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The future of Christian ministry is collaborative

08 March 2019

Are we seeing the end of the individual vocation, asks Pat Ashworth


The division between laity and clergy was a practice that started developing in the late first century, Stephen Pickard says

The division between laity and clergy was a practice that started developing in the late first century, Stephen Pickard says

THE future of Christian ministry will be one that strives for the integration of the people of God, that does not play off one against the other, and that does not exalt one ministry by diminishing the other. “Ministry” is a term that includes the whole people of God.

So suggests Stephen Pickard, a contributor to a new book, The Study of Ministry (SPCK). Reflecting on a “long-running rupture between clergy and laity”, the modern Western preoccupation with the individual, and an “all-pervading culture of self-interest”, he concludes that collaborative ministry is an imperative of the gospel and “the foundations for a genuinely Christian future” for the Church’s ministry.

He predicts that it will move from being an add-on subject and become “a fundamental frame in which Christianity is conducted and taught”.

The Principal of Ripon College, Cuddesdon, the Rt Revd Humphrey Southern, recalls how vocations were encouraged 30 years ago, when he was in training. “Typically, what you were called on to do was keep an eye out for likely people to be ordained — in your confirmation class, or something like that — tap some young person on the shoulder, and say, ‘Have you ever thought of . . . ?” he says. “I recall being told that that is what we should do: if not actually feeling the collar of individuals, then talking in fairly general terms.”

He points out that the theology of the whole baptised people of God was there, in Luther and in the Church’s tradition, but was not being developed in a practical way. Discipleship is now being talked about as an ongoing, continued living-out of the Christian vocation, an element of which might be authorised lay or ordained ministry of one kind or another.

“We didn’t have the same language,” he says. “Now, we talk of discipleship in a generalised sense of how you live out your identity as a Christian — not just by keeping the rules and being good, but by reflecting on what job you might want to do, or where you might want to shape your life.

“I think probably all that did exist, but with a much tighter focus on ordination.”


SEEING vocation in terms of discipleship is a familiar concept in Oxford diocese, which has at least one vocations adviser in every deanery, and every member of the diocese has the opportunity to draw up and explore a personal discipleship plan.

The Revd Tina Molyneux has the title “Discipleship Enabler”: her brief is to broaden the understanding of vocations, and to resource parishes to enable lay vocations for authorised ministries. The diocese has had a dramatic increase in these lay ministries: in particular, notably, a 42-per-cent increase in the number of those with the Bishop’s authorisation to preach.

 paulclarke.comThe Guildford diocesan director of ordinands, the Revd William Challis, at the launch of the Great Vocations Conversation in Guildford Cathedral, on Maundy Thursday last year

The vocations team had read the working group’s response to the agenda of the report Setting God’s People Free, in which 59 per cent of Anglicans surveyed said that churches did not equip people well for life, and that they were not confident of their gifts.

The approach in Oxford is that all vocations are of equal value, and that everyone has a vocation. It starts with a simple questionnaire on spiritual gifts, which identifies and scores where these may lie within the broad categories of teaching, caring, building community, seeking justice, making things work, creating, and reflecting.

There follows an opportunity for a 90-minute conversation with a vocations leader from the person’s home church, who has been trained for the purpose. “Many said that it was the first long conversation they had ever had which was just about themselves: who they were, what they’d done, and what they hoped to do in the future. Feedback has been very positive,” Ms Molyneux says.

Also available is a three-hour workshop for clergy and others to introduce in their churches, and resources for those who prefer to talk in small groups about their faith. People in the diocese have realised vocations in areas such as funerals ministry (for which specific training is available), Street Pastors, foster carers, and youth leaders. “We never ask them to do a job at the end of it,” Ms Molyneux emphasises. “But most people identify a new ministry, or new areas they want to go into — maybe in a bigger role.”

Some vocations advisers (VAs) in the diocese have adopted the approach as a helpful way of structuring conversations with enquirers, although the diocesan director of ordinands, the Revd Caroline Windley, says that, “Given that most people who find their way to a VA already have a sense of wanting to offer for some kind of formal ministry, whether authorised, lay or ordained, it’s hard, despite the brief, to keep a vocational discernment conversation as broad as possible — to focus on service or discipleship beyond a church context.

