cost of discipleship

This week (first Sunday of September 2016) the lectionary gives me the section of Luke 14 on the cost of discipleship as the Gospel reading. To be a disciple, Jesus says, you have to hate your family and even your own life, you have to take up the cross, you have to dispose of all your possessions. He adds two helpful parables saying that to set out on a building project you can’t afford to finish is to invite ridicule and that to enter a battle you can’t win is foolish and that a king should sue for peace if he thinks he’s hopelessly outnumbered.

Given the current fashion for discipleship talk in the church (here’s the URC “missional discipleship” proposal and here’s the CofE page of links) this is a scary passage. In the case of the URC “discipleship” seems to mean “becoming self consciously and confidently Christian so that you can share your faith” (or something like that) – hence “missional discipleship” (I find this an appalling phrase but I know it has its origins outside the denomination so I’m not blaming anybody for it). In the material as presented I don’t see a lot of warning about cost and completion, nor about cross-carrying and death.

I’m finding it daunting to talk about Jesus’ strong warning about discipleship in this context. Far from encouraging everybody to take some courses and explore some options in developing as disciples his attitude seems to have been one intended to frighten anybody thinking about discipleship  as much as possible. “Hate my family”, “hate my own life”, “give up all my possessions”: and what do I get in return? A cross to carry? I think I’ll pass. Why would anybody, having heard all that, decide to follow Jesus, to become his disciple?

My feeling, reading the gospels, is that Christ wasn’t at all interested in accepting anybody into his circle of disciples. All the times I can think of when somebody approaches him (and there aren’t that many, unsurprisingly) he brushes them off. The demonaic burdened by Legion is sent away, the rich young man is scared off with unreasonable demands, Nicodemus is insulted. Nathanael in John 1 might seem to be an exception but even here Jesus has chosen Philip who calls Nathanael. The pattern seems to me to be that Jesus calls those he wants and pushes everybody else away. He seeks people out and rejects or at least strongly discourages those who seek him.

Now that isn’t necessarily problematic for those of us who are inside the fellowship of the Church, particularly those of us from “dissenting” or “voluntarist” rather than “Christendom”, “national” or “Catholic” “universal” traditions. We are (or should be) used to the idea that those in the Church are those who have been called. God chooses those whom he wills to be part of the Body of Christ, which we may think of in terms of discipleship.

What is more difficult, for me at least, is the contrast between what thay appears to mean to us and what it means in the Gospels (where the word “disciple” belongs, being used very sparingly in Acts and not at all in the Epistles or in Revelation). We seem to have an inclusive, gentle and gradual approach to discipleship. All are called to be disciples and it is something that one can embark on tentatively and in an exploratory way. What it means can vary from one person to another and doesn’t have to be too alarming.

That’s a long way from willingness to give everything up and carry the cross as minimum condition for entry.

I’m starting to think we should be a lot more hesitant in using discipleship language and a lot more humble about our relationship to Christ.

Maybe true disciples are few and far between. Maybe the rest of us depend on them and need to recognise how special they are. Maybe Jesus knows us for what we are and has tasks for us that fall short of what he meant by discipleship. Maybe.

At any rate I’m not comfortable with us using the word while ignoring what the one to whom we are supposed to be discipled has to say about its cost.

For the last weekend in August my wife Pam, our daughter and I and our daughter’s friend, drove up to Edinburgh and back from Hertfordshire so I could preach at Morningside United Church. We (the Brindleys, not the Friend who had never previously been to Edinburgh) had been part of the congregation there until we moved to Potters Bar in August 2012. My friend Steven Manders, who was also a member of the congregation until he went to be ordained at Nairn United Reformed Church in the North of Scotland in 2008, has been minister at MUC (as it is always known) since last summer. He had invited me back to preach and I was keen to see how things were going and to catch up with old friends. It was the first time I had been at MUC since our very emotional farewell service marked the end of fourteen years of membership there.

