Where should the United Reformed Church send its ministers?

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.

  1. Geoffrey Clarke said:

    I’d like to share this, Nick, with the Synod Pastoral Group of East Midlands Synod (as we’re currently reviewing deployment). Would you confirm you’re happy with me doing so?

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