Thursday 28 February 2013

The Gardener and the Broken Ministry

 I think that the model of ministry that many ordained people operate within is broken.

I would go as far as to say, that the model of ministry that many ordained people end up working within, is not only broken, but damaging.

And I’d like to go even further, to say that the model of ministry that many ordained people find themselves working within is not only broken and damaging, but it’s not even God honouring.

Too many clergy are too busy, too encumbered by their incumbency status, too tied down, by tired expectations. Too trapped by practices and ways of being that not only repeat the mistakes of the past, but encourage them.

The model of ministry is broken because it expects too much, it reflects too little, and it lays the blame all at the feet of the ordained minister themselves.

When things go wrong, it can never be the model of ministry’s fault. No way, if it was good enough for George Herbert....

I’ve never read the book “If you see George Herbert on the road... kill him” (or something), but I think perhaps I should.

Now, as is my want and way at the moment, I’m offering up a rant, based on months of reflection and churning, and I don’t intend this to become an academic exercise, rather instead, hopefully a spark, to ignite some further reflection on the subject.

Clergy busyness and clergy stress.

Clergy working expectations - “house for duty is never just house for duty”.

Clergy working hours - “it’ll be busy”.

Clergy legal expectations.





Too often I’ve heard the same old splurge of suggestions: “what is important is time management” - and never have I heard the reflection, “perhaps the way we do things is wrong?”

If only clergy would lay their different tasks into the segments that make up a 48 hour week, there would be opportunity to do that annual retreat, to read that theological text clergy are always encouraged (and in some cases told) to read, and also, maybe to do some creative mission, rather than merely repeating the mistakes of the past, for a whole new generation to encounter and say, “mmmah”.

This might just be vitriolic rambling nonsense, or maybe there is something to it.

Maybe there are more tasks than fit in the 48 “hour” blocks.

Maybe, the sandbox is already full, and deciding what to put in or take out, makes no sense because the sandbox is already full: no matter what is urgent or essential”.

This might all be sounding unfamiliar, or you may well have encountered these metaphors:

- “Imagine a sandbox filled with tasks, make sure there aren’t too many tasks in the sandbox.”

- “split the working week into 48, hour-long segments, make sure that the tasks are spread evenly over the 48 hour-long chunks.”

- “work out what is urgent, or essential, and non-urgent, and non-essential, and work on those things that are urgent and essential first. Only undertake non-urgent and non-essential tasks, once the non-urgent but essential tasks are complete. Try to prioritise an essential but non-urgent task when planning ahead in the diary. Needless to say, the urgent but non-essential tasks must take precedence over the non-urgent and non-essential tasks, that themselves are less urgent than the non-urgent but essential tasks that fit within the frame work of a 48 hour sandbox.”

It’s all just wrong!

And it’s not only the “time” issue that breaks the model of ministry. There are many other factors.

One such factor might be that many of the tasks an ordained person is expected to do, do not actually build the kingdom of God. Perhaps clergy find themselves trapped, “servicing” a programme of services that do not build the kingdom of God.

Perhaps the clergy person has become a “service provider”, rather than a minister of services.

Too often the clergy person may find themselves filling their energy maintaining an obsolete system that is only there because it is expected.

And this “service provision” model, much like a hotel room cleaner, or garage mechanic, ends up with a minister of the gospel “servicing” a pattern of worship (much like a cleaner services a hotel room or mechanic services a car regularly) and mopping up the problems (much like a cleaner might mop up vomit, or a mechanic might fix the leaky brake-fluid-thingy).

Another factor might be that actually, the focus of too much thought and too many policy documents is on clergy proficiency (and yes that’s important, child protection, health and safety, safeguarding, finance, listed buildings, acting registrar, etc, etc) and not on clergy faith.

Quite frankly, the model of ministry I work within, and have been trained to work within can operate quite nicely without God and the idea of a living faith. In fact, the model of ministry I’ve been trained into actually finds faith a bit of a nuisance, because prayer takes time, and retreats take a lot of time, and actually, if God speaks to a clergy person and they feel inclined to listen to that voice, that may ultimately get in the way of “servicing” what goes on).

Of course the sad thing is, that actually, I think what people in the pews would want most from their ministers, is a vibrant faith, a minister excited by Spirit led worship and filled with the continuing revelation of God being made known to the clergy person through the Holy Spirit.