Steven’s predecessor at MUC, John Smith, preached at my ordination. His ministry had only just begun when we joined in 1998 and he retired from there in 2012. Steven and I are two of the seven people who went into ministry from MUC during the fourteen years John was there, which gives a sense of how fruitful this time was. We had highly successful youth work, around 20 new members joining every year, a succession of impressive young people ordained to eldership in their twenties and thirties and a range of other signs and fruits of the work of the Holy Spirit among us under John’s leadership.

When John left many things changed it is only fair to say that the period of the vacancy and the first year of Steven’s ministry have been difficult. It is a blessing that he is also a highly capable person with a wide range of experience, especially from a career in social work, and that things are now being stabilised.

For me and for Pam it was strange and difficult to be back. MUC is not, quite, the church we joined and left, although we still have many friends there. We stayed at the manse with Steven and shared his minister’s view of the church. At worship I stood in the pulpit rather than sat in the pews where I had sat so many times. We had a hectic weekend seeing friends (and our oldest son who still lives in Edinburgh) and visiting familiar places. We sat up late talking to Steven and his other house guests. Then on Monday morning we set off to drive back to Potters Bar.

My sermon (on Luke 14:1-14) had two related messages for the congregation, for Steven and for me. First the church is a banquet where God decides the seating plan. We sit where He decides not where we think we belong. That is true of every single one of us and perhaps most of all for those of us called to serve in ordained ministry. God has put Steven in the chair at the front of MUC and me in Hertfordshire. Those are our proper places. Secondly God invites those whom he chooses to the church party and Jesus is clear that the host should concentrate not on his or her friends and family, nor on those who can do something for him or her. When throwing a party invite those in need, the “poor, the crippled, the lame and the blind” (v 13). If that’s who we’re supposed to ask then we have to assume that that is who God will have asked and given that we’re at the party we have to assume that that is who we are.

As we approached Potters Bar along the B556 on Monday evening Pam and I were both struck by how much of a home coming it felt. We were back where we lived, where we were supposed to be. We felt this even though for both of us Edinburgh is and will remain “home”. We fully expect and intend to return there some time, when we retire or perhaps for a last ministry, but now home is Potters Bar and Brookmans Park and we thank God for placing us in our seats here and for inviting other “cripples” to join us in this part of the banquet.


At our weekly Bible study yesterday evening we began what is intended to be a series of meetings looking at the practice and understanding of prayer in the Christian tradition using written prayers from its various periods and strands along with passages reflecting on what prayer is or was thought to be. We began with a selection of Old Testament “prayers” (excluding the Psalms and using a fairly wide definition of prayer).

We read:

  • Abraham’s plea on behalf of Sodom and Gomorrah from Genesis 18;
  • David’s response to God’s promise that his descendants would sit on the throne in Jerusalem forever from 2 Samuel 7;
  • Solomon’s appeal for wisdom in 1 Kings 3;
  • Nehemiah’s prayer for success in his meeting with King Artaxerxes of Persia to ask for help in rebuilding Jerusalem (Neh 1)
  • Job’s repentance of his defiance after God appears to him in the whirlwind (Job 42)

What I found fascinating is how much easier we find it to think about God and God’s nature than we do to pray. Our discussion of prayer was overshadowed and crowded out by a set of issues only indirectly related it:

  • Do we believe God to be active in the world or do we believe that the course of events is independent of anything God wills or does not will?
  • Do we believe that God is implicated in the suffering of the world by allowing or even causing it?
  • Who or what do we think is named by the name “God” and in particular is the God we name the same God as the one named by Moslems, Jews or other religious believers?
  • Does the Biblical text have any authority over or even relevance to contemporary people, including those who call themselves Christians and attend churches?

My own answers to these questions are predictable in minister of the Christian church who professes a faith bound by (my understanding of) the normative orthodoxy expressed in the confession of faith of the United Reformed Church (UK). I believe that God is active in the world, that the relationship between God’s will and the world’s ills is inseparable from human sin and God’s mission of salvation, that the one true God is the three-in-one, one-in-three Father, Son and Holy Spirit revealed in Christ and that the Biblical text is the highest authority over our life and faith.

