Category Archives: ministry
Today’s Supreme Court decision confirms that Methodist ministers are office holders, not employees, and as such have no redress to Employment Tribunals for claims to unfair or constructive dismissal. I have blogged about this particular case twice before. The court has pointed out three issues in support of this judgement:
1. Our relationship with the Church cannot be analysed in ‘contract of employment’ terms;
2. Our receipt of a stipend and a manse are by virtue of being ‘received into full connexion’ and ordination, they do not constitute payment for duties;
3. We ministers cannot unilaterally resign, even if we give notice, because we need the consent of Conference, the Stationing Committee or a disciplinary body.
The official Methodist statement from Revd Gareth Powell, Assistant Secretary of the Conference, says:
“The judgement of the Supreme Court has determined that an Employment Tribunal does not have jurisdiction over Methodist Ministers. It sets out very clearly the nature of the relationship that exists and that such a relationship is defined by the Standing Orders of the Conference. It is important that we read the judgement with great care as we continue to ensure that our practices reflect the calling of the Church.
“No court ruling could change the gratitude I have for the immense amount of work undertaken by our ministers, now and in the past. Those in ordained ministry, as well as those in lay ministry, continue to be vital to the Church as we share the Gospel and seek to live faithfully in response to the call of God. I ask you please to pray for those who have been part of this case and for all who are affected by its outcome.”
What are we to make of this? While I am partly relieved by the judgement, I do not think it solves the problems our denomination clearly has. I am happy not to be an employee in that church life is vulnerable to tinpot Hitlers throwing their weight around. It shouldn’t be like that, and I certainly don’t experience anything like that in my current appointment, but I am afraid it does happen. Had we become employees, then depending on who was deemed to employ us, that was a risk.
Where I am I less than happy? I admit this is more about the experiences of friends than my own story, but this leaves Methodist ministers entirely dependent upon the ‘covenant relationship’ with the church, and no protection if that goes wrong. I know of instances where ministers have been left exposed to abuse, and where there has been no redress. One commenter on the UK Methodists page of Facebook describes the covenant relationship as an ‘empty promise’ and calls for a system of independent arbitration. Essentially, the church – should it so choose – is free to sweep uncomfortable things under the carpet. There is certainly now a risk that things could be loaded against ministers. I do not know whether this is true, but there is one other comment (which I can’t immediately find again) suggesting that only ministers ‘in stationing’ (i.e., looking for a new appointment) who are unwilling to put any geographical restrictions on where they serve will be guaranteed a manse and stipend if no appointment can be found for them. We are supposed to be at the disposal of Conference for stationing, it is true, but that same Conference promises to bear all sorts of personal circumstances in mind. Geography is by no means the only limit some ministers request.
Tonight, there will be some ministers feeling a sense of relief at the judgement, and others feeling more vulnerable and afraid. I can certainly understand those of my colleagues who have joined the Faith Workers’ Branch of the Unite union. It certainly seems uncomfortable that our denomination has shown no willingness to let the ‘covenant relationship’ be scrutinised by outsiders, so that justice is not only done, but seen to be done.
For many years now, one of my favourite quotes has been the late John Wimber‘s statement that ‘faith’ is spelt R-I-S-K. So it was a pleasure this morning while watching the live stream of the HTB Leadership Conference was to hear Archbishop Justin Welby say that ‘The church should be a safe place to do risky things in the service of Christ.’ How appropriate after that, then, to find myself listening to Esther Alexander‘s song ‘The End of the Land’, where she sings,
Is this the end of the land here
Or the beginning of the sea?
(You can listen to the song and download it here.)
Perhaps that’s our dilemma. We are more scared by being at the end of the land than we are by being at the beginning of the sea. What will it take for us to change, and why would we change? Too many churches want to change in order to save their skins. ‘We must reach out in order to keep this church going.’
Heaven help us. Really.
Welby also said this morning, ‘We cannot live for our cause to win, we have to live for his cause to win.’ May it be so.
In my last appointment, an ecumenical church I served ran a ‘Week of Accompanied Prayer‘. I missed out somehow, and was jealous of the members who clearly had a wonderful spiritual experience. So when our Catholic friends here in Knaphill offered to put one on in the village, I was an enthusiastic supporter. It started today. It’s like a mini-retreat without going away, where you have the benefit of low-key spiritual direction in your prayer life from a ‘prayer guide’ each day.
We began with a simple service and got to meet our prayer guides this afternoon. I was invited to choose a Bible passage to pray on this evening before I meet my prayer guide for the first formal session tomorrow morning. I chose Isaiah 43:1-5 from the selection offered. It made me think of an old song by Andy Piercy and Dave Clifton, from the same CD as contained their more famous ‘Praise God From Whom All Blessings Flow’. I can’t find a video online of them singing this, so here is someone’s cover version of ‘Precious In Your Eyes’:
As for other reflections on the passage itself, I had thought I would just read it pietistically, but I can’t deny the ‘theological’ side of me. So I brought into my reflections the fact that this comes from the section of Isaiah that is directed to them in exile in Babylon, when the prophet tells them that God will bring them home. They are precious in God’s eyes despite their sin. God does not give up on his people. That is something for all God’s people – me included – to cherish.
