ABOUT a year ago, I wrote a piece for the Church Times which argued that self-supporting Anglican clergy were being neither treated nor deployed as well as they might be (Comment, 29 January 2010).
These individuals, known as non-stipendary ministers (NSMs) or self-supporting ministers (SSMs), now form 27 per cent of all clergy in England.
Dozens of people wrote to agree vigorously with the views I expressed. Many SSMs described their own experiences, which ranged from the comic to the shocking. In the article, I called for a national survey to establish what SSMs did do, as a basis for future planning. One emailer suggested that I should undertake it myself.
So I did — with the invaluable help of the Revd Graham Lewis, and with the blessing of the Archbishops’ Council’s Ministry Division. Together, we designed a web-based survey that ran last autumn.
What was asked
The questions covered: selection, training, and continuing ministerial development; the posts that people had held since ordination; and what they were doing now, and for approximately how many hours a week.
We asked about respondents’ ministry, and how it had changed over the years, and what review processes were followed. We wanted to know about people’s relationships with their closest colleagues, deaneries, and dioceses. We asked whether they exercised any significant ministry outside formal structures.
At the end, we invited people to make their own comments or to tell their stories, and more than half of them did. Otherwise, the questions were designed to collect facts rather than opinions.
The aim of the survey was positive and practical: to generate a snapshot of the resources currently available to the Church in the form of non-stipendiary clergy, and, on that basis, to suggest ways in which they might be better used.
Alerting SSMs about the survey was not straightforward, and proved to be emblematic of the way in which they are regarded. I had hoped for the help of diocesan SSM officers, but no list exists. I rang all 67 UK diocesan offices; and most calls went something like this:
“Do you have an SSM officer, dean of associate ministry, or similar?”
“Someone with special oversight for unpaid clergy.”
“The Bishop’s in charge of training.”
“Not people in training; unpaid clergy.”
Long pause with confidential muttering.
“I’ll put you on to X.”
After I had talked to everyone in the office, the Bishop’s PA, and an archdeacon or two (most of whom were friendly and keen to help), we generally concluded that the diocese had no SSM officer.
Eventually, I ascertained that 25 dioceses do have an officer (a few have more than one), and two dioceses share one officer (although this was news to one of them).
Across the UK, only three diocesan offices knew instantly what I was talking about — that they had an officer, and who it was. If I had had any doubts about the institutional invisibility of SSMs when I started, I had none now.
Analysing responses by diocese, I found that not only did dioceses with an SSM officer tend to have a higher response-rate than those without, but respondents tended to report themselves as happier. SSM officers, it seems — even if largely below the radar — make a real difference.
Some of the best news to emerge from the survey concerned selection, training, and ministerial development. Overwhelmingly, respondents reported being selected for the kind of ministry they could offer.
Just two aspects of selection caused concern.
First, candidates over 50 years of age cannot, as a rule, apply for stipendiary ministry, but several people observed that this was applied differently in different dioceses, which they felt was unfair.
Second, about 2.5 per cent of respondents reported being given very odd — or frankly discriminatory — reasons for being turned down for stipendiary ministry.
“We need people like you [out] in the world,” was one. (People like what — able, committed, caring, charismatic? Don’t we need people like that in stipendiary ministry?)
“Your husband has a stipend; so you don’t need one,” was another. (No man reported being turned down for stipendiary ministry because he had a wife in paid work.)
“You’re married to a clergyman.” (No man reported being turned down because he had an ordained wife.)
“Your husband isn’t a believer.” (No man, etc.)
Even if you discount the women who were told “We have no suitable stipendiary posts for women,” some blatant sexual discrimination seems to be practised in the selection process.
A significant number of respondents were turned down for stipendiary ministry as non-deployable (most of them also women). I shall return to this next week.
Increasingly, and happily, stipendiaries and non-stipendiaries are being trained side by side. Many respondents commented on how stimulating and enjoyable their training had been.
Since ordination, 87 per cent of SSMs have also had more than a year’s continuing ministerial development (CMD). Among those ordained since 2003, the figure is nearly 100 per cent.
In most dioceses, CMD is organised for stipendiaries and SSMs together. Although it is good that both groups are offered the same resources, many SSMs cannot get to sessions during the working day. Some dioceses recognise this, and schedule meetings in the evenings or at weekends. Others give up on SSMs at this point, as they do not fit into the system.
It is now more common for SSMs to receive regular ministerial development reviews alongside stipendiaries. More than 60 per cent report being reviewed annually or biennially, in line with national guidelines. A discouraging 23 per cent, however, say they are never reviewed.
Here, too, there are particular problems for SSMs in paid work. One respondent reported being sent a list of review times by her archdeacon. She replied, with apologies, that they were all in her working hours. Could he find another time? She never heard from him again.
A gratifying 94.5 per cent of SSMs say that they are kept informed of deanery matters, and 93 per cent are invited to meetings — although a few report being invited to synods, but not chapters.
A large number of respondents, however, noted that deanery meetings were often, or always, held at times when SSMs with jobs could not go. In one person’s former deanery, all clergy were invited, but the area dean would record only stipendiaries as present — SSMs did not count.
There is evidently still some work to do to integrate SSMs into deanery structures, but, overall, the picture is positive.
The same is true of communication between colleagues within parishes or chaplaincies. There are a few sad stories of complete non-communication, but nearly all SSMs meet stipendiary colleagues regularly for prayer, business meetings, reviews, and just for pleasure.
