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Ministry

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.

 

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.

I have now been an ordained minister of the United Reformed Church for a little over two years and find myself doing a certain amount of taking stock and reflecting on experience as well as looking forward and thinking about what comes next. This has not been particularly well ordered and has a mixture of feelings, positive and negative. I thought it would be helpful to me to record some of these reflections in the more-or-less public way that blogging here represents so here goes:

  1. The difference a minister makes is hard to assess, certainly in the short term. I’m not at all sure that I’ve made any real difference at all. I’ve introduced some new things (a closer partnership with an independent Christian Charity with  offices in one of our buildings, consequent stronger connections with the Guiding groups in the other, an arts festival with elements of connection to a local secondary school, the beginning of a partnership with one of the local Rotary Clubs) and facilitated some others (the appointment of a new Director of Music and of an assistant/chorister, the continuing effort to establish Messy Church on a firm footing) but it isn’t clear whether these are or will make the difference the congregations really want, which is the reversal of the decades of numerical decline and aging they have experienced. These things all feel good to me but I’m not sure how, in the end, they should be judged.
  2. There is an inevitable tension created by the reality that ministers are never part of the churches in which they serve in the same sense that other people are. It is part of the point of ordained ministry, it seems to me, that the people so set apart belong simultaneously to the local church and also the wider Church. We come to the church from the denomination (in the URC) and remain firmly part of that wider communion, representing it in and to the local fellowship. In my case I have a cultural formation unlike anybody in either of the churches in which I serve. This is not necessarily a problem but sometimes I am struck by the reality that I have a distinct and possibly eccentric view of the significance of calling oneself a Christian and that this view cannot be assumed to be in any way superior to the variety of views held across the congregations. How to lead effectively given this something on which continuous self-reflection is required and it isn’t easy to maintain the discipline of doing this.
  3. There are particular difficulties associated with being in a denomination that is in undeniable decline but which refuses properly to acknowledge and plan for it. There is a rising tide of material and exhortation which declares that we can and must reverse the decline that has been a feature of our traditions at least since the end of the Second World War and probably for a decade or two before it. There is little sense of what might have changed in the culture or the denomination that makes this probable so my sense is that very few people really believe in it. This leads to anxiety and distress in which the reality is impossible to evade but also not properly recognised and therefore no real thought can be given to its significance and our best response. In the local context this same pattern is repeated, with people expressing a desire for growth without any credible way to turn that desire into action. I myself have no such way but am clear that I have to respond to the desire, since as the clear will of the fellowships it has to be taken seriously as a guiding of the Spirit. I find it more difficult to assert that this is the Spirit speaking at denominational level but in the end can see that I must do so.
  4. I remain convinced that goals and objectives are to be avoided in the spiritual life;  that, as I have sometimes expressed it, being without point is the point of the Church. This is not easy to sustain day-to-day, though. I am reminded often, by feelings of unease, worthlessness and despair, that neglect of my prayer life will lead to disaster for me. Again this discipline is far from easy to maintain. I am sure, though, that tending to my own spiritual health and my own faithful obedience and attention to God is the only indispensable precondition to being a proper minister. Without a living and active personal prayer life no minister can possibly have anything worthwhile to offer.
  5. Leading worship is the core of my vocation. To a degree that I did not expect I find myself fed and sustained by the regular rhythm of worship leading. My personal prayer and discernment is driven, above all, by the need to prepare a service each Sunday. through the weeks I have to grapple with the texts and reflect on what I have to convey to the congregations. This is far from easy, sometimes I am misled by failing to distinguish what I need to hear and what I have to say, but it is the central thread of my life.
  6. I have observed throughout the period of my training and since that a common feature of clergy conversations with one another is a feeling that congregations are failing to be the fellowships that their ministers want them to be. It is not universal but it is very widespread. This is something I have been determined to avoid. Of course no congregation is quite what anybody involved would like it to be, since nobody is quite the person they would want to be, in this sinful fallen world. If any of us were as we ought to be then confession would not be necessary in our acts of worship, as I believe it always is. To the same degree that a fellowship is unsuitable or unsatisfactory for its minister then that minister must be unsuitable and unsatisfactory for it. It is an effort for me to try to shape my ministry so that it is both true to my vocation, as I discern it, and to the vocation of the congregations as we discern it together.