Currently, I’m having some hypnotherapy for a long-standing stomach condition. My hypnotherapist is lovely, he has many books on psychology, on mediation, on eastern methods of whatever, on western methods of whatever. He’s a thoroughly interesting bloke and a really thoughtful and challenging person.

We recently spoke about the pace of life. We’ve undertaken some hypnotherapy that actually, is incredibly similar to guided meditation, Margaret Silf, Ignatian spirituality stuff.

And recently he said to me, “part of life is learning to enjoy the garden.”

And that clicked with me. It resonated, it was a way of expressing something that had been pecking at me for ages. “Enjoy the garden.”


The idea of:

Walking amongst the flowers, smelling the roses, watching the seasons pass by, sharing the journey of the leaves from green to yellow to brown to grey to nothing.

Watching the cycle of life unfold, hearing the birds sing in different seasons, watching the bees at work. Tasting the fruits of their labour. Touching the smooth petals that grow and shrivel.


If anyone is to enjoy the garden and recognise the importance of enjoying the garden it should be the ministers of God’s word and sacraments.


I suggested to my hypnotherapist that  the job of the minister is surely to be the gardener. To observe the garden, to experience the garden, to encourage others to work within the garden, teach others to plant and to sow.

Teach others to enjoy the fruits of the garden and to see value in the ideal of pausing and doing nothing. Sitting on the park bench with a visitor to the garden and watching the garden with them.

Sometimes pointing out the different flowers, sometimes walking with them in silence as they take in all that the garden has to offer.

Ready to hear their questions, and perhaps give answers, or perhaps asks further questions back (thanks @nedlunn).

But in reality, the model of ministry turns the gardener into the tour guide: hastily rushing tour after tour around the garden, getting the regular visitors in and out through the gates (if they even notice the garden and if the gardener even shows them the garden), and showing new visitors around the garden, before locking up for the night, without the gardener ever actually spending any time enjoying the garden for themselves.


I think it’s easy for the model of ministry to professionalise and rush the gardener into being a service provider with no interest in the garden or the fruits that come from it. No interest in the garden for the sheer love of the garden itself.

Maybe it’s time to re-read the Song of Solomon with a lovers hat on, but also with a gardeners hat.

It’s all like that bit in the 60’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory film:

“We are the music makers and we are the dreamer of dreams.”

But are we?

Friday 22 February 2013

A “Future” of Rural Ministry

I want to offer something of a polemic and a dream and a pondering.

For some months I’ve been reflecting on a ministry issue that in my place of work is a huge issue - I’ve been trying to find the words to express my thoughts about this issue, and I think I’ve reached the appropriate place to be able to lay some words down.
From the outset, I must stress that I work in a single parish church: a single parish church with a multi-congregational Sunday model. (8am, 9:30am, 10:45am, 6pm, 7:15pm). While the object of my reflection is mainly related to the working of rural churches and multi parish benefices there is some overlap with particular aspects of this thought process.
Nantwich, where I minister, is a market town with an ever-increasing population, (roughly 20,000). It’s a single-parish town with a whopping great big old church in the middle. To the south, to the west, to the north, there are various benefices, etc (to the east there is Crewe). And all these churches are part of Nantwich Deanery. The joke goes that Nantwich St. Mary’s is the “cathedral of south Cheshire”.

Heading out into the rural villages we find one incumbent looking after up to three or four churches (which isn’t a rarity - in fact I recently saw a post advertised in a different diocese for a team rector for more than 12 churches! - to be supported by a retired clergy and a reader).
There is a constant struggle to pay for the exquisite but costly inherited church buildings, and there is a great set of challenges facing the ordained staff, with new churches being attached to benefices, with some posts turning from full-time to part-time.
I want to draw attention to two thoughts.

The first is about the number of services (and this is easily related to our church in Nantwich too). At chapter, in IME events, with general discussions with clergy I hear of incumbents and curates, rectors and vicars, who have an 8:00am service at St. Blah’s and a 9:30am service at St. Blurgh’s 5 miles away. Some even have an 11:00am at St. Flurp’s 7 miles further down the road.
Community is difficult to build, rural communities need the presence and being of a priest, not just the attendance and doing of a priest.

