When I was eighteen, my life changed unexpectedly. Since the age of five, I had been identified as a university prospect. I had a place (subject to A-Level grades) to read Computer Science at Imperial College, London. One month before the A-Levels, though, a sudden searing pain in my neck put paid to them. Although a consultant rheumatologist prescribed some physiotherapy that regained the movement in my neck and the pain reduced, it never completely subsided. I took a clerical job in the Civil Service and decided to review my long-term future. Ultimately that led to theological colleges and the ministry, but that’s another story.

Fast-forward to six years ago. My wife was pregnant with our first child, but I was still suffering from neck pain and frequent headaches. I didn’t want to be regularly out of action when a baby was around. My GP recommended the osteopath attached to the practice, and I began seeing Jamie regularly. One of the first things he explained to me was that my neck problems began with my feet. I could begin to teach my body a healthier posture if I based my sitting positions on how I placed my feet. Then the spine would start to move into a better position.

When we moved here three years ago, Jamie recommended a practice, and I now see Tom every six weeks. This morning I saw him. He is always full of helpful advice. I explained today that on my daily power walk that I take for fitness and blood pressure reduction, I regularly end up with a stiff neck. I had noticed that I tighten up my shoulders involuntarily. He showed me how I could help that by tightening my abdominal muscles in order to take some strain off my spine.

Afterwards, I went to a local Christian bookshop. There I bumped into a vicar friend. In exchanging the usual pleasantries, he said of his parish, ‘I’ve been here three years and I’ve only just learned the questions I need to ask. I don’t know the answers, but I do at last know the questions.’

Later, it struck me that metaphorically there was a connection with osteopathy. What I have learned from osteopathy is the general life lesson that the presenting problem is not necessarily the source of the problem, nor is it necessarily the place where the solution must begin. Healing my neck involves my feet and abdominal muscles, amongst other places. Likewise, it has taken my friend three years to get to the roots of parish issues. Clearly, the questions weren’t what he first conceived them to be. A good proportion of ministry is about people wanting us to ‘take the pain away’, but the best ways of doing so may not be what people want.

Richard Foster famously said that superficiality is the curse of our age. We go for surface solutions, for style over substance. It is especially tempting in the ministry if your long-term future in an appointment is not secure. In order to make an impact, you may find yourself leaning in the direction of doing something spectacular that does not have roots, in the hope that you might be able to stay longer. However, if you knew you were staying longer, you might take the healthier course of action – of exploring what the real questions and issues were, rather than leaping on the obvious.

While I am not sure I like the Anglican system where the incumbent is granted the ‘freehold’ of the parish and can stay as long as they like, provided they are not naughty, I do wonder whether the Methodist system should have further longevity built into it. Our present system allows for an initial invitation of five years. This is reviewed just under four years in – that is the real length of time in which a minister has to have an impact in order to win the vote. It used to be worse: the initial appointment when I was younger was three years. We do seem to have learned from other traditions that longer ministries are generally better, but I wonder whether we should increase that initial five to, say, seven.

We need to resist the crash-bang-wallop nature of our culture, where everything has to be instant. (Blogging and twenty-four-hour news channels only exacerbate the instant coffee and microwave food society.) Might it be counter-cultural to be slow, so that we might trace the root causes of problems and begin to apply treatment?

UPDATE: When I wrote this post yesterday, there was another aspect of osteopathy I meant to include. As I understand it, osteopathy is a therapy that doesn’t so much heal the body itself as put the body into a place where it self-heals. That, it seems to me, makes for an interesting pastoral analogy. Pastors don’t heal people, they equip them to find healing. In Psalm 23, the Lord as shepherd leads the sheep to green pastures and still waters – but there they presumably feed and water themselves. A pastor’s ministry includes showing people how they may access spiritual food and water, rather than simply putting it on a plate for them all the time.


  1. Excellent thoughts (and fantastic segue into them)! I take what you’re saying about the longevity, but at the moment, don’t know what to think if I had another 5 years ahead! It’s better than the UMC which doesn’t have a minimum.

    I sometimes think that the problem here is exacerbated by the circuit system in which a minister is never at her church but once or twice a month. That doesn’t give much time to get to know the people and makes near impossible preaching on topics/themes one would like to keep in front of the congregations. I realise I am in part treading on the sacred cow of British Methodism local preaching, but my friends who have turned around churches in the US have done so because they are with their churches week in and week out.

