Ministry Mismatches

Last week James Walters wrote a piece for Leadership Journal
entitled, ‘The
Celestial Con Man
’. He described a disappointing experience of God’s call.
He and his wife answered a call to move from North Carolina to the west coast
of the USA, a distance of three thousand miles. The job description was
exciting, but things moved at tortoise pace. Further delays happened, and they
wondered whether to stay. However, they believed God was calling them to stay.
Eventually, the purported project was trialled for a year. It was a success.
But Walters felt deflated. He was exhausted. He resigned, and returned to North
Carolina. That which attracted them to the post wasn’t what they wanted to do
after all. Reflecting upon this, a mentor pointed him to Hosea 2:14:

“Therefore I am now going to allure her; I will lead her
into the wilderness and speak tenderly to her”

He concluded that God ‘allured’ him and his family to move,
but that he had different purposes for them in this ‘wilderness experience’. In
that sense, God had to ‘con’ them in order to fulfil his purposes. The text
that came to my mind as I read the story was Jeremiah 20:7, where the prophet
complains that God has deceived him.

Naturally, this raises many questions, and there has been a wild
variety of responses
this week, ranging from the aggressively hostile to
those sympathetic, because they have had similar experiences. In the middle are
those who recognise the experience, but would not use the same terminology.

Certainly, the debate makes me recall certain stories. I
have retold in sermons an account from my first year of training for the
ministry. One evening, after supper, a fellow student collapsed while playing
table tennis. He died soon afterwards. He thought God had called him to the
ministry. The church had concurred. Yet he never made it into the ministry. Did
God ‘allure’ him to follow a call to ministry in order to accomplish something
else that could only be achieved that way? Was it a genuine call, but it went
wrong, because perhaps my friend hadn’t looked after himself properly? (I do
not know, I am speculating.) Was it not a call in the first place, and both my
friend and the church were mistaken? I do remember that this friend had been
uncomfortable about the ease with which the church had accepted his account of
his call. He had been a solicitor. To enter the ministry meant, in financial
terms, knocking a zero off the end of his previous salary. He said the church had
been all too easily impressed with that. They had assumed he would only make a
sacrifice in response to a genuine call. Nobody questioned whether there were
any emotional insecurities behind it.

Or what about another friend of mine? (I tell this story with
permission.) He was asked to look at a particular appointment when moving
circuit. His profile and the circuit’s didn’t match. When he visited the
circuit, the discrepancy became even more apparent, and painfully so. He prayed
about it, but felt strongly led to accept the invitation. The Chair of District
said that certain family concerns would be met. When he arrived, he discovered
that these promises had been based on out-of-date information.

These problems – and other associated ones – are fundamentally
connected with the concept of God calling people. Officially, the Methodist Church
views things differently. The other day, I read a report that contained
recommendations for future policies in stationing our ministers. The Stationing
Review Group pointed out that we don’t speak of God calling ministers to certain appointments; we speak of them being sent (by the Church). At a simple level,
this shifts the blame from God to the Church! Yet we can’t divorce it from the
idea of calling. Ecumenically and evangelically, we have picked up the language
of ‘call’ from other Christian traditions. Perhaps those closest to our sense
of ‘sending’ are the Roman Catholics and the Salvation Army, but Anglicans,
Baptists and URCs seem to be more in the ‘call’ tradition. Furthermore, when
someone ‘candidates’ for presbyteral ministry in the Methodist Church, we
openly speak about their ‘call’ being tested. So it’s not entirely true to say
that we concentrate on sending rather than calling. We begin with the call, and
after that, you are sent.

Somewhere in all of this, we have to deal with a host of
issues. Human fallenness infects the process at every stage. There may be
selfish desires that a minister or circuit translates (sometimes unconsciously)
into a delusion in the writing of their profile. Add to that the stories I have
heard (admittedly third-hand) about how the Stationing Matching Group conducts
its business when trying to match circuits who want a minister with ministers
on the move: the father-in-law of one District Chair has repeatedly told me
accounts that would shake many ordinary Methodists’ pious images of their
leaders, if they are even half-true. However, the report of the Stationing
Review Group (which I quoted in the last paragraph) claims this is by far the
best system we have ever had. However, no perfect system exists, nor will
exist. Nor can we always be sure that the ministers moving and the circuits
looking for new staff will all fit together like a neat jigsaw. And God has not
yet eliminated human sin! When there is a ministry mismatch, it is just as
likely to be one of those imperfections we have to live with in this life.

It may be worth comparing with other spheres of work. In Genesis
2, God means human work to be fulfilling. Come the fall in chapter 3, part of
the curse is that work becomes toil. Might it be that when a call to a ministry
appointment goes wrong, it is another symptom of the same phenomenon? It is
particularly hard to live with, because we expect ministry to be fulfilling. It
can be far from fulfilling, but that does not mean God is absent or mistaken.

At the same time, the Methodist approach of ‘sending’ should
be open to critique. We speak this language within the context of there being a
‘covenant’ between the minister and the church. The minister gives up all sorts
of things to serve the church, and the church provides a stipend and manse. It has
long been presupposed that the minister is available to be stationed anywhere. Increasingly,
ministers have tried to circumscribe this, by saying they are only suitable to
serve in certain types of appointment, or in particular areas of the country. Some
traditional Methodists see this as a betrayal of the covenant.

