God’s gift, not priest-lite cherry-pickers

by
02 March 2018

Self-supporting ministers do not receive the recognition or status that they deserve, says Jenny Gage

ALL too often, the self-supporting minister (SSM) is seen as a problem to be managed rather than a gift that God is giving to his Church. Priesthood is not a “one size fits all” vocation, and the time has come for a new vision for ministry in the 21st-century Church of England.

Diocesan ministry departments, parishes, and incumbents do not always know how to make good use of their SSMs, because the default model of ministry is that of the full-time stipendiary (FTS). This is compounded by the common misconception that SSMs are priests-lite who cherry-pick what they do, choosing to avoid the rubbish jobs and not fully focused on their ministry.

It needs stating, forcefully, that SSMs are full-time priests who have a ministry in a variety of different contexts, which probably includes one or more parishes, but is not restricted to the parish. A working definition is that SSMs include all priests and deacons who are not FTSs or chaplains; so, we are associate priests who receive only expenses from the Church; we are house-for-duty priests; we are part-stipended priests.

We would prefer, however, not to be defined by money. In Ely diocese, we have started talking about “flexible priesthood”, recognising that there are times when FTS parish ministry best suits a person’s situation, and times when they would prefer to be in some form of self-supporting ministry — perhaps part-time — to accommodate other work, or caring for family members. Portfolio working is becoming increasingly common in the secular world, and it is a model that works for many SSMs.

The significance of the SSMs is not in the money that they do or do not make, nor is it in the hours that they do or do not work. SSMs might choose to work as an assistant priest, because that is their vocation. They might feel that their vocation was to work or volunteer outside the Church, bringing a diversity of interests and experience, and many transferable skills and knowledge, including management and negotiation experience, and administration, IT, and data-handling skills.

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I SEE SSMs as a form of fresh expression of church. Our involvement in secular workplaces and communities means that we are ideally placed to represent the Church in places where the parish priest will never be invited. We bring back to the Church the views of people who rarely step over the threshold of a church. We are missionaries and we are prophets, taking the Church out to the world and reflecting back to the Church what the world is saying. Through our ordination, we support lay Christians in their witness, and we can speak up for them.

It would be good to see SSMs recognised as a fresh expression of ministry, as valid a way of being a priest as the FTSs, in the mixed economy of the 21st-century Church. This needs to have an impact on selection and training, record-keeping and deployment, and recognition and representation. It is time to get rid of the two-tier selection process, select people because of their priestly vocation, and let them work out for themselves what that might look like at different stages of life.

SSM curates need SSM mentors besides training incumbents (TIs), and those mentors should work with TIs who have no experience of being an SSM. Dioceses need to know exactly who and where their SSMs are, and what else they do and can offer. They need to know what their training needs are, and what training they could offer to others from the other contexts in which they work.

 

NONE of this will happen unless and until SSMs are fully recognised and represented. How many SSMs never get to deanery chapter, because the meetings are always held during the day, suggesting that SSMs have no useful contribution to make? How many SSMs’ service is recognised by being appointed an honorary canon? SSMs are rarely represented on the General Synod or on diocesan senior staff meetings because they are not seen as a group that needs specific representation.

Given that, in 2016, more than 30 per cent of clergy, and nearly 40 per cent of newly ordained deacons, were SSMs, this is inadequate. It is time that SSM officers were accorded the same status as deans of women’s ministry, and it is time that there was a bishop representing SSMs in the House of Bishops.

SSMs are truly a gift that God is giving to his Church now; so it is time that the Church received this gift with gratitude and vision.

Read more about ministry in our series on vocations.


The Revd Dr Jenny Gage is the Bishop’s Officer for Self-Supporting Ministry in the diocese of Ely.

 

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