I’ll see how tomorrow goes. One thing I’m looking forward to is this: I mentioned to my prayer guide today that I find it hard to enter for myself into the kinds of prayer where I am expected to imagine what my five senses tell me. I can lead those sessions for others, but they don’t work for me, and I think it’s because in Myers Briggs terms I’m an ‘N’ – an Intuitive. I am a ‘sixth sense’ person who sees the big picture, not an ‘S’ – a Sensory person who uses the ‘five senses’ and concentrates on fine detail. Yet I enjoy photography, which as Jerry Gilpin pointed out to me on my last sabbatical, is definitely an ‘S’ practice. On quiet days in the past I have been known to take my camera gear out and about, and use it to meditate on creation. My prayer guide mentioned something about knowing a retired Anglican priest who may have some material on using photography this way, so we’ll see.
The Daily Telegraph published a sensitive piece about the battle with depression fought by Katherine Welby, 26-year-old daughter of the new Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby. Quoting largely from her blog, her faith shines through, but it is also apparent she has not always been treated well by the Christian church. God’s people don’t always stand by her, depressives fear what others might say, and churchpeople have to pretend everything is fine, despite a Bible filled with screwed-up people.
I am afraid I am not surprised by this account. Of course, I have known many compassionate Christians in the church, who may or may not understand illnesses some members of the church family have had, such as schizoaffective disorder, borderline personality disorder, or other conditions. But I have seen intolerance for the effects of medication upon sufferers. I have witnessed the damaging ‘Snap out of it!’ comments. I have come across a naïve reading of the Gospel which seems to think that simple belief in Christ will have an instant cognitive effect, and then we can resume the usual ‘happy ever after’ narrative.
It is awful that there is still a widespread failure to accept that depressive conditions are illnesses. I am not claiming the specialist knowledge that professionals in the field have, because I don’t have it, but I do know this. If someone contracts a commonly accepted physiological illness, there is usually compassion and concern. The failure to recognise mental health issues in a similar way is disastrous, for the way it not only involves a lack of understanding, it also causes a rise in judgmental attitudes. We are meant to be a community of grace.
I read a story that isn’t obviously related to this on Don Miller’s blog. Sarah Thebarge tells how, while suffering the ravages of radical treatment for breast cancer, she was travelling across her native USA by train when she came across a desperate Somali immigrant family. The father had left the mother to care for five young children in a strange land. Despite her own weakness, Sarah becomes involved in the care of this family:
God had loved me when my bald head and mastectomy scars made me feel unlovable. So I began to spend more time with the Somali girls, loving them when their stained clothes and broken English made them feel unlovable.
God had shown me that He was Immanuel, the God who dwelled with me — not instantly changed or fixed me, but dwelled. So I began spending most evenings at the girls’ apartments, sitting with them in their dark, cold apartment because their mom was worried they’d run out of money for food if she spent too much money on utilities.
‘The God who dwelled with me – not instantly changed or fixed me, but dwelled.’ Would it not be a beautiful thing if our churches could demonstrate that more with those who face depression and similar disorders?
For some readers, there is an obvious ‘yes’ in reply to that question. But for others, there is a default assumption that ministers, like a broadband connection, are meant to be ‘always on’, and when the connection drops there is something wrong.
I raise this, because two separate web articles have caught my eye over the last couple of days. BBC News published a piece called ‘Clergy hide from constant callers‘, which was taken up in inimitable style by Archdruid Eileen of the Beaker Folk of Husborne Crawley under the title ‘The vicar can’t speak to you now‘. The BBC piece details the strategies some ministry families have to deploy in order to get some peace and rest on a day off, even hiding in a back room with curtains drawn, watching TV. Others imply it’s part of the calling to the ordained life that you always respond. Hmm. I suppose that’s why Jesus took himself off alone at times? The article sadly only speaks about ‘days off’ rather than the more powerful but tricky concept of ‘sabbath’.
Then I found this piece by Charles Stone: ‘Are you a sleep deprived pastor? Take this test and find out.‘ Er, yes I am. Sometimes I accept it’s bad personal management. Other times it’s health issues. But on too many occasions it is work items that aren’t optional. Two days after Easter I was up until the early hours, completing my submissions for the Methodist Church’s Past Cases Review. It’s an important piece of work, and I support it: our denomination is reviewing all child protection cases since 1950. The problem is, it is being phased across the country and I am in a region that was expected to do this work in a period running from two weeks before Easter to two weeks after Easter. Yes – our busiest time of the year, even more frantic than Christmas, and just the time when many ministers need a rest.