    Of course, I may be trying to answer the wrong question! I am willing to listen! 🙂


  2. Thanks for an excellent piece and the way you brought the two strands together.
    I am interested in what Will had to say about these issues and although I am a local preacher I do have some sympathy with what he says about the inability to preach on themes due to the transient nature of the preaching plan. In a former church I belonged to the vast bulk of the preaching at Communion services was done by the pastor and myself and it did mean that we could do alternative Sunday mornings or we could do a series for a number of weeks but of course this was a church in a different denomination and there was just the one church. Obviously with ministers having a number of churches it would be virtually impossible to spend even a month preaching at one church.
    I have to say that like many in Britain I suspect, I have no understanding of how the UMC works and wonder if the same sort of system could or would work here in Britain given the difficulty we have in respect of the number of ministers.
    Just as a matter of interest in our circuit of 10 churches last week and this coming Sunday two thirds of the services were/will be conducted by local preachers, and while I appreciate the view that local preaching is a sacred cow it would seem to me to be a very necessary sacred cow at the present time.
    I do not think you are trying to answer the wrong question but do think it is an extremely difficult one given the way the Methodist church in Britain operates.


  3. Will,

    A segue – thanks! Next up, two in a row from Van Morrison … 🙂

    Will, FP,

    I think you’re both raising the important point of pastoral continuity. I agree entirely that this is a substantial part of the issue. Local Preachers can certainly be used within a framework of continuity of preaching. We don’t need to despise the ministry of LPs.

    But the circuit system as practised here is a problem. It is a sacred cow that needs a visit to the abbatoir. While it has many benefits in fellowship and support (I don’t know what I would have done sometimes as a minister without a regular circuit staff meeting), it disrupts continuity. Those in traditions outside Methodism look at us and despair at that disruption.

    It is exacerbated by at least two problems, in my opinion. One is that the decline in the number of congregations has been slower percentage-wise than the decline in the number of worshippers. Mathematically, that leads to ministers chasing around several small churches, rather than having one large church. Suggest mergers and try to escape with your life!

    But that is linked to the second issue, which I’ve blogged about before, and that is the doctrine of presbyteral ministry. We still have a Constantinian Christendom mindset that what everyone needs is a pastor who will administer the sacraments. It’s not fit for a missionary situation. I hope to explore this more during my sabbatical next year.


  4. Fascinating how a pain in the neck can lead to important questions… 😀

    Handful of thoughts:
    – I agree that 5 years is daft. Somne of us have been arguing for ages that we need to dump this system. The usual defence is that it does provide a face-saving exit for both sides if things aren’t working. Not good enough. It can disable long-term planning and vision, it can focus too much on the negative (we want a change because we don’t like…) rather than the positive. It seems to me that the current stationing system is a bigger sacred cow, and one in more need of the abbatoir. A wise old Anglican colleague once said “It gives too much room for sin…” I know what he meant.

    Beware though of the grass looking greener on the other side. Those of us chafing under the British Methodist system have looked longingly at other systems, but have often been told that Anglicans, URCs, etc look longingly at ours. Some systems are too biassed in favour of the clergy, others too much in favour of the churches. Ours (allegedly!) has the best compromise. Hmmm.

    The biggest issue is the default that we move after 5 years, unless a positive decision is made to stay. I have to win my reinvitation. If the default was to stay, say for the first 10 with a review built in at 5 or 7, so that it needed a positive decision to leave before 10 years, that might be more useful. After 10, it would need a positive decision to stay. That would build in a bias to longer more fruitful ministry, but not make it permanent.

    Continuity of preaching can be achieved. Team preaching, theme preaching, arranging the plan to allow a focus as appropriate – it can be done. It just requires people prepared and able to make it work.


  5. Tony,

    Yes, there is ‘too much room for sin’ in the current invitation system. I’ve heard too many horror stories about what goes on at the Stationing meetings. Even if you have a good relationship with your District Chair, you’re very vulnerable. Heaven help you if you don’t have a good relationship with her or him.

    I think you make excellent suggestions about the invitation system, and I agree with you that team preaching is possible. It’s just that the culture of the system militates against it.


  6. I agree that five years is too short a time, especially if the minister is a quiet person who prefers to change things gently and slowly. In such cases the groundwork has just been laid after 4 years and, if something like an Irish accent upsets some of the congregation enough to desire a change, the minister’s vision is halted at the point when it was about to ‘take off’.

    Theme preaching is quite possible, using whoever is planned, regardless of whether they were minister, LPs or from other denominations. We have just had a successful series on ‘What is God saying to you?’ When the Plan came out, each preacher was contacted and asked if they were willing to preach on this theme and given the question that would fall to them in due course. It worked very well.


  7. Olive,

    Thanks for the comment about ‘quiet ministers’ – I’m one! Glad to hear also that your theme preaching worked well. I had mixed experiences of it in my last circuit. In an LEP where the Anglican and Methodist ministers planned it together with the Readers, it usually worked quite well. In a ‘normal’ circuit church where we planned the series locally and then assigned particular themes to visiting Local Preachers, it worked less well. I suppose there was less ownership of the vision that way. That church then asked for a continuation of themed preaching, but solely by me, or at least not by ‘outside’ preachers.


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