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Confirmed: Methodist Ministers Have No Employment Rights

Middlesex Guildhall, location of the UK Supreme Court. Public Domain photo from Wikipedia.

Middlesex Guildhall, location of the UK Supreme Court. Public Domain photo from Wikipedia.

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.

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Employment Rights And Ministers

The Methodist Church has lost an appeal against a minister who claims she was unfairly constructively dismissed. To be more precise, Haley Preston is pursuing a case along these lines against the church, and in past times the church could claim that it was not her employer, but that ministers are employed by God. Now the Appeal Court has upheld the ruling of an Employment Appeal Tribunal that Mrs Preston was in fact employed by the church, a position which gives her access to redress under employment legislation. Before now, ministers who were dismissed have had no such redress in law. The full judgment is here. The official Methodist response reads as follows:

Revd Dr Martyn Atkins, General Secretary of the Methodist Church in Britain said: “The Methodist Church is seeking leave to appeal to the Supreme Court against the judgement that Haley Preston’s (formerly Moore) case is a matter for an employment tribunal. We are treating this matter with great seriousness as something which would affect all of our ministers and the culture of our Church. “The church values all of its ministers, and it is clear to us that relationship cannot easily be reduced to a simple contract of employment. The call to Methodist ministry cannot be treated as just another job – it is based on a lifetime calling, expressed through a covenant relationship with the Church. “We want to ensure that we treat everyone fairly and properly and all of our ministers have rights of redress under existing Church procedures. We are committed to caring for all who serve the Church, whether lay or ordained, paid or volunteer.”

The point of the ‘covenant’ language is that there is a mutual covenant between church and minister. Ministers give up a home to go where the church stations them; in response, the church provides a stipend (a living allowance – not a salary) and a manse. In court the Methodist Church tried to invoke Human Rights law to the effect that religious conscience should have prior claim over employment law. The Appeal Court called this ‘moral poverty’. It appears that the church has added things to the covenant from the world of secular employment, such as appraisal, supervision and holidays, and these are now regarded as evidence by the courts in support of ministers being in a contractual situation, in addition to or instead of a covenantal one.

The covenant is good when it works. However, it can go wrong on either side. A minister can be treated badly by a congregation, circuit or other body; equally, a minister can mistreat a church or individuals. I do not know what happened in Mrs Preston’s case, and even if I did it would be wrong to comment, especially when the legal process has still not finished. Clearly, though, she feels aggrieved. However, it is a tragedy when Christians have to invoke the law in order to deal with each other, something Paul told the Corinthians in his First Epistle to their shame.

At this point I simply want to tease out the pros and cons if ministers do end up being treated as employees. In favour is the fact that it would open us up to clear protection in employment law. It might also make things clearer in cases of incompetent or abusive ministers. Against is the notion that some people would want to tell ministers explicitly what they should be doing, in ways that go against the historic notion that the stipend frees ministers to pray and seek God’s direction for their work. The introduction of the ‘Letter of Understanding’ that circuits give to ministers when an invitation to serve in a new circuit is accepted has pushed in this direction: some circuits start to get quite precise about their expectations of the minister. While accountability is important, it will be hard to be a leader if those we are trying to lead think they can tell us what we should be doing.

Furthermore, should the position be confirmed that we are employees of the church, we shall need to resolve exactly who or which body in the church is our employer. The fears described in the last paragraph could be very real if the employing body was very local. If, on the other hand, it was the Methodist Conference itself, there might be more opportunity for proper safeguards and procedures. It is not that all local lay leaders are dangerous – far from it! – but lack of knowledge, experience and skills could be dangerous.

There is a fascinating (but increasingly complex) discussion of this issue going on at the UK Methodists page on Facebook.

In the wider context, the trade union Unite (which represents such ‘faith workers’ as join it) has been campaigning for a few years now for ministers to be given the same rights as employees. That may not necessarily involve us becoming employees, but being entitled to the same protection. There is a paper explaining their position here.

This is going to run and run, in some form or another. Whatever the final conclusion, it will massively change the relationship between ministers and their congregations. My gut feeling is that it will end with ministers becoming employees in some form or another, because – as has been said on the UK Methodists Facebook page – the courts are increasingly taking the line that ‘if it looks like a duck and it quacks like a duck then it is a duck.’ It is hard to know what fundamental doctrinal reason we could have for resisting employment status, but if we go that route we shall have to be careful and we shall need to be proactive in developing what that relationship could and should be in line with our convictions.

The Employment Status Of Methodist Ministers

This has been hot on Methodist blogs over the last few days: a legal case about whether Methodist ministers should have the same employment protection in law as employees in ordinary jobs. It stems from a case in Cornwall, where a minister called Haley Moore resigned in 2009, but wishes to sue the church for constructive dismissal. However, that is only possible if legally ministers are regarded as employees. In 1984 the courts confirmed the traditional interpretation that we are not, but in recent years a Pentecostal pastor was deemed to have been an employee. Moore has won a ruling that would enable ministers to be considered as employees, but the Methodist Church announced last week it was to appeal against this.

Why does this interest me, and what is at stake?