That is, though, only the beginning of the discussion since how we should conceptualise all these matters is both complex and contested. If we had to answer any of these questions definitively before we could pray then there could be no prayer. Indeed I think that they are important only insofar as they act as barriers to prayer. Somebody who can’t answer any of them AT ALL but who can sincerely and prayerfully address themselves to God is in a much better place spiritually (which is to say has a much healthier relationship with God) than somebody who has sophisticated and well worked out answers to them all but is unable to find a way to come into God’s presence.

This is not to suggest that we wasted our time going round these matters again but rather to say that it is only worthwhile if it removes barriers that are preventing prayer. I sometimes worry that theology can be a form of prevarication, a way of delaying the dreaded moment when one comes face to face with God in the privacy of one’s own room (as Jesus recommends in his teaching on prayer during the Sermon on the Mount).

Prayer, it seems to me, is ultimately an admission of dependence and helplessness. We turn and appeal to God when we know ourselves inadequate or overwhelmed. This is not the only kind of prayer, of course, we offer praise and thanks and we offer almost routine pleas for blessing but in all of these we acknowledge a power beyond us towards which we can turn only an appeal, not an offer or a bargain.

Our unwillingness (or inability) to do this is the heart of sin and some of our discussion of theology expresses this as it finds reasons to delay and evade the simple act of saying: “Lord God, help me in my doubt, guide me in my uncertainty, comfort me in my suffering, soothe me in my anxiety. Lord, be gracious to me and bless me, in the name of Christ”.

This week the Revised Common Lectionary has paired an interesting couple of texts. We have Luke 4:14-21 (Jesus in the synagogue in Nazareth) and 1 Corinthians 12:12-31a (“one body  in the Spirit”). At first sight there isn’t an immediate connection between them and I suspect they are joined because the RCL is following two simultaneous tracks, through Luke and through 1 Corinthians, that are not strongly aligned.

At any rate I was at first puzzled and uncertain about what to do with them this Sunday. Should I continue with my exploration of the way the Spirit equips the Church (begun last week with the immediately prior section of Paul’s letter)? Or should I return to my reflections on the Spirit’s empowering of Jesus (begun the week before when thinking about the baptism of Christ)?

Then it came to me that this was in fact two ways of approaching the thing I really wanted to talk about, the Spirit’s empowering of the Church to be Christ’s body (the centre of Paul’s attention in our epistle) in order to continue to proclaim God’s good news (as Jesus does in the Gospel passage).

Here the two key points are 1) the role of the Spirit in the two texts and 2) the relationship between the text Jesus reads, with its explanation of what the Spirit has anointed the prophet Isaiah to do, and he remark when he has finished: “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing”.

When we hear read the account of Jesus’ reading and of his claim of fulfillment, what is happening?

When this text is read in a church, in the midst of the body of Christ constituted out of our weakness by the Spirit, the scripture is fulfilled again: the good news is proclaimed.

It is true that our salvation is not yet complete. It is true that peace and justice do not yet reign without qualification. It is true that we still await the return of Christ in glory.


In the Church Christ remains present. His coming does fulfill the scripture, he does inaugurate the kingdom of God. We are given the opportunity to participate and to inhabit that kingdom, in the power of the Spirit.

The enthusiasm some in the UK feel regarding Jeremy Corbyn’s election to the leadership of the Labour Party has filled me with almost as much gloom as my feelings of helplessness in face of the pan-European crisis of refuge and migration. What these phenomena have in common (for me) is that they point so directly to the limits of the possibilities of political action.

To take refuge first it is essential to note that the only European politician who had performed really well in all this is Angela Merkel. The collective memory of her will, I suspect, be dominated by her leadership in this to the same extent as that of Tony Blair is dominated by the disaster of the Iraq war. We all needed a voice that spoke for our moral obligation to those seeking shelter and Merkel stepped up to be that voice. Just as the underlying story of Blair’s premiership as it led him to take the wrong turning when faced with Bush’s determination to overthrow Saddam is more complicated than it is now often allowed to be so is the story of the German response to the present moment and Merkel’s embodiment of it. Nonetheless she has come out on the right side and I admire her for it.