I have read articles about overworked ministers that tell us to take time off and get exercise. Yes, of course, but it’s not enough to tell us to do these good things. We need strategies. One involves having the mental toughness to say ‘no’. As I write this, there is a discussion on the UK Methodists page of Facebook about baptism requests, where families with no church connection approach a minister, expecting a specific date, sometimes even already having booked the location for the party.
But for some people, it’s bad form for a minister to say ‘no’. It’s also hard for us. We follow a calling into this work because we care, and care for others sometimes involves lack of self-care. We justify that as some kind of sacrifice. It can also be a cover for our desire to please other people rather than God, or perhaps even our fear that if we don’t please people they’ll have us moved on quicker than we wanted at great cost to our family. I suppose that’s a lack of faith – as also is the feeling that if we don’t respond, someone will not be helped when they are in need.
At other times, it just isn’t possible to say ‘no’, because all the things on our agenda are non-negotiables, and they can’t all be managed by forward planning.
So – if you are a minister, how do you cope with the demands? If you are a member of a congregation, how would you like your minister to handle this?
Following the post on signs of a dying church last week, here is a similar one: 20 Hidden Ministry Killers. I read this one especially when I realised it was written by George Bullard, someone whose work on the life cycle of a congregation I discovered on my last sabbatical. While in this new post Bullard sometimes has in mind churches that are even younger than many of the ones people like me minister in, nevertheless several of his twenty danger signs resonated with me.
Which ones connect with you? What other signs would you add?
He’s back. Plastered all over the God TV home page, with pictures, blog posts and a live feed. It’s just that he’s had to move a few miles away from Lakeland – to Durban, South Africa, for his latest ‘revival’, humbly called ‘The Great Awakening’. Yes, folks, the ever-modest Todd Bentley, whose trophy healing cases end up dead, is implicitly comparing himself with Wesley, Whitefield and Edwards.
Of course, the publicity machine has had to be dragged out of the garage for this. There is a powder-puff interview with him this evening, and the God TV founders, Rory and Wendy Alec, have had some explaining to do. You see, apparently, they’re going to be persecuted for putting Bentley on screen again. That’s right, the secret police are going to turn up in the middle of the night and cart the Alecs off for interrogation under torture.
No, actually. They will not be persecuted. Other Christians will disagree and criticise. That’s not the same thing. Please stop using the word ‘persecution’ in this way. It’s utterly disrespectful of the suffering church throughout the world and throughout the ages.
However, we’re all right, because the ground has been prepared. The Alecs interviewed Bentley in January, and the controversial matter of his marriage separation, his ‘inappropriate relationship’ with Jessa, whom he went on to marry, is all subsumed under a ‘David and Bathsheba’ motif. Jesus forgave Peter for his three denials, and told him to forgive ‘seventy times seven’. Is Bentley simply a case of someone with a besetting sin who keeps needing the grace of a loving God, in the manner I spoke of Brennan Manning? If I argue that Bentley remains in the relationship that arguably broke up his first marriage and could therefore biblically be said to be adulterous (even though in the eyes of the law he is duly married), then David and Bathsheba are invoked. However, in that case, Bathsheba’s first husband was dead (albeit bumped off at David’s behest). Shonnah Bentley is alive, although in the interview apparently her pastor gave a statement on her behalf, saying she has forgiven Todd and she endorses his on-going ministry. Does that make it right?
There is still the uncomfortable question of verification around Bentley’s ministry. I’ve linked to evidence above that many claimed healings were nothing of the sort. In the current ‘revival’ in Durban, there are alleged manifestations of gold. But no, that’s not enough: there are diamonds as well. So how about some independent testimony? They could pay the expenses of the outreach if they truly are diamonds. There is also a Wendy Alec prophecy, that names specific places which will be affected in the claimed forthcoming revival. You might think that would make things potentially verifiable: will these cities and nations be strongly impacted with the gospel or not? However, it’s a little too vague, even for that, because there is no time frame, apart from a general ‘It is time’ statement. If someone says, ‘Johannesburg has not been transformed, Bulgaria has not been touched’, it will still be easy to say, ‘It isn’t that it hasn’t happened; it just hasn’t happened yet.’
My gut instinct, then, is still to draw a clear line between a Todd Bentley and a Brennan Manning. Both of them, like all of us, are or were sinners in need of restoration, but I am more at ease with one than the other. I think you can guess which.
For those who want to see the whole interview, this seems to be it:
The Daily Mail reports on a Derbyshire church that is sending its prayers, hymn words and readings over the wifi in the church café to worshippers equipped with tablet computers. Apparently it’s a hit with some of the visually impaired worshippers. The Leadership Team at one of my churches has engaged in a lot of research to see what we can do for people who are registered partially sighted, and iPads have been suggested to us. Here is a church actually doing it.
What do you think? Will it meet resistance or fear from some older worshippers who are nervous of the technology? Or is this a genuine way forward?