“Deployment” of URC ministers: growth, maintenance, what?

urc logoSince I arrived in my first pastorate in the autumn of 2012 there has been continuous discussion of the reorganisation of the area in which we are to adopt the Synod’s preferred model of groups and teams. The current proposal from the area committee (which is responsible for scoping pastorates in the Thames North process) is that the 30-odd churches be put into 3 groups which will each have 3 or 4 full time stipendiary ministers.

There has been (in my view) a certain lack of clarity in the discussions about the reason we’re taking this path, with a systematic ambiguity about whether it is primarily a way of dealing with the reality that year-on-year our “deployment” (the number of ministers the area is entitled to call) is being reduced. We are currently above our deployment which means that we are unlikely to be able to allow any churches to call new ministers. This is uncomfortable when we have a number of churches without stipendiary ministers and the prospect of a number of retirements.

One reason to move to groups and teams is that it gives greater resilience and flexibility in dealing with this. If there are 4 ministers serving a group of churches and one of them leaves the remaining 3 are likely to be able to find some capability of offering support to the churches their departing colleague previously served. Similarly by redrawing the group boundaries or the responsibilities within them the reduction in deployment can be adapted to more easily than when one has more single-minister pastorates than one is allowed to have ministers.

Alternatively, though, the advantage of groups and teams is sometimes described as the opportunities it offers for ministers to support one another in the teams and for a degree of specialisation to take place, like, I imagine, that typical of Anglican cathedral churches, where several priests may serve in a range of specialist roles.

The model of team working that would serve these two purposes (providing a more or less homogeneous pastoral ministry where there are less ministers than churches and enabling the development of specialist ministries) is quite different. For the former the team serves mostly to enable the provision of fractions of a minister equitably and flexibly and is primarily an administrative unit while in the latter a much deeper and more intensive division of labour among the ministers demands that they co-operate more closely.

This is issue is different from but not unrelated to another set of issues that are being widely discussed within the denomination, the contrast between “mission” and “maintenance”. The former is associated with the recent emphasis on “growth” (a not entirely new one but recently more prominent) while the latter is associated with an emphasis on supporting and maintaining the existing fellowships.

A “maintenance” path would see an effort to deploy ministers to all the churches as far as is possible, so that their communal lives of worship and pastoral care can be as strong as possible. A “mission” path would see as much ministry as possible dedicated to activities that reach out beyond the existing fellowships to meet and make relationships with new people. These two kinds of ministry may well overlap but emphasising is very likely to mean less of the other.

There are not many people who will explicitly speak out in favour of maintenance as against growth. The “common sense” not only of our denomination but of much of the church speaks strongly in favour of outreach and mission, although different people will mean slightly different things by this. However the tendency will almost inevitably be to favour maintenance in the way resources are actually deployed. Relatively few of our ministers (and we are the denominations most important resource by far, if one looks at where the money is spent, with only buildings being a serious alternative candidate) are working primarily on mission.

I am somewhat at a loss to know what to think about all this. I have problems with the way in which “deployment” works as a process in the URC. The “top down” nature of setting and allocation of numbers is profoundly disabling of the churches and corrosive of our polity, in my view. The bodies (pastoral committees, area committees and whatever other committees are involved) are making the most important decisions about the lives of churches and do so (as far as I have been able to see) in a bureaucratic rather than a “conciliar” fashion. In general my experience is that the URC functions as a bureaucracy rather than like the really very conciliar (in comparison) Church of Scotland, whose presbyteries are functioning (if not always very comfortable or loving) councils of the Church, in which a variety of views are aired and it is necessary to seek a communal view (even if sometimes this is done through conflict and majority rule.

My fear is that this decay of the denomination into an institution with its own interests and dynamics and without an effective external or internal challenge to the idea that the welfare of the URC as a body is something to be taken very seriously is leading to some negative outcomes. In the ecumenical spirit of the original union our concern should, I believe, be for the Church rather than for the denomination. We shouldn’t be thinking about either the growth or the maintenance of “the URC”.

We should rather be thinking about the Church catholic and asking ourselves which parts and functions of the the URC have a real and vital contribution to make to this wider body. We should, I think, be concentrating our resources, both locally and nationally, on the things where we think we have something distinctive and valuable to offer. This would involve, almost certainly, giving strong support to many of our local churches, but might also involve us in partnerships and experiments beyond them. In general partnership should be a real priority for us, looking always and everywhere for people outside the URC who are both capable of things we are not and who would benefit from capabilities we have and they do not.

We have to stop looking first to ourselves and instead learn to see ourselves as a tiny fragment of a Church without which we make no sense.

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