Overall, though, the German response is only part of what is required. It is essential that the rest of the EU come forward to assist those bearing most of the burden (and we should be clear that it is a burden) of offering protection and respite. The Germans, Swedes, Greeks and Italians can’t be left to pick up such a disproportionate share. The UK in particular should be much more cooperative, unlikely though that is, given the complexion of our government and the state of popular opinion (recent poll numbers). At the same time, much as some of us might resist admitting it, David Cameron is right to stress that the best way to help those fleeing Syria is first to provide adequately for them in the neighbouring countries where most of them are likely to remain, above all Turkey and Lebanon, and second to find a way to end the war itself. He is also right that there is something essentially perverse about prioritising helping those with the resources and initiative to get to Europe over helping those stuck in the hopeless camps nearer Syria. In condemning the UK government for remaining outside the effort to cope with those arriving in Europe, and we should condemn it, we must also recognise the value in the UK’s very significant contributions to the effort to assist those in neighbouring countries, to which the UK is far and away the biggest European donor.

The question of how to cope with the current crisis is not a simple one of good vs. evil although we do in the end have to decide what is right. I think the UK should participate in the formulation and implementation of a common policy of resettlement of those arriving. I also think there is something positive to be said in favour of the UK scheme to resettle directly from the camps those most in need and a lot to be said for the emphasis on improving conditions in those camps and seeking a way to bring peace.

In all of these areas, though, I am very aware that the situation is unlikely to improve and that, indeed, the increasing instability in Turkey makes everything more difficult. A lot of the refugees are in areas where an escalating campaign of terrorism against the Turkish state is being waged by the PKK in response to the aggression of an Erdogan regime reacting to its political difficulties with provocation against the Kurds. In reality what I do, say or think as an individual is insignificant in face of all this. I can say to a few people that we are under an obligation to help in every way we can. I can give a little money. My actions, when I look at them objectively, are irrelevant to the outcomes.

In my estimation, as somebody who was once a part of the same marginal far-left world that Corbyn and McDonnell have inhabited for forty years or more, the political outlook of those now in charge of the Labour Party is essentially formed as a howl of protest against this helplessness. Seen in this way it is hard not to feel some sympathy with it. There is a lot of suffering and misery in the world that looked at in a certain way appear completely unnecessary. 500 million rich Europeans should be able to give shelter to a few hundred thousand desperate Syrians without any difficulty. If you look at the food eaten and wasted by the rich world it seems obscene that anyone anywhere is hungry.

Making this sort of straightforward observation can lead quite quickly to the thought that if these things are not addressed it must be because of the indifference or even malevolence of those in charge and that if the mass of people allow it it is because those evil people in charge are manipulating them. That, in essence, is the world-view of the milieu from which Corbyn is now emerging, blinking owlishly, into the light of the real public world. His message to the British people is: “those in charge are evil and they’ve been fooling you for years”. The popularity of films along the general lines of “The Matrix” show that at the level of fantasy it’s a message that at least some people are very ready to hear. In essence it share a good deal with that of UKIP (“liberal elite”, “speak the truth”) and indeed all other populist movements. “They’re lying to you but the truth has always been in plain view, if only someone had the courage to speak it.”

At one level I even think that they’re right. The truth is simple and clear. If people would love one another, put their selfishness aside and act in the interests of others rather than seeking their own security and comfort through conflict and competition we could and would indeed live in peace and plenty. That’s the message of the coming of the Kingdom of God as proclaimed by Jesus and by the prophets before him. It’s the message of the Mosaic Law and is the essence of the founding of monarchy and temple under David and Solomon in the historic books of the Old Testament.