The story I’ve heard which saddens me most is the rural minister who has no chance to stay behind after the service for tea and coffee because they need to rush off to the next church and next service.
When that happens we’ve got it all wrong. All that happens in that instance is that we “service” our services. We don’t serve our communities. But with expectations of a parish Eucharist at each church, with expectations of what to get on a Sunday at morning at church. Something has to give in a minister’s time, and inevitably it’s the tea and coffee.

We couldn’t possibly disrupt the pattern of worship. Sure, we could change service times, or wow, crazy, have services on other suitable days, (rural communities, commuters and farmers, issues of when and where - I KNOW!).
But actually, I wonder, whether the most profound and prophetic thing we could do is to sack-off some of the service.

60 minutes of worship and 5 minutes of fellowship does not a church make.
How about: 35 minutes of worship and 30 minutes of fellowship.

Oh, but the liturgy! Oh, but the expectations! Oh, but the way we do things!
Without building a community around the act of worship, all we have is a stand-alone act of worship and that worshiping “community” will die.

That is the eventual outcome: certainly it may be slow, and take decades even, but the church will die in those places, unless the enacting of community is a priority, maybe even as much of a priority, or in some cases, more of a priority than the worship.
Certainly, the church is not the social services, but it is a social ethic. (Hauerwas and co). Thought must be given to this.

And this is the issue that affects the multi-congregational model too, if I have anything to do with the 10:45 service, I won’t get chance to stay behind and have coffee after the 9:30 service.
The second thought to share, is that perhaps we have too many churches in rural locations. Certainly, as I have outlined, community is essential, and people become very attached to their geographic community, and actually, no one ever wants to close a church, and remove the worshipping centre from a geographic situation.

But we need to widen our understandings of geographic community and hold them in tension with the challenges we face.
And yet, I meet many clergy in rural ministry who are stretched. Some have churches that were built by landowners many hundreds of years ago, and who kindly bequeathed the churches back to the Church of England, perhaps as finances or faith dictated.

Too much of a ministers time might be spent “servicing” the needs and expectations of communities, without ever engaging in creative and enriching mission.
I see a “future” in which a completely rural deanery will have a model by which there is one active church (like an abbey or minster), staffed by a minister who leads and organises worship and creative mission (perhaps with a pioneer minister [they exist] whose role might be to creatively engage with the local communities) and (depending on the size and population of the area) one or two (maybe even lots more) Occasional Office Priests who take the funerals (and perhaps baptisms and weddings) from the geographic area that makes up the deanery. (I am using deanary to frame this discussion, but it needn’t be a deanery).

Either the worshipping church is used for these services, or indeed, maybe in a busy area, there might be another parish church that becomes the “Funeral Chapel”.
The costs of the buildings are reduced.

The effectiveness of the ministers is increased.
Sadly the current pattern of worshipping community is also lost (but looking at some of the attendance trends: if the current model stays the same, this may happen naturally in a short-time anyway - and in many places is already happening, and has happened).

We need the mental, emotional and spiritual space to engage communities by mission.
Yes the occasional offices are mission -I do not deny it. Looking at the five marks of mission this is obvious, - serving, baptising, but I wonder whether we place too much emphasis on them as our unwritten evangelistic policy.

Yes, we all know people who regularly started to come to church as a response to occasional office ministry. I’d like to see some stats, but I wonder if the number who come to church and stay at church is hugely significant.
This new way of doing church stills wouldn’t necessarily stop this happening (though it might be a different minister leading the “Sunday service” so the personal connection might be lost).

But what it would do, is challenge us to think creatively about mission and not just rely on the occasional offices.
This carries with it pastoral costs, but these might need to be borne.

These words are just the ramblings of a thought in process. Which is the wonder of blogging.

Thursday 14 February 2013

The High Street Is Not Broken - It's A Symptom

On a recent day off I visited a little town not far from me. It was a town with a sizable high street: plenty of space for shops, lots of units that in prior visits had lots of retailers in place. But those visits were about 15 months ago and things have most definitely changed in the locale.

This is an experience many probably encounter frequently. Going to a town or village that appeared to be thriving, only to return a year or so further into an economic downturn to see it becoming ever increasingly boarded up.

More and more units for let.

And as we encounter these things, a number of reactions might come to mind: what has happened to the shop? What about the owners? What about the employees?

And also: why has this happened?

No doubt many businesses close because of competition from bigger brands, or indeed the dreaded online competition. Many may struggle due to a lack of diversification, many may struggle because of bad market research, many may struggle because many customers want a bargain, and will go the extra mile to get one.