Assembly-sunday-worshipI attended a meeting of the Thames North Synod of the United Reformed Church on Saturday and on reflection I find I came away with some grounds for hope. I found what I observed of General Assembly (via the streaming feed and the written reports) rather dispiriting. The meeting on Saturday was primarily to report back from that Assembly so my hopes were not particularly high. However I was delighted to find that John Ellis, Elder Moderator of General Assembly, was giving an address, since his address to Assembly was the only thing about it that cheered me up.

John again stressed some thoughts that I believe are crucially important:

  • he reaffirmed the central significance of the URC’s ecumenical vocation, calling us to be sacrificial in our approach to ecumenical collaboration and cooperation;
  • he urged us to be more imaginative and daring in our vision of our denominational future, saying that stepping away from the bolder future “scenarios” by Mission Council was to be regretted;
  • he urged us to think carefully about whether and how we can justify our continuing separate structures (appearing to share some of my scepticism about the extent to which being “Reformed” can provide this justification);
  • he raised the necessity of more fully embracing the Presbyterian aspect of our inheritance in enabling more “strategic” approaches to the allocation of our resources, above all deployment of stipendiary ministry;
  • he suggested that our central and synodical functions and teams are too big for the current size of the denomination.

Even more encouraging (for me) was the report back from the Revd Dr John Parry on the resolutions brought by the Faith and Order Committee on the “Future of the Church”. I wrote at the time about how bitterly disappointing I found these. To point to church meeting and ordained eldership as features of our denominational life that can lead to its renewal and revitalisation seems absurd to me and the stress on being Reformed only very slightly less so. In thinking about the looming crisis we face they are an irrelevance and their occupying the space where we are supposed to be thinking about our future (along the lines suggested by John Ellis) is a tragic waste of the time we have before it becomes too late to do anything.

That John Parry said something along these lines (although much more moderately) as our Synod report back was, for me, hugely positive. I may not agree wholeheartedly with what seemed to be his proposed answer (which seemed to be a reaffirmation of Congregationalism and greater stress on the local church) but I wholeheartedly welcome his recognition that we need to do something different rather than try to stress some features of our common life we might imagine to be distinctive.

A decisive turn towards Presbyterianism would be a vital first step, in my view. This would enable us to recognise that ecclesial structures beyond the local congregation have their own legitimate and proper vocations and the authority to pursue them. We are evolving in this direction,anyway, with the move to grouping of churches and team ministries but unless those teams recognise themselves as genuinely corporate bodies (where the term corporate is intended to invoke the body of Christ rather than the legal personality of a joint stock company) they will not fulfill the role that is required of them,

In particular we in the URC have to recognise the need for more than one kind of ministry of word and sacraments. Our small, aging and declining fellowships (that is most of congregations) really do need ministry that focuses on preserving and enriching their communal spiritual life, that values it for what it is. Some of these fellowships can find paths to growth but many will not. Their faithful witness needs ministerial support and this is an important ministry for our denomination at this time in its history. This ministry will have particular shapes and forms in its proclamation of the word, its worshiping of God, its celebration of the sacraments and its pastoral care. Such ministry should be recognised and supported, valued and nurtured

At the same time we are an enormously wealthy denomination in terms of capital assets and we also have a range of distinctive, dynamic and vigorous fellowships and missions, of a variety of types, styles and locations. We also have within our current roll of ministers people with all kinds of gifts and callings. Alongside our ministry of care and witness in the large numbers of shrinking “traditional” URC congregations we should be equipping and supporting ministries of other kinds without looking for any return. The Special Category Ministers were a sort of attempt at this but one from which we appear to be retreating.