In all these Biblical cases, though, it comes up against the reality of human sinfulness. Jesus ended up on the cross, the prophets were without honour, the Law was never followed and the monarchy and temple went down before God’s servant Nebuchadnezzar. That is not a cause for despair in the Bible, although there are plenty of desperate reactions in it. In face of every failure to overcome human sin we are encouraged to keep our faith in God, whose love is unfailing. This triumph of love over sin reaches a climax in the resurrection of Jesus and we are able to participate in that resurrection as a foretaste and promise of our own resurrection.

To put our faith anywhere else is to invite and embrace despair. That isn’t altogether a bad thing but it can’t be the last thing. One of the texts most important to my own Christian journey is Soren Kierkegaard’s ‘Sickness unto Death’. In it he argues that true faith can only be born of despair, only when one has accepted the futility of all human endeavour can one throw oneself unreservedly into the arms of God, with the loss of hope enabling the leap of faith into the unknown depths of the divine.

As long as one closes one’s eyes to the truth of the pervasiveness and intractability of the problem of human sin, preserving the illusion that all problems are soluble by us, then faith in God is partial and eclipsed by a desperate faith in human possibility. Only when this is surrendered by a faith that gives it all up to God enabled.

All my hope on God is founded … God unknown, he alone, calls my heart to be his own.


This week’s Revised Common Lectionary Gospel reading is Mark 7:24-37, Jesus’ encounter with the Syrophoenician woman and the healing of a man deaf and mute. The Lectionary very helpfully pairs it with a passage from Isaiah 35 in which the restoration of hearing and speech (along with sight and movement) are connected with the return of the people from exile to Jerusalem and their restoration to Holiness and intimacy with God.

This passage with its report of Jesus making a stark and definitive distinction between the “children” (of Israel) and the (pagan) “dogs” and declaration that it is not good to take the children’s bread and feed it to the dogs is one many struggle with. They can’t reconcile their idea of Jesus with his calling (by implication) this suffering faithful woman and her afflicted daughter “dogs”. Of course the blow is softened by his response to her appeal to let the dogs eat crumbs by declaring her daughter released from the demon. This does not, though, mean that the designation “dog” is rejected. It is accepted by the woman in her answer and Jesus does not at any point object to it.

This passage falls in the middle of a longer unit formed by the two feeding miracles (of 5,000 and of 4,000) that many scholars believe enact the movement from a mission only to Israel to a mission that invites those outside Israel to participate in God’s kingdom. The 4,000 are the dogs who are fed with the crumbs from the feeding of the 5,000, on this reading.

This would make the encounter with the Syrophoenician woman a key moment in the move from one to the other and thus a crucial staging point in the journey to Peter’s recognition of Jesus’ messianic status after the healing miracle that follows the second feeding as this week’s follows the first.

All of this in turn echoes and draws on the crucial passage from Isaiah 35 that we are offered by the RCL and that many think stands behind this week’s Gospel. Isaiah 35 is a brief outburst of eschatological hope and exaltation in the transition from the first part to the second of that extraordinary book. Here the prophetic word suddenly breaks free from its moorings in the historical reality of Judah’s struggle for survival in the face of Assyrian hegemony to take a view of God’s faithful restoration of Israel after her humiliation and near destruction by Babylon.

By invoking this vision in the context of Jesus’ ministry the text reminds of a series of crucial claims:

  • the appearance of Jesus marks the moment of the final fulfillment of God’s promises to Israel, the day of the Lord, when God will reign in Zion and all the peoples will recognise his sovereignty over the world, leading to universal peace and justice
  • the breaking in of God’s rule will be marked by the healing of people and by abundance of food and the flowering of the desert
  • the God that comes will be the God of Israel, finally revealed as the God of of all creation

We are confronted by these passages, with their national-historical and universal-cosmological roots and ambitions, at a time when the world is being tested by a crisis of enormous magnitude and great depth. The collapse of the Syrian state and the disintegration of that country into a dystopic nightmare of civil war and frenzied repression is the main driver of the current movement. Of Syria’s roughly 18 million people it is thought that nearly 10 million have had to leave their homes and that around 4 million have left the country. Most of these are in Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey.