It doesn’t just interest me, because I am a Methodist minister. My working background before ministry informs my interest. I worked in the Civil Service, and for three years part of my job involved determining whether people were employed or self-employed for National Insurance purposes. There is a range of factors to be considered, because employment status is not determined in the UK by statute but by case-law. So you look for precedent – does someone have a ‘contract of service’ (in which case s/he is an employee) or do they have a ‘contract for services’ (that would make someone self-employed). To illustrate one difference, in a contract of service, that named individual must turn up to perform the tasks, usually at a certain time. In a contract for services, the worker may provide a substitute.

However, ’employed’ and ‘self-employed’ are but two of four employment designations available in British law. The other two are ‘director of a limited company’ (clearly irrelevant here) and ‘office holder’. And that is the crucial category, because that is how ministers have been regarded. Not many jobs or professions are classified as office holders. The only other one that springs to mind is Registrars of Births, Marriages and Deaths. We are office holders, because we are deemed to be engaged by God, not the Church. Hence we do not have employment rights when it comes to issues such as unfair dismissal. The Church claims instead to provide appropriate structures for justice to be done.

My other interest in this case is that for part of my time in the Civil Service, I was a representative of my union in my office. I would say that my first experience of pastoral care was in supporting a colleague whose work was suffering, in explaining to management why her personal situation meant her work was not up to standard for a time. I therefore care about employment rights from that perspective.
Hence, I understand why many of my colleagues are calling for us to be regarded as employees, so that we might be protected in law. There is a feeling in some circles that you cannot always trust the promises of the Church to be fair and just. David Hallam refers to the mistreatment of a minister in his post on this subject, and Tony Buglass alludes to it in the re-invitation system, in his comment on David’s post. I could add to their stories what I know about the way ministers can be the subjects of lies and falsehoods when the question of a re-invitation comes up, and all without redress. I can equally point to stories of the loving pastoral care given by senior ministers, such as Superintendents and Chairs of Districts, in these times.

So you know now why I have an interest in this subject, but I have not yet come to the question I posed about what is at stake. It is here that I find the situation more complex than it first appears.

To be sure, becoming employees would afford us protection. It would be a warning against the low-level defamation of character that infects our Church. I don’t suppose the Church would sign up to the European Working Time Directive, though, which would limit our working hours to forty-eight per week!

And in line with this, there are certain practices the Church has adopted, which have been lifted from the world of employment, and which give us more the character of employees. We are subject to an annual appraisal (now called the Annual Development Review). When we accept a new appointment, we have to assent to a Letter of Understanding, which sets out the broad parameters within which the circuit expects us to work.

However, to confirm employee  status would give certain lay leaders more freedom to tell ministers what they should and should not do with their time. I could tell stories from long ago, in a galaxy far, far away of circuit stewards who clearly thought it was their rôle to be the ministers’ managers. We could institutionalise more little Hitlers than we already have.

There is a reason why we are not paid a salary (recompense for our work) but a stipend (a living allowance). The assumption has been that ministers are given enough to live, free from financial worry, so that we can pray and discern what specifically God is calling us to do in the context where we are placed. This is placed within what the Methodist Church calls the ‘covenant’ between the Church and the ministers: that on the one hand ministers will sacrificially and obediently follow Christ in their calling (including where the Church sends us to serve), and that on the other hand the Church will look after us, especially in the light of what we give up in order to do this. Hence the provision of both stipend and manse.

This stipend-covenant relationship would be fatally undermined if we became employees. We would have to be paid a salary, and there would be major questions about the future of the manse system. Whatever the cost of maintaining manses, if they are removed then circuits will have to wait for a minister to buy or rent a property in the area. So much for the continuity of ministry that happens in Methodism, where one minister leaves and another moves in almost immediately. (Some, though, would not see a vacancy as a bad thing: they believe that the current system infantilises congregations by reinforcing dependency.) What both the salary and manse issues boil down to, of course, are money, and that is in short supply at grass-roots level. Hence, this could be a major tension if the courts find in favour of Haley Moore.

Hence I hope you now see why I believe this is not a straightforward issue. There are advantages and disadvantages both to changing to employee status and to retaining office holder status.

Tragically, though, this whole debate and the stories many people could tell that lie behind their comments are a sad commentary on the state of our Church. Behind all of this is a narrative about a lack of trust and a shortage of love. To me, those are the biggest issues here, and the hardest to resolve.

Clergy Employment Rights?

The trade union Amicus are continuing their campaign for clergy to be given full employment rights in the light of some terrible abuses that have shown the precarious employment situation we are technically in. All very praiseworthy, but it ain’t so simple.

Every time many clergy are asked questions for official or commercial purposes, we don’t fit in. Homeowner or tenant? Neither: we live in tied accommodation.

Employee or self-employed? Again, neither: we’re that rare breed known as office-holders. It puts us in a select group along with people such as registrars of births, marriages and deaths.

Salary? Er, it’s called a stipend, actually. Not the rate for the job that a salary supposedly is, but a living allowance to free us from want and give us the time to seek God’s priorities and vision for our calling.

Which is where the notion of employment rights could be dangerous. We need the protection from tin pot Hitlers at local and national levels, but imagine what they’d become if they thought they were our employers. I’ve been in a situation where people in power wanted to impose a job description on a minister. Unless this is handled carefully (and at least the Government so far is going for the voluntary approach with churches) this has the potential not only for the tail to wag the dog but for one kind of tyranny to be exchanged for another, and in it the very essence of our calling to be shattered – not by God, but by humans.