IN THE Church of England, the number of stipendiary parish clergy continues to decline, whereas the number of self-supporting ministers (SSMs) is rising. In 2016, the numbers were 7788 and 3230 respectively. Sadly, that statistic belies a widespread ignorance about what an SSM is, and what roles and functions should be performed. Is the voluntary and non-paid minister a lesser grade of cleric? Is it a ministry purely supportive of the parish and establishment, or should it have its own distinctive voice in the parish, workplace, or community? Should there be more encouragement towards collaborative and mutual working with stipendiary clergy and, indeed, more leadership positions?
John Lees in his book sets out these issues and seeks to address them in a brief but effective way from his perspective of being an SSM in a leadership position in the diocese of Exeter. He is a priest in a mission community (the diocesan term for parishes working in wider partnerships), and works for his living as a career coach and counsellor. From my point of view, it is the most informative book on the practicalities of such ministry that I have seen for many years. It should be compulsory reading for incumbents, PCCs, and churchwardens who have an SSM within the parish. It is also essential reading for those seeking to become an SSM or minister in secular employment (MSE).
The book sets out case studies of individuals and of their particular path of ministry, and highlights the particular qualities that each demand. A calling to the parish or to the “margins” requires tact, communication, and time-management skills, not least in an interregnum or in the challenging conversations in “unholy” or “non-establishment” territory.
As Lees highlights in the course of his consideration, at present the Church appears to lack the capacity to engage with the self-supporting ministry that is offered outside the parish, or, indeed, to provide proper focused training or development goals for self-supporting ministry generally.
Such concerns are not new, but the real joy of this book is reflected in the positive and practical suggestions for future training, selection, theological discussion, and deployment which are presented, particularly for ministry focused on work and community outside the parish structure. It is an encouraging book, and will be a useful tool to inform a wider discussion.
The Revd Peter King is an Upper Tribunal Judge.
Self-Supporting Ministry: A practical guide
Church Times Bookshop £13.50