In Britain the response to the global flow of refugees is dominated by a general reluctance to admit migrants of any kind. (Ipsos Mori report on attitudes to migration). It is difficult to determine why the population of this country (including former migrants) are so keen to keep newcomers out but it should be remembered that we are not unique in this. Even the United States of America, where the current population is made up almost entirely of the descendants of relatively recent immigrants, has a consistent record of high levels of support for “nativist” politicians who want to close the country to new arrivals going back into the eighteenth century. This suggests that arguments about factors like jobs, housing and other public goods like health and education may be rationalisations of motivations that people are less willing to express (as I believe to be the case).

What do our Lectionary passages have to say to us Christians as we contemplate the appalling situation of those fleeing war and seeking to break into a Europe they believe offers them the chance to rebuild a life worth living?

First we should remember that as gentile Christians we should see ourselves as displaced persons, as “dogs” without a home. We have, in Christ, subjected ourselves to the God of a nation (Israel) that we have not joined. Stanley Hauerwas has suggested that we should regard ourselves as resident aliens in the nations we inhabit and in the current context there is great value in this argument. We should not see ourselves as native to the United Kingdom or to any other state or nation in this world. We are the dogs of Biblical Israel, those hoping that God will feed us with the crumbs from the children’s table. We have, from this point of view, no more right to be where we are than do those encamped at Calais or in Lebanon. We do not, or we should not, recognise national distinctions that we reject (whether we know it or not) when we try to enter the kingdom of God.

Second we should not expect our states, as states, to agree with us on this radical rejection of national boundaries. The other half of Hauerwas’ argument (with which I would not always agree but which I regard as wonderfully helpful in our present situation) is that we are aliens because our states are not Christian, are in fact anti-Christian. Hauerwas can sometimes seem to come close to advocating a complete withdrawal from political life and at the moment that seems a tempting course of action. At any rate if we engage in the argument about what should be done we must be aware that whatever outcome emerges it will be less than adequate to the horror that is unfolding. We should not be tempted to imagine that there is a “right” answer available in the political sphere, however strong we believe our duty to seek the better rather than the worse.

We have to stand up for the humanity of the displaced. The language of “swarm” and “horde”, the refusal to recognise ourselves in those fleeing war, persecution and poverty, must be resisted. The refugees are people like ourselves. Ultimately I can’t see any kind of closed border as compatible with Christian ethics BUT I am aware that the argument for open borders will not be won this side of the return of Christ and the final establishment of the direct rule of God. In the meantime it is necessary (if we are to engage in politics at all) to be realistic about what is possible and what the results of any particular course of action will be.

In the current European moment it is clear that the UK should, must, do more. It is less clear how much more and for whom. There is, in fact, some merit in the argument of the government that the additional people to whom it offers refuge should be taken from the camps in the countries neighbouring Syria rather than from among those already in Europe. Those left behind will inevitable include the most needy. On the other hand it is also clearly an attempt to avoid being drawn into comparison with Germany (or Sweden or indeed Austria) which are hosting, proportionately to their population, many times more of those who have got to Europe. This is a cynical manoeuvre and should be denounced as such but that doesn’t mean that it wouldn’t, perhaps, be better to take some tens of thousands from Lebanon or Jordan than it  would be to open the border.

At any rate the practical politics of the situation are much more complex than the very simple tasks that we cannot evade of insisting on the humanity of those in distress and demanding that they be viewed with compassion and care rather than hostility and rejection.

sending In the URC it’s usual to talk about ministers being “called” rather than about them being “sent” since our official position on this is that the local church calls and the ministers accepts or does not accept the call. Formally this is indeed what happens but in fact the denomination has a powerfully centralised apparatus for “deployment” of ministers that means that “sending” is at least as true a description as “calling”. A committee of each Synod receives an allocation of ministerial posts from a General Assembly committee and “scopes” “pastorates” within that allocation which may then call a minister. Without a Synod scoping no call is possible and the churches thus receive their ministers as gifts from the General Assembly via the Synod.

