THE TERM collaborative ministry has been with us for years. But how many
incumbents know what it means?
A comparison with other professions helps. In professional partnerships,
each partner gets on with the job in his or her speciality, conferring with the
others on points of difficulty, and meeting to discuss policy. The senior
partner doesn’t take the decisions; instead, he or she chairs the meetings.
Each partner takes the decisions appropriate to his or her task of the moment,
and is trusted to do so. A partnership works collaboratively: it has to.
The basics of organisation theory are these. First, the proprietor has too
much work; so he gets an assistant. The assistant is told what to do, and takes
just petty decisions: that works only in a small organisation.
Next on the ladder of complexity comes delegation. The proprietor delegates
parcels of work to various assistants, and leaves them to get on with it,
reviewing progress at intervals; but those to whom work is delegated make their
own decisions how the work should be done. Policy decisions remain with the one
who delegates, and he or she has the last word, even though policy may be
discussed with the team. Few incumbents in parish ministry get beyond this.
Partnership, on the other hand, happens when individuals pool their
abilities (and client base), and take decisions in common on policy. They need
a leader, and, in the business world, choose either the owner of the building
or the one who contributes most clients.
The pattern more suitable for partnership (and possibly for team ministries)
is when the leader chosen is one whose experience best fits him or her to hold
the team together. If an existing leader or incumbent is taking the initiative
in setting up collaboration to replace his autocracy (and let us say it is a
he), he has succeeded only when he is prepared to trust others to take their
own decisions — to do the work their way, reporting back not decisions for
approval, but results, for commendation or condemnation as appropriate.
In the Church, many parishes are still stuck on the
“incumbent-plus-assistants” model. Even though a growing number have
managed to graduate to the “incumbent with team”, the latter have work
delegated to them, and are expected to refer most decisions for approval.
Some have worked in team ministry, but the title is confusing: that sort of
team is a way of organising groups of parishes. Very few have grown up to
partnership or collaborative ministry within a single parish or united
THE CONVERSION of traditional parish ministry into collaborative ministry
faces the difficulty that it is assumed that a team must be a team led by a
cleric. But clerics still cannot appreciate that they are not well-equipped for
collaborative team leadership, especially if they have spent much of their life
in the Church.
All their experience will have been in delegation models, and not
partnership. It is likely that senior parish clergy — those ready to be
appointed team rector — will have had no experience of teamwork, other than in
In business, there are two distinct ways in which a team is created. The
first is when a proprietor (or chief executive) builds around himself
subordinates, whom he chooses for their ability to run parts of his business;
but his decision is final.
The second is when a number of practitioners in the same profession combine
to create a larger, more influential business unit. A successful team leader of
the latter is chairman, not chief executive: not one who has been trained to
take decisions, but one who is best fitted to pull together the work of
independently competent team members — providing help, not supervision, and
accepting that team members will make mistakes and grow from them, as long as
they are not forced into a common mould.
The first, proprietor, model is the weaker of the two, because the chief
executive instinctively dare not build into his team rivals to his executive
BATH & WELLS is one diocese that has recently published plans to set up
local ministry groups (LMGs), and, following the Tiller report, many will be at
deanery level. But it is central to the Bath & Wells plans that a
stipendiary priest would have to be leader of each LMG, even though almost none
(by definition) will have had experience of partnership.
The collaborative team in parish ministry will need specialist knowledge on
liturgy and pastoral ministry, which the clergy are trained to provide. It will
need knowledge about publicity, communications, and finance, for instance, for
which the clergy are not trained. Cure of souls is not the same as team
leadership; the spiritual dimensions of ministry may be discharged better if
freed from leadership’s demands.
Instead, the team leader should be chosen for his or her experience; should
probably be part-time, and (if priesthood is considered necessary) might even
be (daring thought) a non-stipendiary priest. Team leadership within a
partnership (or collaborative local ministry group) is not necessarily a
full-time occupation, and the role is not necessarily an all-consuming task.
The leader must lead, not drive.
Until our senior clergy recognise that team leader is not the same as chief
executive, we will not achieve collaborative ministry, nor will ministry in the
Church of England grow into a force to lead the Church through the 21st
Tim Belben FCA is a retired management consultant. He was a member of
the General Synod from 1970 to 1995.