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Mobilising an under-used resource

01 February 2013

A survey of self-supporting ministers has led to progress, says Teresa Morgan


Hands-on: a moment during the ordination service in Peterborough Cathedral on 30 June 2012

Hands-on: a moment during the ordination service in Peterborough Cathedral on 30 June 2012

Readers who remember a national survey of non-stipendiary clergy - NSMs, or self-supporting ministers, SSMs - (Features, 1, 8 April 2011) might have wondered what, if anything, happened to it afterwards. The answer is, a good deal: not least that it has become part of a wider conversation that is generating ideas and momentum at national and local levels. What follows is a sample - far from exhaustive, but I hope encouragingly indicative - of new and continuing initiatives in relation to non-stipendiary ministry in the Church of England.

The 2010 survey (which was conducted by the Revd Graham Lewis and me, with the support of the Ministry Division) asked about SSMs' experience of selection, training, and continuing ministerial development; posts held since ordination; what they were currently doing, and for how many hours per week. There were questions about ministerial-development reviews; about respondents' relationships with clerical colleagues, deaneries, and dioceses; and about their ministry outside formal church structures.

Four areas emerged as particularly worrying to respondents, and inviting consideration by dioceses. After their first curacy, many felt that little thought was given to their further development and deployment. Relatively few, even many years after ordination, had moved parish, changed ministry, or taken up new responsibilities.

Related to this, many respondents felt that dioceses took little account of the hours and skills that they had to offer, their deployability, or their leadership potential. A significant minority reported tensions with stipendiary colleagues. When problems arose, or even where they did not, many felt that there was relatively little support for SSMs from deaneries, archdeaconries, or dioceses.

The report arising from the survey made several recommendations. Dioceses might usefully audit their SSMs, to find out who would be interested in further development, and who would like to take on more responsibility. Some SSMs, for instance, might be able and willing to take on house-for-duty posts, act as team rectors, contribute to diocesan educational activities, or specialise in supporting interregnums. Information could also be gathered through ministerial-development reviews, which SSMs should receive on the same basis as stipendiary clergy.

Deanery plans could be strengthened by taking into account not just where a deanery needed stipendiary posts, but also where it could use SSMs. When reviewing provision in a large town-centre church, for example, a deanery might decide that it needed two stipendiary posts, and one that was non-stipendiary. If it did not already have an SSM in place, it could draw up a description of a non-stipendiary post and advertise it.

Good relationships between SSMs and stipendiary colleagues should be ensured, not only through goodwill and effective communication, but also through clear, functional, working agreements, which could be regularly reviewed.

One colleague commented that the report was "pushing at an open door". Attitudes to self-supporting ministry across the Church, he said, were changing fast. Subsequent events have proved him right.

The report was sent to diocesan bishops and the Ministry Division. It was presented to the Ministry Council, which took a positive view of its recommendations, late in 2011. In March 2012, it formed part of the background to a paper that was sent to the House of Bishops' standing committee, recommending that the House review its arrangements for supporting non-stipendiary ministry.

Dr Tim Ling, National Adviser on Continuing Ministerial Development, who wrote the paper, also conducted a national survey, "Experiences of Ministry", in 2011, in collaboration with King's College, London, and his findings about the experience of SSMs confirm many of those of the 2010 survey.

One initiative, which was already under way in 2010, was the development of new guidance on the role of house-for-duty clergy. This was published last year, and confirms that SSMs may take up these posts. It is also becoming increasingly common for SSMs (including OLMs) to become priests-in-charge, incumbents, team rectors, rural or area deans, vocations advisers, and ministry reviewers. (No news yet of a self-supporting bishop or archdeacon, though.)

Chester and Salisbury currently have assistant DDOs who are SSMs, and Oxford has appointed two, who work 15-20 hours per week, and have a particular brief to support candidates for ordination to self-supporting ministry, and self-supporting ordinands.

Dioceses have been starting or furthering a wide range of initiatives. In 2010, only 26 dioceses had an SSM officer. Some (I know of Manchester, Oxford, and Salisbury) now have an officer for each archdeaconry. The 2010 survey showed how much difference it made to SSMs to have contact, information, and support from a local officer, and it is notable that many of the dioceses where the training and deployment of SSMs have developed furthest are also those with active, and sometimes multiple, SSM officers. Two colleagues in Oxford are currently compiling a national email list of SSM officers, to facilitate contact, and the exchange of ideas.

Blackburn, Manchester, and Oxford have audited their SSMs and OLMs (and, in Oxford, LLMs), asking what they are currently doing, and what they might like to do in the future. Salisbury is currently piloting an audit, and other dioceses are considering one.