All this is very good news, and shows that there has been a great deal of progress in recent years in integrating SSMs into the structures in which they work. On other fronts, however, the picture is less encouraging.
Stability or stagnation?
Most respondents (71 per cent) described themselves as assisting in ministry. Only 13 per cent are responsible for ministry in their parish, chaplaincy, or similar, and, nationally, less than one per cent are responsible for a team. Just 0.6 per cent have acted as area dean, and no one reported having held any higher office.
Even more strikingly, 41 per cent of respondents reported that there had been no change in their ministry since ordination. Only 14 per cent have acquired extra responsibilities. Just 12.5 per cent of the majority in parish ministry have changed parish. And 2.5 per cent have fewer responsibilities now than when they were ordained — some due to personal circumstances, and some because stipendiary colleagues have prevented them from exercising parts of their ministry.
This could be viewed as a laudable picture of stability. In theory, it could be the result of a deliberate and carefully thought out policy by dioceses. Such a policy might make sense, and would certainly have supporters (see next week’s article). But I have been unable to discover that it exists.
Meanwhile, it is currently recognised that it is good for stipendiaries, and those they serve, to have a change every few years. If it is true for stipendiaries, surely the same must apply to non-stipendiaries.
The lack of any policy, and the often-repeated comment by respondents that they feel ignored, overlooked, or under-used, suggests strongly that this picture is not one of stability, but one of stagnation.
Far too often, it seems, dioceses train ordinands, at considerable expense, ordain them, place them in a parish or chaplaincy, and then just forget about them. Can this be the best use of resources, at a time when the harvest is so great and the labourers so few?
The impression that most SSMs are parked somewhere, and left, is strengthened by the reports of those whose ministry has changed. Seventy per cent said that they initiated the change — usually because they felt called, sometimes because their circumstances changed, and, occasionally, because they were unhappy where they were.
Only ten per cent reported that a positive lead had come from somewhere else in the Church. In less than half of all cases did the change involve a review with a bishop or archdeacon. The picture is inescapably one of dioceses’ taking little or no practical interest, once SSMs are trained, in how they might be further developed or deployed.
One sad theme to emerge from stories of both stagnation and change is the number of SSMs who feel that they have been badly treated by stipendiaries — most often, incumbents in parishes.
A clear pattern emerges from these accounts. An SSM has a good experience of ordination training, and a happy relationship with his or her training incumbent. Then the incumbent moves on, or the SSM changes parish, and relations with the new incumbent are much more difficult.
People report not being allowed to take services; not being allowed to preach for years on end; not being allowed any pastoral position; not being consulted or kept informed of what is going on; or being given permission to develop new initiatives, which are then shelved without explanation.
“I did more when I was a layman/Reader/curate in training” is a common refrain. “Why did God bother to call me if I wasn’t going to be used?” one SSM asks.
Some people have taken their difficulties to their bishop or archdeacon, and have been allowed to move. Others have been told to close their eyes and think of heaven.
No one reported a case where his or her bishop or archdeacon had taken up the problem effectively with the stipendiary.
A few SSMs suspect that stipendiaries feel threatened by them — especially if the SSM in question is the older or more experienced priest, or has a high-flying secular job. But most of the trouble is thought to stem from stipendiaries’ low opinion of SSMs as a class.
“I do feel that paid clergy do not take SSMs seriously,” comments one respondent, “and view us as amateurs not to be trusted.” Another says: “Since moving from stipendiary to non-stipendiary, I have become aware of the disdain with which some stipendiary clergy view SSMs.” Several have been asked: “Are you a proper priest or an SSM?”
One person says, ruefully: “I have been ordained for three months, and am already beginning to feel second-class.” Almost all SSMs are used to hearing themselves denigrated as hobby priests, weekenders, or volunteers.
Without hearing from both sides, of course, we cannot know for certain what goes on in any working relationship, and if stipendiaries were surveyed, a very different picture might emerge. But so many SSMs report having difficult relationships with stipendiaries, with such obvious pain and frustration, that the issue cannot be ignored.
The happiest stories come from those who have created a unique package of activities for themselves (which might, for instance, include teaching, writing, spiritual direction, or acting as some kind of adviser to a diocese or division); and those who are in charge of a parish.
Some, but not all, dioceses currently allow SSMs to look after a parish within a group, and it is a model which surely deserves to be tried more widely. One respondent captured the mood of many: “Working as a full-time associate vicar with day-to-day responsibility for a parish has been a huge joy.”
Creating your own package is fine if you are that kind of person, and have a particular ministry, but it is not for everyone. Dioceses that want to make the most of their clerical resources should not be leaving it to SSMs to come up with their own ministry.
They should be thinking strategically about how best to use non-stipendiary clergy to help fulfil their needs.
Next week: are SSMs too old; not on the job enough; not deployable; not leadership material? What are we doing to encourage ministry outside Church structures? What is the value of ministry in the workplace? And what is the way forward?
The Revd Dr Teresa Morgan is Fellow and Tutor in Ancient History at Oriel College, Oxford, and an SSM in the parish of Littlemore.
For the full survey results go to www.1pf.co.uk/SSM.html
There were 1003 responses to the survey. For statistical purposes, we did not include retired stipendiary clergy who are still working unpaid, or those who have a house-for-duty post. That left 890 respondents, with 858 from England.
In 2009, there were 3100 SSMs in England, out of a total of 11,658 clergy, giving a response rate of 28 per cent.