I am suggesting that a properly Presbyterian URC with a properly sacrificial approach to ecumenism and a properly strategic view of the use of its capital assets could do much, much more. If we looked across the landscape of the Church catholic in this country and identified gaps or opportunities where the deployment of our financial and human resources could make a real difference then the next period of our life together could be very exciting indeed, This would mean us giving up the idea that the URC of the ’70s could or should be recreated and even that the URC as a separate and distinct denomination needs to be preserved but in the freedom this surrender gave us we might hear God saying some very interesting things indeed.

 all is vanityI imagine I am not alone among full time ministers of the Church in having days when I feel I have totally lost sight of what I believed myself called into the Church to do and to be. My vocation was a deeply personal one. I felt myself compelled to serve but unable to discern what that service consisted of. I looked around for additional things to do that would satisfy God’s claim on my life but couldn’t find them. I knew that my calling was first and foremost one of service to God rather than to anything or anybody else but I couldn’t get any sense of what God could possibly want or need from me.

In the end all I could think of was to put it into the hands of the Church, to trust that the Church would guide and support me in responding so I offered myself for full time stipendiary ministry. 

 

This, I think, is effectively what all stipendiary ministers do. They surrender their lives to God through the Church hoping and trusting that this will lead them to the service to which they are called. The call is to the individual and he or she passes part of the responsibility of discernment to the communal body of Christ in the Church. 

We are thus in a peculiar position of having to work our way through a triangular relationship in which the line joining minister and congregation (or other ecclesial authority) gets its authentication from lines joining both parties to God. This can go disastrously wrong, as anybody with any significant experience of Church life will know. Congregations and ministers can have different expectations of the relationship that lead to conflict and ultimately to breakdown.

In my case this has not happened. Two years in to my ministry here in South Hertfordshire I feel that we are finding our way to a sense of what I am here to do and what the churches are called to alongside me. There have been a range of exciting developments and experiments and relationships within and beyond the congregations are deepening and opening up avenues of exploration for our life and mission.

What I continue to struggle with, from time to time, is the ultimate question for all of us, always. “What’s the point of this?” My conversion to Christianity, in my late twenties and early thirties, was in large part driven by a sense of futility. I’ve written about this elsewhere but it came to seem to me that those areas in which I had sought meaning and direction turned out to be empty and pointless. Political action could not effect any significant change in the circumstances of life and the injustices and agonies of the world. Ethical integrity was illusory and foundationless. Personal relationships were haunted by the impossibilities of communication and of self-knowledge, always full of unknown and uncontrollable pathologies and mysteries.

The Christianity I encountered in the writings, especially, of Hegel and Kierkegaard acknowledged and accepted this assessment of our capabilities and the ways of the world but was not overwhelmed by them. It was able to live without illusion about what we can do but beyond the despair this might occasion. In their different ways these two giants of the nineteenth century offered, through faith, a way of finding strength and hope where futility and collapse threatened in face of the conflict between what we must necessarily want and what we can possibly have and do.

The danger, for me, of service in the Church, is over investment in the importance and effectiveness of what the Church can do. My denomination has a sort of slogan about “making a difference” which, to me, is poison. A tiny, aging and shrinking organisation like ours can’t really hope to make a difference that makes a difference. We can, in little pockets and to individuals, make a difference but when this is seen against the background of the needs of the world it is not a difference that matters. Even these little differences can look pretty laughable when set against the vision of God’s new creation, of the end of sin and death, of eternal life in the presence of God.

In itself this is unproblematic except where the making of the difference, the improving of the world, the growing of the Church, or the saving of souls, is seen as the purpose and goal of the Church. These things all need to be done, to fulfill God’s promise of salvation, but not by us, not by the Church. God will do these things using whatever methods and through whatever people God determines. After all Nebuchadnezzar of of Babylon, was unknown to himself, the servant of God and agent of his plans when he conquered Jerusalem, overthrew the Davidic monarchy and destroyed Solomon’s Temple.

We in the Church are called to do certain things, but the point of them is not the things themselves but their witness to God’s promise and God’s action. The Church has not purposes, goals, or objectives of its own. It exists only to point beyond itself and does well always to remember that.

