Ministry not Ministers

The Stafford Circuit of the Methodist Church is a 12 church Circuit that encompasses estate, town centre, suburban and rural church communities. It nestles between the urban conurbations of Stoke on Trent to the north and Wolverhampton to the south. It is quite a diverse group of churches but also fits the mould of an archetypal Methodist set up.

I arrived in September 1999 to become part of the circuit staff of six presbyters. I had pastoral responsibility for just one church and also chaplaincy to the local prison (the unofficial 13th church in the Circuit). We had a very experienced staff group and so the workings of the Circuit were both efficient and Methodist.

Now, I don`t mind efficiency or Methodism but, for me, it was a very, very safe appointment. There were certain expectations from the Circuit churches regarding worship; pastoral visiting and the nature and purpose of church meetings. The staff fulfilled them and, in the main, the churches were happy with their lot. There was not any particular connection with the community outside of our natural church connections but because our churches were reasonably well attended, there was no imperative to do more than we were already doing. We thought, with a great deal of sincerity, that if people really required the need of a church then we would be there to be alongside them. Little did we realise that the world was rushing by like a flood and our relevance within the community was diminishing rapidly.

The catalyst for change began when one of our presbyters was due to leave and we had a discussion within the Circuit Leadership Team about replacing him with a full time youth worker. We had some pockets of youth work within the circuit and there was a feeling that bringing in a full time worker would aid what was already taking place and “push forward” the work significantly. The conversations with the Circuit churches and the Circuit meeting were interesting to say the least. There was a genuine desire to get our youth work on to a more professional footing whilst, at the same time, wondering how we would cope with one less minister. The question most commonly (and obviously) asked was, “how will we exercise the same level of ministry with one less minister?”

The youth worker was appointed and very quickly the Circuit realised the benefit of having a “specialist” as part of the team whose sole focus was on one part of ministry, ie youth work. This process set me thinking more widely about the mission and ministry of our churches and circuits and, more specifically, how we best staff those situations.

In Methodism we appeared to have been doing this the wrong way around for some time. We fill our appointments with ministers and then decide what we type of ministry we need to exercise. As I prayed and reflected about that I realised that we need to decide on what ministry we want to exercise and then decide how we best resource the vision and ministry. For many of our churches this means a fundamental reappraisal of our view of what ministers do.

Whilst all this thinking was taking place, the fresh expressions and the emerging church movements were gathering pace and becoming more widely known across the church landscape. This began to give people an understanding of what might be possible by doing and being church in a different way. It also showed people how far the church has moved away from the communities in which it is set and how irrelevant the nature of faith, church and God had become in peoples lives. I believe that, deep down, we always knew that but were unprepared to face what it might mean for our structures and operations.

It was against this backdrop that the Stafford Circuit was forced into making radical changes. I would like to think that was solely due to our desire to become a mission shaped circuit, that is partly true but it was also borne out of adversity in the staffing team.

Our Superintendent was due to retire and decided to “go” a year early, whilst soon afterwards one of my other colleagues sought a curtailment of her appointment because of a very difficult family situation. Both of these colleagues who had contributed much to the life of the Circuit went with our blessings and full support. But, it left us with some major decisions to make and also, if I`m honest, in a bit of panic. During all this time I was asked to become the Superintendent and take on a new five year appointment. I thought and prayed about this for some time before finally saying yes. In fact, my “yes” came with a caveat. It was this: I will take the appointment if the circuit appoints an administrator to take the administrative load off me as Super! I freely acknowledge that admin is low on my list of priorities and I`m sure that during those particular lessons at theological college, I was in the common room perfecting my pool skills.

The reasoning behind my request was two fold. Firstly, I had seen too many “Supers” sink under the weight of excessive admin and realised that my call to ministry was not to spend hour after hour running the Circuit`s administrative side. But, secondly and I think more importantly, it signalled my intention to make the circuit shaped for mission in every possible way. In my highest dreams, the administrator would run the circuit office and deal with all the admin. They would have no other role or calls on their time and so be able to focus solely on making us an efficient working unit and, in doing so; this would aid the on-going vision and mission within the Circuit and the communities our churches were serving.

It goes without saying that there were many (and long) discussions within the Circuit Leadership Team about the possibilities that were available to us whilst many of the circuit churches were very concerned about how we operate with just three “ministers”. In fact, some people went so far as to say that running with three ministers would take us below the critical mass required to operate 12 churches and to further their life and mission.

It will hardly surprise people to realise that I disagreed and saw this as a fantastic opportunity to really rethink our mission strategies. My nature is always see my glass as half full even when its empty! Although, I did have my “Peter” moments when I panicked and wanted to run away from the circuit and go to a place where there were lots of ministers! Fortunately, these moments did not last too long and were very much part of my on-going understanding of the radical changes that were ahead of us.

The key question that we asked in our meetings was this. As we are going to be a circuit shaped and driven by mission and we are going to be operating a 12 church circuit with three ministers – what do we want them to do to forward our vision and mission? As you can imagine that was a wide ranging discussion with the answer coming in many forms including “what we don`t want them to do?”

We kept returning to the twin themes of outward looking mission in new ways of being church and the gifts and talents of the ministerial team and how we best use them. We had some very honest and open discussions that had the dual benefit of making a clear way forward and also in affirming people within new roles in the Circuit.

It soon became obvious that the way forward was to retain the budget level of six ministers and to employ a series of lay people to take on specific and distinctive roles. This would then release the ministers for ministry that suited their gifts, talents and abilities. Now it is one thing debating this within a leadership team situation and totally another taking it to the Circuit meeting and into debates within individual church councils. Put bluntly, it was not easy and we had to visit and revisit the very purpose and nature of the local church. We had to strip everything back and almost start again in rediscovering the very DNA of the church. We were asking fundamental questions of why do we exist and how do we exercise our church structures in this modern age. After myriad discussions we kept returning to our desire to be an outward looking group of churches driven by mission and that alone. To quote Emil Brunner, “the church exists for mission as a fire exists to burn”.

The circuit rallied round, and underpinned by prayer, things began to move forward. Local preachers, retired ministers, preachers from other circuits and denominations offered whatever help was needed. Administrative and lay staff supported our ministers and the circuit learned what it meant to be a church of lay people supported by a few ordained ministers.

So, as we enter the 08/09 Connexional year, the Stafford Circuit is staffed by three presbyters; one full time and three part time youth workers; two pastoral assistants and a circuit administrator. It is hoped that some point in the next year we be employing a full time children’s worker to become part of the team. I don`t envisage us ever going back up from three presbyters. Our mantra has become, “ministry not ministers” and I believe we exercise a greater ministry within church and community than we`ve ever done.

Initiatives are springing up all over our circuit and we are all beginning to exercise initiatives and mission shaped thinking to all we do. We are not the “perfect” circuit and there are still many issues that we need to resolve but we have come a long way in a short space of time and, although the pace of change has been swift, I sense it is just the beginning.