimately this trust and vulnerability can be expressed before God (in a phrase linked to St Francis, being "naked before the naked God"), but we do need human agents too, whether this is supportive church fellowships, individual Christians, a colleague, friend or spiritual accompanist. The other side of this coin is empowerment where, through the encouragement of others (and again ultimately the encouragement of the Paraclete - the Holy Spirit), we can grow in ourselves and our ministry as part of God's people, bear good fruit and 'whistle in the light of Christ'.

Terry Hinks

 

Appendix: the Questionnaire

 

Sustaining Ministry long term

Questionnaire for those who have served over 20 years in the ordained ministry

 

CONFIDENTIAL

All information is confidential and responses will be quoted in any summary without any reference to names.

 

Your name (optional)

Your denomination

Year of birth

Year of ordination

Present ministry

 

1.      What has sustained your ministry?

2.      What have been key resources for your 'walk with God' / prayer life?

3.      What people have inspired you (famous or not)?

4.      Where do you find support?

5.      What has been the most difficult element of ministry?

6.      What have been the most disappointing or frustrating elements?

7.      What has been the most satisfying?

8.      Have you ever suffered burn out (and if so was it such as to cause you to take time off for sick leave)?

9.      Having preached xxx number of sermons what has helps you in your preaching today?

10. What, for you, has been the most significant changes since your ordination in

                i.      Society

                ii.      The Church generally

                iii.      The denomination in which you serve

                iv.      Ordained Ministry

11. What are your interests outside your work?

12. Would you like the opportunity to exercise a different kind of ministry (i.e. outside the local church / pastoral ministry) and what might this be?

13. What are your hopes and dreams?

14. (for URC only) What are your feelings about the 'Catch the Vision process'?

15. Any other comments you wish to make?

  Please return to Revd Terry Hinks, Abbey Manse, The Abbey, Romsey SO51 8EL. I would welcome comments or suggestions for further work in this area.>

 

Terry Hinks

United Reformed Church Minister and Ministry Today Board Member

Ministry Today

You are reading Whistling in the Light by Terry Hinks, part of Issue 40 of Ministry Today, published in July 2007.

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