A responsibility to co-operate

by
10 March 2017

John Davies looks at how to prevent clergy-PCC relationships’ becoming a tug of war

Dave Walker

“OUR PCC is a waste of time, really: the Vicar has everything arranged beforehand — we’re just there to agree it.” If this is a common enough complaint of PCC members, then, conversely, some clergy chairs complain of turning up to meetings to find that PCC officers have taken decisions without consultation, while others may find themselves being opposed by their officers on key issues.

“The Church Representation Rules state that the PCC ‘is to co-operate with the minister’ on the church’s work in the parish, ‘pastoral, evangelistic, social and ecumenical’”, the Bishop of Berwick, the Rt Revd Mark Tanner, writes in The PCC Member’s Essential Guide. “Co-operation is a main task of the Council. Members are to work together, never against each other.”

What causes breakdowns in co-operation between clergy and their PCCs, and how can we develop good co-operative practice? How do we balance the influence of clergy, officers, and lay members in the best interests of the church?

 

SOMETIMES, it is high-handed chairing that causes rifts. The Leadership Principal of the CPAS “PCC Tonight” training programme, the Revd James Lawrence, says: “I heard of one vicar whose overly controlling approach meant that he determined the number of minutes he would allow for discussion on any item, and closed it down as soon as the limit was reached, no matter where the discussion had got to. He then made the decision.”

Sometimes, it is the best intentions and the enthusiasm of individuals which undermine co-operation: a churchwarden pressing on in his or her own time with a pet project, or the vicar returning from a training course armed with fresh materials and keen to try them out. At other times, a lack of enthusiasm is the problem. One archdeacon spoke of “the difficulty of PCCs’ having to accept edicts from ‘the diocese’, with which they may be uncomfortable or which they are not committed to, and the clergy feeling forced to drive the diocesan line, even if they themselves may share the PCC members’ feelings on the matter”.

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HIDDEN or historical issues may also play their part in poor clergy-PCC relations; for PCCs can have long memories. The vicar of a group of parishes in a northern diocese speaks of the PCC’s “having had a change imposed on them by a suffragan bishop long since retired. They had their mission church removed and given to another parish, and were made to share a vicar with another parish.

“That was over 30 years ago, but the hurt and distrust of the hierarchy is still real in both parishes. In fact, it was quoted at a PCC meeting just recently as an example of why not to trust the diocese and the clergy hierarchy in what they say. The PCC still talk about not being listened to, and lied to.”

Sandra Cobbin, a management and leadership trainer who works with church and charity leaders, talks about the impact of “historical hurt” in her training material: “When a church hasn’t learned healthy habits of conflict, the instinct is to sort out the disagreement as quickly as possible by pushing through a change, or by pulling back from difficult decisions.”

 

THE Revd David Osborne, the author of The Country Vicar (DLT, 2004), which is about remodelling ministry in a multi-parish context, speaks of “the waste of time, energy, and gifts that comes from a lack of clarity about who has responsibility for what, because the Church Representation Rules are too vague; clergy who want to just bumble on doing their own thing and see the PCC as, at best, an advisory panel, or, at worst, busybodies; or clergy who have the right ideas but have no organisation or management skills.

“For this, I think three things would help: clear job descriptions and guidelines for churchwardens, PCCs, and the Vicar; archdeacons’ and bishops’ being clearer about what parishes can expect of their clergy, and what clergy should expect to do; and compulsory in-service training for clergy in admin and management.”

The director of Bridge Builders Ministries, Colin Moulds, suggests: “One issue is where bigger churches have paid senior-leadership teams [SLTs]. This often leaves the PCC feeling redundant, as decisions are made by the SLT. In a case like this, clear terms of reference are essential to ensure the right decisions are being made in the right place.”

 

MR LAWRENCE also agrees about the need for greater clarity: “Key to the development of healthy communication in decision-making between PCCs and their clergy are two things. Firstly, clarity and agreement about the purpose and identity of the PCC. For example, if one member of the PCC thinks it is a support group for the vicar, they will approach it in a very different way to another member of the PCC who thinks it is the leadership team for the church.

“Some see the purpose of a PCC as a purely legal body concerned with the fabric and finance of the church; for others, the purpose is defined by history: what the PCC has always done, subtly passed down from one generation of the PCC to the next.

“It is important for an incumbent to explore expectations with their PCC — both their expectations of the PCC, and the PCC’s expectations of them. This is normally best done as a process over time rather than a one-off. It is unknown expectations that often lead to problems.

“Secondly, a code of conduct, or guidelines, for how the PCC operates, outlining how it talks about things; how it makes decisions in a way that enables everyone to contribute their best; how it handles conflict; what to do when we can’t agree; and so on.”

Bishop Tanner offers personal testimony of managing conflict between clergy and a PCC: “One time with a PCC, I found myself in quite strong disagreement about a way forward, and the only one in disagreement.

“I expressed my reservation about the decision which they wanted to make, and asked that we could delay the decision till the next meeting, as it was one that could wait; and in the interim we would commit ourselves to praying, and I would talk the issue through with the Bishop, because I could well be wrong, or he might see issues that none of us could see.

“We had a tense conversation, where several members said I was just trying to get my own way, and I gave them my word that if we were still in the same place at the next meeting we would go with the clear majority. A month later, we returned to the issue, each of us seeing it fresh, and came out with a new way forward with which we were all content.”

 

TOP FIVE TIPS FOR A HEALTHY PCC/CLERGY RELATIONSHIP

 

1. Ensure that there is clarity about the identity and purpose of both the PCC and clergy
What is the PCC: is it a committee, a management group, a leadership team, an advisory body, a support group for the incumbent? People join the PCC with a diversity of ideas about what it is, and this can cause frustrations when expectations are not met. Clarity of purpose is foundational to the good functioning of any group.

 

2. Avoid sidestepping
Healthy PCC functioning is undermined when, rather than tackle the dysfunction within the PCC, another group is set up to try and sidestep the PCC and get on with the work. This is a false economy, because the drain of a dysfunctional PCC continues to exert its influence over the life of the church and its leaders.

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3. Tackle inappropriate membership
There may be people on your PCC who do not have the necessary abilities to function well as part of a co-operative group of people. Knowing when and how to challenge unacceptable behaviour, or to help someone off the PCC and into a more appropriate role, is perhaps one of the most difficult but necessary leadership tasks.

 

4. Invest in training
Both the PCC and the vicar can benefit from external expertise. It is not usually part of a vicar’s training at theological college, but learning how to run good meetings is vital.

 

5. Strive to be ‘undefended’
According to Simon Walker’s trilogy of books on leadership, the defended leader is the one who keeps things “backstage” that he or she doesn’t want others to know about or see. But these things inevitably seep through to where leadership is on public view.

The undefended leader is one who has managed to integrate the front and back stage, enabling him or her to be vulnerable and handle criticism maturely. A “defended” vicar is likely to manipulate the PCC, or be easily manipulated by it.

 

Adapted from PCC Tonight: 12 common reasons why PCCs don’t function well, available at www.cpas.org.uk/PCCTonight.

 

Special offer for PCC members: subscribe to the Church Times now for just £25 for six months, and receive a free copy of The PCC Member’s Essential Guide, by Mark Tanner. See page 2 of the paper, or visit www.churchtimes.co.uk/pcc for details. (New UK subscribers.)

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