As soon as it begins, self-importantly, to imagine it can “make a difference” everything it does is vanity, is sin, is subject to death and emptiness.

 

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.

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In a few weeks we’re having a “vision day” at one of the churches in which I am minister. During my first 18 months here I have been somewhat surprised to find myself discerning that my call to this church (in fact to both churches) is a call to evangelism, to growing the churches by reaching out to those without current connection to any church. This was not what I expected or had prepared myself for, but so it is. Working alongside the churches I find they both feel themselves called to grow and so I have to facilitate and enable them in responding.

Given that both churches have been declining steadily for around 30-40 years this represents a real challenge. Nothing in our contexts is changing in a way that makes the churches as they currently are more likely to grow (or even stop shrinking) than they have been for this period. On the contrary the evidence is that “traditional” Protestant churches across the denominations are increasingly likely to decline. The churches that are growing are of a different kind from ours and often in a different kind of place. My perception is that if we remain as we are we will continue to get smaller.

This means that what is required of us, if we are to answer the call to growth, is change of some kind.

The approach I am proposing we take is to begin the process of change by trying to get some idea of what it is we are trying to change into. My belief is that simply superimposing some relatively superficial change on top of the church we already are is unlikely to be transformational, and that transformation, becoming another kind of church, is what is needed, if decades of decline are to be replaced by a new season of growth.

This is not because I think anything is wrong with the church we are, it’s because the church we are isn’t growing and growing is what we seem to be hearing ourselves told to be. I don’t think every church has always to grow. It is quite possible to be a church that is not growing or even shrinking and to be doing what God wants. However if we want to grow we need to become a church that grows, and that means, I think, being different in some ways from the church we are.

What needs to be determined is what ways these are, which will involve discerning what kind of growth we think we are to seek.

This in turn demands of us that we understand our position within our community in relation to our neighbours in the other churches. In our moderately sized (population around 20,000) town there are, in addition to the three Church of England parish churches (each with a quite distinct character), a Methodist, two Baptist. a Roman Catholic, an FIEC and a fully independent evangelical free church, a congregation of the Redeemed Christian Church of God and a recent plant from the Seventh Day Adventists, as well as Jehovah’s Witnesses.

This implies that for our congregation to have something to offer the town it needs, to some extent, to think about what is its unique contribution to this rich mix of Christian witness. It has to think about who needs us and what they need from us (which may well include thinking about what we can contribute to the ecumenical work of our very active and effective Churches Together group).

We need, I believe, to think about who it is that is best advised to join our community and why. We need to think about who we will invite and what we will invite them to. We need to think about what we want to be, as a community, and how we want to be viewed, by ourselves and by others.

This does not mean, as I think it too often does, thinking about ways in which we’re “better” than the other churches, whether that be doctrinally more pure (although proclaiming and teaching the truth is good), being more welcoming or inclusive (although including people is good), being more active on issues of welfare or justice (although service and witness in these areas is good). I am always uneasy when a church seems to say “come to us because we’re not like those other bad churches” (which was my fundamental problem with the abandoned URC advertising campaign).

It does mean saying “this is what we’re like and if that’s the kind of church that can nurture your faith and discipleship then come to us”.

Which means having a strong sense of what kind of church we are and a confidence in telling people and inviting them to become part of it.

This is the key part of what I’m calling a “vision” for the church. It means a sense of who we are and what we want to become. That has to be in full continuity with who we already are but it has also to be aspirational, to be the version of our possible future self, as a community, that we are most enthusiastic about, because if we aren’t enthusiastic about it how can we expect anyone to want to join us in making it come into being.

The first challenge, then, is to find ways in which, together, we can arrive at that shared aspiration and can find ourselves filled with excitement at the prospect of our process of making it real.

The second is to find practical steps, that we’re capable of taking right now, that would begin to enable us to change in the ways we need to change.

Thus the things we actually do may not be dramatic, they may be the same as changes we might make without a conscious programme of self-development and transformation (communal discipleship) but their meaning and context are, I think, changed by putting them in that light.