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Church growth, research on ‘amalgamations’, and the clergy

by
31 January 2014

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From Canon Rob Morris

Sir, - Much of the report Signs of Growth  (News, 17 January) is exemplary; and its warnings are salutary. We need to take them to heart. The report is, however, wholly deficient in the way it treats what it calls "amalgamations", and their alleged growth defects in comparison with the minority model of"a single unit under one leader".

Most church life, mission, work, and clergy deployment does not happen in single church units under a single leader. Of the 90 posts in one recent week's Church Times appointments and advertisements, only 27 are in this commended setting; hardlysurprising when71 per cent of all parishes are "amalgamations".

The report, however, treats them all as of one kind, without analysis, whether they are teams, groups, multi-church rural benefices, linked parishes, or any other of the huge variety of local arrangements - some prayerfully envisioned and planned; some spatchcocked together as a last resort. (The report also fails to recognise that cathedrals and larger parishes are collegially, not singly, led.)

The report's broad-brush conclusion is that multi-church amalgamations and teams are less likely to grow. This is at best one initial observation among others. It cannot claim to be any kind of conclusion.

We need much more work on what the report fails to address. Most "amalgamations" are in places where they are the only possible pattern of contextual mission and ministry. Amalgamations are most common in areas where growth is hard: scattered rural populations, outer estates, inner-city areas. Single-church units under one leader are most common in areas where growth ought to be easier; and yet, despite local deprivation, mobility and deaths, some grow.

Raw numerical growth in attendance is also but one measure. It cannot not tell us how many have come anew to Christ rather than simply transferred their membership. For more than two-thirds of parishes and clergy, it does not help us discover apt mission for challenging contexts. It does not help us discern and nurture the skills in collegial leadership which in reality most clergy need. It does not help us to release ordained parish ministries for tasks other than increasingly stretched incumbency.

I hope that the great bulk of the report is taken very seriously in every part of the Church. I hope equally that itstreatment of "amalgamations" is but the beginning of committed and detailed prayer and work on what these really are, and how they can grow.

ROB MORRIS
Team Rector of Kings Norton
273 Pershore Road South
Kings Norton
Birmingham B30 3EX

 

From the Revd Simon Tillotson

Sir, - Though I welcome much that the Archbishop of Canterbury says, I would take issue with him that a good vicar always leads to growth in a parish.

This is not sour grapes on my behalf, as we have experienced some growth at All Saints', Whitstable, in recent years, though, like many churches, we are faced with challenges. In my 19 years of ministry, however, I have seen some truly excellent clergy see decline in their churches, while clergy who seem far less committed and gifted have seen growth. I think that it is much more to do with the interplay between the clergy and the laity in the parish than simply with the cleric himself or herself.

Let us not forget that Jesus and St Paul both experienced rejection in their ministries quite often. This was not a sign of failure, but rather a sign that the people were not receptive. I would hate clergy up and down the country to fall into the trap of seeing the immediate results of their ministries in terms of attendance on Sundays. I am convinced that some clergy have served the Lord extremely faithfully but seen at times catastrophic decline because their congregations were so immersed in nominal Christianity that they rejected the message of their incumbent and left, or, more likely, badmouthed the incumbent behind his or her back.

Likewise, I have seen many John the Baptist ministries where the cleric saw little fruit from his or her ministry, but was essentially preparing the ground for a successor.

I am sure that the Archbishop meant well, and had only so much space to reflect on this issue; but we all need to be liberated from a business-model view of ministry. When growth has come in my ministry, it has often come out of the blue, and had little bearing to a funeral or wedding I took. I am sure I speak for other clergy in this respect.

These things need pointing out so that we can all be liberated from the guilt trip that the business model of cause and effect can bring about, and thereby cause even more stress for us in the front line of mission.

SIMON TILLOTSON
The Vicarage
Church Street
Whitstable CT5 1PG

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