THREE years may not seem long in relationship terms, but for an assistant curate in his or her title post it is a crucial three years that should provide a solid foundation for future ministry. Diocesan directors of ordinands (DDOs) work closely with their colleagues who deliver initial ministerial training (IME), to try to make a good match with the training incumbent from the start.
The director of IME in the diocese of Oxford, the Revd Dr Beren Hartless, said this is more about working styles than churchmanship, though there are some for whom churchmanship is the first and most important criterion. “What we want to see in training incumbents is the ability to see potential and to develop the gifts of colleagues. The most crucial thing we ask is, ‘Are they are secure leader — someone who is self-aware and self-confident and not threatened by their curate?’ In Oxford, we have a lot of highly qualified curates with Ph.D.s; so that is important.”
As they learn and develop, new curates need to have more ministry released to them, though incumbents will always have to ward against the temptation — which often comes more from churchwardens or other parish officers — to see them simply as a useful extra pair of hands.
When things go wrong, too — as they will; for curates need to take risks to learn — the incumbent needs to be able to step in and identify the lessons in the experience. He or she may also have to defend the curate to church officers or members of the congregation. “Good incumbents need to draw out the learning in every situation and cover backs where needed,” Dr Hartless says.
TRAINING incumbents also have to be flexible in their response to the different needs of individual curates. For some who have more than one curate, this can mean adapting their approach to suit the learning-style of each, offering more or less support as needed.
The Revd Nicky Davies is a non-stipendiary assistant curate in her second year in a parish in the New Forest; she appreciates her training incumbent’s letting her get on with ministry. He has appointed a retired cleric to line-manage her, though he is always available to talk or give advice himself.
”It works well for me, as I’m an independent worker; but I know my incumbent uses different ‘templates’ for his different curates. He has given me the tools and assistance to grow in my ministry, and I feel so much more confident than I was a year ago. I know he is always at the end of the phone and I can call him if I need anything. I know this wouldn’t work for everybody, but it suits me. And I know from those I trained with that I’ve been lucky: there have been some where relationships haven’t worked well, primarily because of personality clashes or different working styles.”
IF THE relationship doesn’t work, the effect on individuals and the parish can be damaging. If the relationship breaks down completely, the curate may have to be moved on to another post before the end of the three years. DDOs say this is a last resort and a rare occurrence, but every year it happens to some. One training incumbent in the Midlands who went through the experience said that it was “agonising” for all involved.
”The heart of the discomfort was about the demands and expectations of parish ministry — whether we were there to share significant spiritual depth with a few people, or encourage larger numbers of parishioners at a more superficial level. This had implications for things like baptism policy, and whether we should refuse the funerals of those outside the church community. Ideologically, that’s not where I was coming from at all. So, in the end, I guess, the differences were theological.
”We talked a very great deal. He said that he was extremely grateful for the time I’d spent with him, and I defended him from pretty staunch criticism from churchwardens. I had to remind them that a curate isn’t another pair of hands. Ultimately, he was moved elsewhere in the diocese. I can’t tell you how much I agonised over it: there was an immense amount of heartache. I’m glad that I’ve had very happy relationships with others in training.
”Looking back, I was naïve; I should have ensured that there was that ‘click’. It’s quite a long relationship, after all.” His advice for fellow training incumbents meeting a curate for the first time is to ensure there is a good personal connection. “Think twice before you say yes to someone. I had to decide on the basis of just one encounter with the curate. I knew there wasn’t a ‘click’ but thought that wasn’t a good enough reason to say no to the DDO.”
CHURCH of England guidelines issued by individual dioceses for training incumbents and curates say that both should meet on at at least two separate occasions before reaching a decision. The setting-up of clear working and learning agreements between incumbents and assistant curates has also become standard practice in recent years, which help to plan for the year ahead.
Such agreements are intended to clarify expectations and minimise scope for disagreements. A model agreement drafted by the Church of England working party two years ago also asks for a discussion around confidentiality and boundaries, and plans for patterns of work over the next 12 months, in addition to setting out expectations about availability for meetings and other parish matters.
The guidelines set out ways in which any difficult issues can be resolved. This should prevent the situation faced by one curate, who, a week before ordination, discovered from an introductory email from a parishioner that he was going to be in sole charge of one church in the benefice. Another curate suggested that it was important that the agreement established that the curate and incumbent say the Daily Office together each day.
The Revd Mike Griffiths, who was ordained priest in Winchester Cathedral this year, said that he and his training incumbent had a “comprehensive draft” of his working agreement, but he had also got to know his incumbent well, before taking up his curacy.
”The diocese helpfully had moved us to the parish while I was still training, and were happy for me to stay there to bring some stability to us as a family and to the church. We had plenty of time to work out how we could work together. The nature of a part-time curacy initially while training for primary leadership meant that we have both needed to be quite flexible in what will happen when. I know others who have needed to lean on the working agreement much more than I have.”
When the relationship works, the parish gains enormously, as does the training incumbent. The Vicar of St Luke’s, Oseney Crescent, in London, the Revd Jon March, said that a new curate brought a sense of new life to the church, and prompted others to think about their sense of vocation. “A parish gains someone with passion and oversight who is ready to try things. It is really good for the congregation to see new people coming in, with new ideas and enthusiasm.”
His advice to others is: “You need to be a good listener, to God, to the curate, and to yourself, and be willing to learn. There is no roadmap you are given when you become a training incumbent: every curate, every context, is different.”
TOP TIPS FOR TRAINING INCUMBENTS
• Invest time in your assistant curate early on, to build a good relationship
• Pray together daily
• Model good working practices yourself
• Respect boundaries
• Meet regularly to talk through learning points and the challenges ahead
• Be prepared to stick up for your curate to churchwardens or parishioners
• Be prepared for your curate to disagree with you
• Let him or her try out things you may have already tried — even if you suspect they might not work
• Talk over any potential flashpoints early on with your DDO or bishop