And yet we have an idyll of the old fashioned high street full of independent retailers.

A few years ago, Alnwick in Northumberland, won a US competition about the best high street, and one of the major factors why it won, was the diversity of independent retailers.

In this little town I visited, there was a Blockbuster which was closing down.

I didn't know Blockbuster still existed.

With Sky, NetFlixs, LoveFilm, any other amount streaming (illegal and legal) and online options, I can understand why this business model is struggling.

Recently we witnessed the struggles of Jessops. I always had the impression that Jessops had become something of a unofficial "try before you buy online place". Test the camera you want, source it online and save yourself a packet.

And then there was HMV, who seem to have been plucked from the claws of retail death. There were whimsical comments about the end of music shops on the high street. With out any kind of irony, or reference to the emergence of the High Street Music Chains (HMV, Virgin Megastores, Our Price) that were themselves the death bell for so many independent record shops.

So what are we to make of all this?

I think the first thing, is to feel genuinely gutted for those affected, those whose income and dreams have been affected, those who are now looking for work, or, like Katie in the Blockbusters I visited - waiting to find out when the shop will close / leaving date, so she can apply for a new job to start after Blockbusters has closed.

The second thing: surely is to recognise that while online businesses use whatever means of avoiding taxes, the "playing field" will be even more uneven.

The third thing to realise is that rather than seeing the demise of the high street as a cultural catastrophe, we must start to accept that it is the end result of the endemic culture of consumerist capitalism in which we live. We want cheaper and we want better and we want it now.

That's something many small retailers will struggle to do: compete with the online or high street giant who buys products more cheaply and sells them more cheaply.

It seems that one way around this dilemma is to establish the activity of shopping as a lifestyle choice. Make the shopping experience pleasant, "boutique-y" and desirable. But even that will only get a business so far.

Ultimately, the decline of independent high street retailers, (and indeed slow moving high street chains, and indeed, out-moded high street chains) will continue. And it will continue to happen in a culture which wants more for less.

Now I'm not saying we should abandon capitalism or even consumerism. All I'm advocating (in this post at least), is the recognition that it is us, we the consumer who have a major stake in controlling the destiny of the high street. But that with that comes a caveat: the destiny of the high street will not be radically changed by the few: it will need a mass-movement of retail-habit-change.

A small number of people may be able to sustain the local organic grocer, or record shop but more must be done if we want to save the high street.

Which leads us to the heart of the matter: do we want to save the high street?

I do. I've lived in a community where the local shop, the post office, the pubs and the other amenities have closed, and its down heartening, it dissolves social cohesion, it paints a picture of "broken window syndrome" and it widens the emotional gap between people and the places that they live.

But the challenge is there and it is real: yes, it is fantastic to "go indie" when buying coffee, or books, or vinyl, but the real cost of saving the high street (let alone an indie high street)  is not only moral and ethical: but monetary as well.

If we are to save the high street we will need to spend more on products than we probably do at present. And in hard financial times, with people from all walks of life struggling, that is a hard challenge.

It's not enough for one segment of society to go indie. The challenge is for every consumer in the country.

And no, I do not write as one who only shops local and independent: I do when it comes to certain things, but actually given what I am trained to expect to get back from the money I receive in my bank each month: this would mean a huge re-evaluation of those things. And that's hard to do with an overdraft. (This maybe a cop-out, I do my "bit", but actually, deep down, I recognise that it's not enough).

So really, is the high street broken? No in and of its self. The high street is a symptom of a bigger problem, and its a problem deeply entrenched in our consumer-psyche's. While we live with the expectations we have: I'm not sure we can expect to see the high street recover.

Glocal consumerism and the immediacy of the online experience has meant that I can be involved with the making of an album by one of my favourite independent artistes by crowd funding. But it's also meant that my mangoes imported from a far away land can be delivered to my door by someone in a van with a recognisable uniform.

Before we look for a solution: we must see the scope of the problem for what it is.

But I do believe in resurrection. Resurrection of communities, resurrection from death, resurrection for high streets, resurrection for societal ethics.

And resurrection is what we're looking at here. Not resuscitation: this old system can have life blown back into it time and time again, but in so many ways it is not sustainable with the ethic that many of us carry.

Let's look to resurrection and see what might happen.