THE survey in Blackburn diocese was conducted by Canon Peter Shepherd. His report combines profound reflection on the nature of self-supporting ministry with a set of practical recommendations. It emphasises the need for ministry agreements to be taken seriously; for strategies to be developed to prevent tensions arising between SSMs and stipendiary incumbents in parishes, and to resolve them when they do arise; for the leadership qualities of SSMs to be recognised and developed, as appropriate; and for more proactive, joined-up thinking about deployment.

The then Bishop of Blackburn, the Rt Revd Nicholas Reade, established a working group in response to Dr Shepherd's report, which endorsed his recommendations in a set of proposals to the diocese. This working group also consulted other dioceses about their policies (I am, gratefully, drawing on some of their responses here), and several expressed an interest in taking up the Blackburn recommendations.

Manchester and Oxford found that many SSMs' top priority was further training. Hot topics included managing interregnums, pastoral care, legal issues, pioneer ministry, and spiritual direction; diocesan Initial Ministerial Education teams have taken these ideas away to develop them. Some respondents were also keen to start or help with new initiatives - on the environment, church-planting, the use of IT, or the practice of mediation - and were put in touch with each other, and with relevant diocesan officers.

A number of respondents in Oxford hoped to take on more responsibility in ministry, and some have already done so. Several were willing to be redeployed if their ministry was needed elsewhere.

SSMs are increasingly being seen as potentially deployable. In Winchester, they are routinely treated as such. In Carlisle, they are expected to be able to work anywhere in their deanery. Several dioceses license some SSMs to deaneries, to enable greater flexibility in ministry. Some SSMs are travelling significant distances to support parishes in interregna.

In Oxford (which I know best), this seems to be working quite well, through a mixture of planning and opportunism. Archdeacons are sitting down with SSMs at the end of their training curacy to plan the future, in a way unimagined ten years ago. Area bishops are looking at gaps in ministerial provision as they arise, and discussing whether an SSM might sometimes be invited to cross an area boundary to fill a need.

In several places, benefices and deaneries are being encouraged to include SSMs in their deanery plans, to identify places where they could use SSM support (perhaps in some specialist position), and actively to seek it. In Ripon & Leeds and Winchester, SSM posts are often included in deanery plans. In Ripon & Leeds, deaneries can already advertise for an SSM, while in Reading last year, for the first time, a vacant benefice worked out its requirements, drew up particulars for a new SSM post, and advertised it.

Chester has been compiling an SSM directory. The process has highlighted the complexity of the category, and the fluidity of many people's patterns of service. It is becoming increasingly common for clergy to move between full-time stipendiary ministry and part-time, or house-for-duty, or non-stipendiary ministry, and back, in the course of a working life.

This is not only often practical, but will surely help to break down some long-standing prejudices about the nature and capacities of non-stipendiary clergy. In Chester, the complexity of posts and working patterns is such that the categories "stipendiary" and "non-stipendiary" are increasingly felt to be inadequate.

Durham and Worcester, and perhaps other dioceses, have published booklets in the past, introducing people within the diocese to non-stipendiary ministry, and Oxford is preparing one now. Uncomfortably aware that SSM vocations have dipped recently, and that relatively few younger people pursue a call to self-supporting ministry, the diocese is especially keen to boost SSM vocations in general, and younger vocations in particular.

All this adds up to a fragmentary, but highly encouraging, picture of what is going on. Inevitably, not every initiative is an instant success, and not every SSM or OLM feels that his or her opportunities for ministry have been transformed. Change takes time, patience, and energy to overcome institutional inertia.

Dioceses are much more likely than they were even quite recently to take the development, review, and support of SSMs as seriously as that of stipendiaries. But old structures die hard - and even new ones, such as Common Tenure and the 2013 Fees Measure, still take stipendiary parish ministry as their model, and adapt rather creakily to other forms.

If dioceses have some way to go to adapt to a changing Church, so have SSMs themselves. In particular, they will need to be willing to serve wherever they are most needed in the future, and to move more often - if not always further - than they have tended to in the past.

Without SSMs, the parish system might already have failed in some places, and, with better deployment, it may yet be significantly strengthened. But SSMs also have a vital part to play, as models of mission and ministry evolve. Their faith is matched by the experience of a vast range of activities and professions, of many institutional models and styles of working; so SSMs, with LLMs and lay people, are a rich and still-under-used resource.

The project Reimagining Ministry, which the Archbishops' Council has commissioned, includes self-supporting ministry in its remit. I hope that it will also draw on the experience and expertise of SSMs to help shape its thinking.

In their modern form, SSMs are approaching their half-centenary. In May, the South East Institute for Theological Education, the diocese of Southwark, and the Ministry Division will host an event at Southwark Cathedral to celebrate 50 years since the ordination of the first students from the Southwark Ordination Course. It will be a good moment to look back at how far self-supporting ministry has come, and to reflect on how it may develop in the future.

The Revd Dr Teresa Morgan is Fellow and Tutor in Ancient History at Oriel College, Oxford, and an SSM in the parish of Littlemore. 

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