Yesterday I attended a day of discussion for the ministers of the Thames North Synod of the United Reformed Church. It was hosted at the Synod offices and facilitated by the Synod Training Officer and was oriented towards how we can best develop the Synod policy of moving towards a general pattern of organising our churches into larger groups within which teams of ministers will serve. This is of particular interest to me since I am in transition from the two church pastorate to which I was called 18 months ago to being one of a team of three stipendiary ministers and one non-stipendiary minister serving in a group of eight churches. I have been resistant to this change since I feel I’m only just beginning to discern what my ministry would be in my current pastorate and am unwilling to change direction at a point when I’m feeling hopeful about what is happening here. The two churches have equally been fairly consistent in expressing their reservations about a change that can only feel like a threat to them.
In some ways the day confirmed my scepticism. When opinions were sought a clear plurality of the ministers present expressed a preference for a more traditional pattern while all agreed that their churches would prefer this. This makes one wonder how the Synod arrived at a policy that is against the wishes of both churches and ministers. A large part of the answer, of course, is that the old and much missed one church, one minister model is no longer at all possible for the URC. We now have about 1/3 of the members and 3/4 of the congregations that we had in 1972 meaning that our average congregation size is less than half what it was. These smaller congregations can, on the whole, no longer support a stipendiary minister each. We have a little over 400 ministers for nearly 1500 churches. An average URC minister works across more than 3 churches (this effect is reduced slightly by the practice of relatively long vacancies which means that at any time a proportion of our churches will be without any ministerial oversight or care, beyond the very minimal responsibilities of the interim moderator).
On the other hand I was reminded of the two real advantages of team ministry.
- It is a reasonably good way of ensuring continuity in the contact between churches and the denomination via a minister during our continuing slow and steady decline.
- It provides a way of providing support and encouragement to our ministers through the provision of a readily available and well known team of colleagues.
These two advantages should not be undervalued but they come at a price. Recent research seems fairly conclusive that team ministry of this kind is inimical to church growth. The research doesn’t tell us why this is but seems fairly convincing in showing that there is a strong correlation between a situation where responsibility for leadership is unclear or divided and stagnation or decline in numbers. One can speculate about the reasons but the empirical link seems strong.
On the other hand, of course, having a minister doesn’t guarantee growth, or even stagnation, or we would not now be in the position we are in. In the early ’70s most URC churches had their own minister and decline was not markedly slower than it is now.
Be that as it may be, though, I can’t avoid the feeling that our shift to the new pattern is in large part a response to the reality that our congregations are getting smaller and as such is a good way of providing support to them in continuing their life and witness together but is likely to make even more difficult the nurturing of whatever growth is possible within the overall picture of decline.
This creates a problem if one takes seriously both the other recently adopted Synod policy of prioritising growth and my own limited and local experience that what our churches really want is precisely to find a path to renewal. This path cannot be an obvious or easy one, or the decline would not be taking place. Looking again at recent research the evidence seems to suggest that it depends on strong and appropriate leadership and takes a significant sustained effort over a considerable time (a minimum of 5-7 years is suggested by recent Anglican research). This is not the kind of thing that teams and groups are going to encourage and nurture.
It seems to me, therefore, that the move to this new way of managing the deployment of our ministerial resources is a sensible and pragmatic response to the denomination’s responsibility to care for all its congregations, and should be planned and discussed as such. There needs to be a well articulated and explained maintenance ministry aimed at sustaining and encouraging the existing life of our churches, as worshiping communities. These communities should be encouraged to understand themselves as what they mostly are, well established groups of disciples deeply involved with and committed to one another. We need to develop a way of celebrating and building up this pattern of Christian life together while finding the places where discipleship can be deepened and broadened within it.
This is rather different from other forms of ministerial service, aimed at reaching out beyond our existing communities, whether by finding missional opportunities for our existing congregations or by the planting of new ones. The two may well interact but they will not do so in all cases. We need to accept this and to help our ministers and those responsible for guiding and directing them understand it.
In particular we should begin to encourage discernment of the different gifts of different ministers and to find ways to enable these gifts the best contexts and settings. Some of us are probably best placed in caring for congregations without intentional efforts to reach out beyond them (although done well this can be a very good way of growing churches, as I’ve seen) while others of us may be better at finding ways to reach those outside the church (I certainly know people called to ministries of this kind). This balance is one we need to see and to work at encouraging.