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SSMs’ survey finds joy tempered by frustrations

15 May 2015


NEARLY half the self-supporting ministers (SSMs) in four dioceses feel that they are seen as "second-class" by their stipendiary colleagues, new research suggests.

Although four out of five of the SSMs who responded feel that they are valued by their church family, and describe their ministry as "a privilege and a joy", many also express a range of frustrations in a survey, conducted last year.

Researchers conclude that the "rigid" structures of the Church have not caught up with a landscape in which, soon, almost half of clergy will be self-supporting.

A total of 296 SSMs in Bristol, Gloucester, Lichfield, and Worcester dioceses responded to the survey, conducted by the diocesan officers for SSM; a response rate of 72 per cent.

Bristol has published its own report of the findings from the diocese. It shows that 30 per cent believed that being self-supporting would have a negative impact on applying for posts in the diocese. Just 16 per cent felt that they had "a voice" within the diocese.

"There is a responsibility on the speaker as much as there is on the listener," said the Revd Charles Sutton, SSM at All Saints with St John, Clifton, who is the Bishop's adviser for self-supporting ministry, and also works as an organisational psychologist. "You can have a louder voice by putting yourself in place, as it were."

But he acknowledged that SSMs in full-time employment could not attend chapter, deanery, or diocesan events during the working day. There was a need to ensure that "when appointments are going to be made, they are made visible to all the appropriate populations. . . I deliberately go out of my way . . to consider SSMs."

Across the four dioceses, 69 per cent of respondents believe that SSMs should be considered for senior posts, e.g. assistant bishop, archdeacon, or cathedral canon.

A briefing note by the researchers is critical of the lack of SSMs in senior posts, describing it as "wrong and unfair. While canon law currently prevents SSMs from becoming bishops (and why couldn't this be changed?), there is nothing to stop self-supporting ministers from being made archdeacons."

A theme across the responses from the four dioceses is the belief that SSMs' experience from "outside the Church" is not harnessed by dioceses.

"Very often it either does not take place, or, most importantly, it is not known about," Mr Sutton said. "There must be better ways, and that probably comes through a more intelligent use of ministry development reviews."

Seventy per cent of Bristol respondents say that ministerial reviews and professional development (65 per cent) do not include SSMs. The diocese has committed itself to several initiatives, including one to "accelerate the process of cultural change to create a real sense of 'one ministry'".

The survey builds on earlier research carried out nationally by the Revd Dr Teresa Morgan in 2011 (News, 1 and 8 April, 2011). At the time, 27 per cent of clergy were non-stipendiary. Dr Morgan found that many respondents felt "ignored, overlooked, or under-used". She reported that "almost all SSMs are used to hearing themselves denigrated as hobby priests, weekenders, or volunteers."

The findings in the latest research resonated with SSMs in other dioceses. The Revd Karen Kousseff, a self-supporting Assistant Priest of Lower Dever, Winchester diocese, has been meeting with other SSM colleagues for 18 months "to think about ways in which SSMs might be enabled to flourish better".

She said last week: "It's a gift that needs to be valued, nurtured, and used, rather than received and then left in a corner, which is sometimes how it feels."

Her group of contacts was "stunned" by the Bristol finding that it would take 37.7 full-time stipendiary clergy to replicate the work done by the diocese's SSMs and ordained local ministers (OLMs). "This, with on-costs, could be considered an approximate salary saving in excess of £1.8 million."

The group has made recommendations to the Winchester diocese about how to improve the position of SSM clergy. These include a Bishop's adviser for SSM.

Ms Kousseff said: "There seems to be little or no help or encouragement for how one's ministry might develop post-curacy, yet there is plenty said about how non-stipendiary resources (including licensed lay ministers) will play an increasingly important role as the number of stipendiary priests declines.

"There is something of a disconnect between the need to depend more on unpaid leadership, and the sometimes implicit idea that if one were really capable, one would be stipendiary. We're at a time of great change locally and nationally; so it's an opportune time to speak out. We really hope that SSM can play a full part in how we reimagine the Church for the future."

The Revd Nick Shutt, the self-supporting Rector of West Dartmoor Mission Community, said that improving the deployment of SSMs was "no easy task", given that they came with an "extremely wide range of personal situations which are not easy to shoehorn into existing patterns of ministry".

But, he contined: "I think it is reasonable to ask: Where are the SSM archdeacons? Where are the SSM bishops?

"Perhaps now that the Church has established parity of opportunity for women priests in terms of the episcopate, some thought could be given in a similar way to the ministry of SSMs. . . This may be a bit dewy-eyed, but I look forward to a time when ministers are selected on merit rather than on gender or stipend."

He went on: "I think I could make a very good case for saying that self-supporting ministry is the normative form of ministry and that stipendiary ministry is the aberration."

The Revd Philip Green, an NSM at St Peter's, London Colney, St Albans diocese, said that, while he had heard the "second-class" comment from those who had been ordained longer, he felt that his diocese did "a significant amount" to accommodate SSMs.

"We have a designated member of clergy; and many events are organised in the evenings." He felt "utterly valued".

The Ministry Division is holding an SSM consultation day tomorrow, in London. Those wishing to repeat the survey in other dioceses should email Mr Sutton: charleses@me.com. 

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