What collaborative ministry means

05 August 2005

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 benefice.

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 school sports.

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 power.

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 century.

Tim Belben FCA is a retired management consultant. He was a member of the General Synod from 1970 to 1995.

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