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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.

Methodists And The Use Of Social Media

Richard Hall and David Hallam take differing views on a proposal coming to the Methodist Council laying down policies for how Methodist ministers and officials use social media – blogging, Twitter, Facebook and so on.

My own opinion of the document is somewhere in between Richard and David’s. Basically, it’s a paper that reads as if it is worried about protecting the church’s reputation.  Of course, in today’s online world anyone can gain an online presence and express their opinions. Naturally, there could be dangers in that. The paper is right to remind people that principles of confidentiality and so on should still be observed. With that I am with Richard – it doesn’t much change the existing situation, it simply applies it to a new situation.

Yet with David I have some reservations. I wish he wouldn’t use inflammatory language such as ‘fatwa’, but in a document that expects those who use social media to be transparent about their identity there are issues of transparency to raise about it. Not about the author – that is clear. It is Toby Scott, our Director of Communications and Campaigns. But there are two areas that seem vague to me. Firstly, the identity of the ‘selection of existing Methodist bloggers’ who were consulted (page 1). Who were they, who selected them and what selection criteria were used? The answers to these questions may be entirely honest, but without further explanation the online community is bound to start wondering.

Secondly, we know that the report ‘comes at the request of the Strategic Leaders and the Connexional Leaders Forum’ (page 2). However, it would be good to know the reasons why these informal private bodies requested a report. Without knowing the terms of reference, we cannot entirely evaluate the appropriateness of the document.

We live in a culture of suspicion that sometimes goes over the top, but without further explication of what has been posted as a public online source, it is little surprise that David Hallam (and others?) become suspicious. After all, there is much in the report that seeks to prevent church officers from tweeting during meetings. I can instantly think of one church officer who does this. Was this person a target for some of the report? Hopefully not.

It is certainly a paper that has a benign understanding of ‘old media’ in contrast to ‘new media’ – see the references to the Methodist Recorder moderating its letters page. Times have changed. The last time I read the Recorder (about two years ago, admittedly) it couldn’t get newsworthy press releases into its pages until three to four weeks after their publication. I know, I compared the date one appeared in the newspaper with when it had been reported in a blog.

This issue brings to mind something that happened while I was training for the ministry at theological college. Older Methodists may know there was an old tradition that the moment you began training for the ministry you were entitled to wear a clerical collar and be addressed as ‘Reverend’, in contrast to other denominations. During my training, that policy changed. There was an incident, we were told, where a ministerial student at another college had abused this. One friend of mine asked, ‘Is this the reason or the occasion for the change of policy?’ Given the questions Tony Buglass has raised in comments on both Richard and David’s posts about the negative publicity afforded to our denomination through the TV show ‘An Island Parish‘, I do at least think this question needs asking, even if it turns out this document has arisen for entirely good reasons. Once again, it’s the question of transparency.

UPDATE, WEDNESDAY 27TH JANUARY, 9:00 PM: Please also read Pete Phillips’ trenchant critique of the paper.