While I would acknowledge that it is easy to baptise a
personal preference as an aspect of calling, I would be on the side of those
who do not see circumscribing as a fundamental betrayal. At its best, it takes
seriously the denial of the ‘one size fits all’ heresy. Methodism has effectively
believed in the past that once you were trained for the ministry, you could
serve in any station. This is manifestly untrue. It has led to some of the
painful ministry mismatches of the past. It is like a production-line approach
to church and ministry, and for that very reason, we should reject it as

Not only that, we also need to see the link between a
minister’s call and its affect on others beyond the circuit and the minister. I
am thinking here about the issue of caring for elderly relatives. Last year, my
parents moved. They decided they were of an age that they needed to be nearer
family. Knowing that in a few years, we would move from here to another appointment
who knows where, they chose to move near my sister and brother-in-law. Naturally,
however, I want to play my part – even if it is limited – in caring for them. If
we were to move to the other end of the country, then that would presume that
my sister has the ‘call’ to be the primary carer for our parents. The church
would never consult her, though. When we moved to this appointment, this very
issue was tackled in some literature we were sent. We were told not to restrict
our movements by geography for this reason, because you could now get quick,
cheap air flights. So much for caring about climate change, then! And the
Stationing Review Group report I have mentioned twice already suggests higher
stipends for those who will move anywhere. Is that not a pejorative comment
against those who need to restrict their movements? If society talks about a ‘duty
of care’, how much more the Church? And what does the notion of a higher
stipend do to the idea that a stipend is a living allowance, not a ‘rate for
the job’ salary?

Ultimately, as I have already said, there will be ministry
mismatches. That is not to excuse what might be behind them, whether it is a
minister unwilling to accept discipline, a circuit with unreasonable
expectations or a denomination not exercising a duty of care. In different
ways, we all have to live with disappointment with our lives. Expectations are
dashed. Youthful dreams do not all materialise in mid-life. The speaking God
remains silent, or is hard to hear. The purposeful God remains elusive to
sharing what he wants to accomplish. Hindsight – ahem – comes later. In the
midst of these tensions, we have to do what Rob Bell says at the end of a Nooma DVD: we need to settle one question; do we
believe that God is good? If we do, then – in the silence and darkness –
ministers and circuits can wait.

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  1. I don’t think that there is any ‘one best way’ of getting ministers into appointments. And that scepticism about ‘one best way’ includes having been in a united URC/Methodist sending church and watching as we gained all the members of a medium-sized URC congregation. The congregation had called the minister themselves in prayer and discernment but within a year all the members had left, the building was shut and the minister eventually defrocked.

    I think that the problem at the end of the day is that we are all human and we are all sinful.

    Perhaps one flaw with our system has it has stood (I haven’t read the new guidelines) is that there is less flexibility for both parties if the ‘match’ is wrong. I’ve heard stories of congregations destroyed and I’ve heard stories of ministers bullied into nervous breakdowns. Would it be the case that in the ‘call system’ the congregation would simply ask the minister to leave or vice versa?

    As to your first story about the chap who died in theology college and the question about whether or not he was called, I don’t think that God’s will is quite that mechanistic or linear. I think that ‘free will’ includes the possibility of another scenario where the chap didn’t die. That doesn’t answer the question of whether or not he was called, of course. But I think it precludes the statement ‘We know for certain that he wasn’t called because he died’.

    I also think that there are times when God may say ‘God ahead and make your own choice’ .


  2. Pam,

    I agree with you – there is no perfect method. Each is tainted by human sin. In the case of our current system, it is open to the danger of authoritarian abuse by the ‘hierarchy’ of a supposedly egalitarian denomination.

    The ‘call’ system is weak, too, and can be abused by churches along the lines you suggest. No wonder the Government has been interested in giving employment rights to clergy (although that has dangers, too: in turning us into employees, some churches will think even more they can tell their ministers what to do).

    I never used to like the Anglican system with an incumbent who could only be moved in extreme circumstances, although the longer I’m in ministry, the more it appeals! However, one of my reservations about it is the danger of the priest abusing his or her position of security. Of course some bishops are keen to suspend livings and take greater control themselves of appointments, and it would be interesting to speculate on their reasons for doing so.

    I appreciate your thoughts about the death at theological college. I’m sure you’re right that the will of God is neither mechanistic nor linear.


  3. In the case of our current system, it is open to the danger of authoritarian abuse by the ‘hierarchy’ of a supposedly egalitarian denomination.

    I’m not sure that Methodism was ever historically that ‘egalitarian’. It’s just that in some contexts lay people had/have great power and in other contexts ministers had/have great power. I’ve not heard what you’ve heard about stationing, so it’s hard to say.

    I’m not entirely convinced about permanent ‘livings’.

    I do wonder whether it wouldn’t be a good ‘tweak’ to our current system to provide a relatively easy way of moving a minister if a situation is clearly not working well. I.e. to provide a way out that is an accepted part of the process and that doesn’t make the minister or circuit feel like they aren’t ‘playing by the rules’.


  4. Historically, we’ve been far from egalitarian – agreed! But in more recent decades, I think there’s been a romantic notion that we are. I first came across it when John Vincent visited us at theological college in his Presidential year. He clearly believed it, and I found it far from believable. I still do. I think we talk egalitarian, and act authoritarian.

    I hope I indicated why I had doubts about permanent livings.

    We can move ministers early at present, but there is a stigma attached to a curtailment. In my experience, that curtailment falls on the minister, not the circuit. If there is fault, either or both parties could be to blame. Perhaps the tweak to which you refer could deal with the element of stigma. I think that’s important pastorally for all parties, as is the need to remove the sense of failure.


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