In this post I am considering the ways in which these Synod committees could and should decide where to send (stipendiary) ministers. I have concluded that there are three broad guidelines that could be adopted: “count the sheep“, “follow the money” and “deploy for mission“. In addition to these three guidelines there are two constraints: “practicable pastorates” and “complete coverage“. I will define these five terms before I attempt to argue for what I believe to be the best overall course for the denomination and to justify that argument with reference to a theology of ministry (and the Church).

Count the sheep describes a way of deciding how to allocate or “deploy” stipendiary ministry based on a members-per-minister basis. There seems to be a rough rule of thumb widely recognised across the URC that says a single church pastorate should have at least 150 members with each additional church reducing that number by 30 (so that, for example, a three church pastorate could have only 90 members). On the face of it this might seem a reasonable starting point. On this basis one might hope to end up with a set of pastorates that cover all the churches and provide ministry to their members in a fairly equitable way. I will, however, argue that of the three starting points this is distinctly the worst and that it rests on a fundamentally mistaken view of the ministerial vocation. It is however the current default position for most Synods, as far as I can tell.

Follow the money is how all the other free churches operate, more or less. It describes a situation in which a church (or for Methodists a circuit) gets the ministry it can pay for. Given the very centralised nature of URC ministerial finances (where all ministers are paid out of a single Ministry and Mission Fund (M&M) which is raised from the churches through a kind of tax collection operation run by the Synods) this could imply some quite complex calculations, although it could be simplified by working out a cost-per-minister-to-the-Synod by dividing the Synod M&M number by the Synod deployment number. In the case of my Synod, Thames North, this comes out at something between £55,000 and £60,000. Each church could then be allocated the proportion of a minister’s time that they are paying for. A TN church contributing £60,000 would thus get a full time minister, one paying £30,000 half a minister (perhaps with the rest of her time allocated to other churches who between them paid the other £30,000).

Deploy for mission describes a situation in which the deployment of ministers is, in all cases, on the basis of some specific and identifiable tasks or opportunities to serve the Kingdom of God. Each minister would be sent to a specific situation with a set of identified goals or needs which might or might not have anything to do with how many members a church had or how much money it contributed. The Synod of Wales has adopted a fairly radical version of this principle and West Midlands have gone some way down this path.

Practicable pastorates constrain the extent to which either of the first two guidelines can be followed. The average size of a URC congregation is significantly under 50 members. This makes the “count the sheep” principle hard to put into operation. Three average congregations will be 150 members, far too many for a three church pastorate, while two average congregations will be significantly too small. This relies, too, on there being appropriately sized congregations reasonably close to one another and similar enough to want the same (sort of) minister. It isn’t often that all the conditions are in place to enable definition of a pastorate that fits the criteria and so what happens is either an approximation is arrived at or, increasingly, part time pastorates are declared.

Complete coverage would involve defining exactly the number of pastorates we can afford (given the size of M&M currently a little over 400) which include all the churches (currently around 1500). In theory this is the ambition, to have ministry at or in every church, in practice the constraint of practicable pastorates means that we always have a significant numbers of churches which neither have nor have permission to call a minister.

What we shouldn’t do is count sheep. The pastoral task is not “looking after” people, it’s leading them: it isn’t making them feel better or enabling the churches to continue to function, it’s discerning how they should serve the kingdom of God alongside them. This is not significantly easier in a small church or significantly harder in a big one. The great mistake expressed in the sheep counting principle is the idea that ministry is a service to the members of the Church, a mistake in turn expressing the idea that the point of the Church is the salvation of those who are in or who can be brought into it. The Church exists to serve the mission of God to redeem the world and its ministry exists to help it in this.

What we should do is prioritise mission. It is unreasonable, though, to ask churches to define their mission before they are allocated ministry, since, in my experience, discernment of mission is exactly what they need a minister for. My inclination, then, is to say that we should follow the rest of the free churches in “following the money” for, perhaps, 75% of our ministerial deployment with the remaining 25% being sent where mission is best understood. This is not ideal but it is comprehensible and quantifiable.