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Clergy must refuse to be indispensable

20 July 2018

Building teams to carry out ministry is better for the health of the incumbent and the parish, argues Andy Griffiths

DURING my assistant curacy, I was home so little that my young daughter created an imaginary daddy — Bubble Daddy — who would come and play with her. And it was my fault. I thought I was indispensable to my church — or, I hoped I was indispensable. Or, more likely, I feared not being indispensable. It wasn’t good for me, my family, or the church that I was serving.

So, when I became Vicar of Galleywood, in Essex, in July 2005, I made God a vow: “No one but Jesus will be the sun in this solar system.”

I meant two things: first, I would not make myself central to church life; second, aware that my curacy church had taken too central a place in my life, I refused to make St Michael’s central to my discipleship or that of its other members.

I cultivated team-building. I discovered more and more areas where I was incompetent, and put together flat teams of equals to work — initially with me, but soon without my regular participation — to achieve the team goals.

Eventually, no area of church life was running without a team to lead it, and there were more than 120 who were members of at least one team, from preaching to social action, and from youth work to the PCC — not bad for a church with an average Sunday morning attendance of 110. And none of the teams was chaired by me.

MAKE no mistake: a parish’s felt need to have the incumbent at the centre of everything is often as strong as the incumbent’s felt need to be there. But incumbents must engage in the struggle to extricate themselves and get back to the margins, where we belong.

In 2008, after the death of a housebound church member, her son complained that, in her final six months, “the church hadn’t been to see her.”

“I’m so sorry,” I said. “I’d understood that Elva and Edith were regular visitors.”

“Oh yes, they were often round: I don’t know what mum would have done without them. But they’re not the church: they’re normal people.”

Clearly, the village culture was labouring under a misunderstanding. So, I made a decision: for a year, I would not visit anyone, ever, and I said so to anyone who would listen.

By the end of the year, it was a common subject around the village that the Vicar did not visit. But it was also commonly known that there was a pastoral-care team, led by Rosemary, a lay person, and it was a really good team. Once perceptions had changed, I gladly visited people from time to time.

Team-building set me free. Once I had built teams to do the work of ministry, I could be released to spend at least half my (now manageable) working week with those outside gathered church: being Vicar of Galleywood, not chaplain to St Michael’s. This included chairing the local community-care group, launching a church in a pub, lots of schools involvement, and plenty of time supporting parishioners in magistrates’ courts.

Of course, I could merely have said that serving God in the world was more important than gathered church. But ,if my diary still rotated around serving church members, my words would have had no credibility.

At the same time, team-building built the capacity of a range of lay leaders, especially those from non-graduate backgrounds; being trusted in a public ministry inside the church made them much more likely to speak confidently, think theologically, and serve intentionally outside it. Ironically, it was their gathered-church responsibility that made them such impressive 24/7 disciples.

IN THE most mature New Testament Church — the Church of the pastoral epistles — there seem to be two types of leader: local leaders, such as the elders in Crete, who are rooted in the soil of their communities; and mobile leaders, such as Timothy and Titus, whose call is to set a culture of grace: to build up, supervise, and encourage the local leaders, and to move on.

Today, incumbents, like bishops, are in the second category, although some other priests and most lay leaders are in the first. In the diocese of Chelmsford, we are asking incumbents to work in teams (“mission and ministry units”), as they enable each church, with its local leaders, to be transformed from a community gathered around a minister into a ministering community.

In the words of the diocesan Bishop, the Rt Revd Stephen Cottrell, they “build effective teams. Things get done. People think they did it themselves. They are right. Great leaders make themselves redundant.”

It is life-giving. Put it this way: Bubble Daddy did not come back.

The Revd Andy Griffiths was a vicar for 12 years, and now trains curates and other ministers in the diocese of Chelmsford. His booklet Refusing to be Indispensable (L31) is published by Grove Books at £3.95.

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