“We think Tina’s approach is the most exciting and innovative in keeping vocation as an expression of discipleship, no matter what form that takes.”


THE diocese of Guildford launched the Church of England initiative the Great Vocations Conversation, at the cathedral’s chrism service last Maundy Thursday (News, 20 April 2018). It challenges all lay and ordained leaders to have a conversation about vocation with someone who is different from how they would identify themselves. This is particularly important, it is emphasised, where people have historically been excluded.

That has been a very positive message, Guildford’s diocesan vocations adviser, Glynis Beazley, says. “The Church is no longer about finding as many white middle-class male Oxbridge graduates as possible, but recognising the wealth of ethnic, class, age, and gender diversity which exists in the Church and outside it. God calls people of all shapes and sizes and from all areas of life to ministry.”

 paulclarke.comEmily Burch, the Young Preacher of the Year winner in Guildford diocese, in 2017

Acknowledging that there was some way to go in recognition of gifts, amid fears of dumbing down, and questions about whether people were being used in lay, licensed, and authorised ministry because there were not enough clergy, she says: “We’re not trying to plug gaps. The intention genuinely has to be to find out what God is calling his Church to do, and the mission we are trying to fulfil. Success is hard to measure: we might never know what impact a chance conversation sparked by a leaflet may have had.

“Some clergy I’ve spoken to in the last year are clearly wearied by campaigns from on high. They resent being told to have a conversation, but I found that those were the ones already having great vocations conversations. Others have welcomed the chance to think about who they might talk to, and be more intentional in their approach to a conversation about vocations.

“Our task, as encouragers of vocation, is to help people find how God is calling them to serve. Some people never find out what that is: some are too scared to look in case they are challenged too far, and some just accept where they are. When I speak to enquirers exploring a calling to ministry, it is a revelation to some that they are allowed to enjoy what they are called to and are good at. The stories of faith and trust from the people I meet are truly humbling, and it is a privilege to be part of their journey.”

Clergy acknowledge that busy parishes cannot function without collaborative ministry, but that encouraging lay vocations does require effort. The Revd Jemma Sander-Heys, who is Team Vicar in the single-parish Great Yarmouth Team Ministry, describes her parish as “blessed with genuinely collaborative and generous-hearted team members. As leaders, we are so stretched with all the needs of this busy parish that we can’t help but work in a genuinely collaborative way. If anyone offers to do anything, we almost always say ‘Yes’, and everyone has a passion for mission.”

But it is a challenge, she says, in an area where many lives are chaotic, not to allow some reliable, long-term congregation members to become entrenched, or limited, in small areas of activity where they feel at home. “Challenging them to flourish further, when often we are simply glad that someone is reliably doing a small task that’s needed, takes effort and planning.”


MR PICKARD suggests that a truly collaborative approach to ministry has implications for the teaching of ministry in theological colleges. “I believe the most fundamental issue concerns the capacity of the Church to foster a more integrative approach to the theology and practice of ministry,” he says.

At Trinity College, Bristol, Tutor in Pastoral and Ministerial Studies, the Revd Dr Helen Collins, says that the college’s contextual mode of training now requires ordinands to work collaboratively with other students and local ministry teams in context. They are assessed on their ability to enable others, and context supervisors report a healthy interest in vocations from these churches.

“Encouraging vocations in others is something we promote at Trinity,” Dr Collins says. She was formerly a diocesan director of ordinands. A taught module, “Education and the Learning Church”, addresses questions of discipleship and education in the Church more broadly; there is an annual seminar session in the “Anglican Story, Ethos and Practice” programme, which looks at tools and resources to nurture others in vocation; and all Trinity students help with open days and hosting new students, forming them to be people who naturally look for these opportunities, Dr Collins says.

“I would say that our ordinands are very well prepared and trained in how to work collaboratively, drawing on the gifts of others to help the whole people of God fulfil their vocations. I think the challenge will be whether the churches they end up serving are similarly prepared to embrace their vocation and to work collaboratively with their priest, and whether the wider Church — deaneries and dioceses — have structures which encourage the collaborative working they have been trained to operate within.”

Part of leadership in ministry is developing the leadership of others, Bishop Southern affirms. “The whole concept of ministry being collaborative by nature runs pretty seamlessly throughout everything here at Cuddesdon: it would come into teaching on liturgy, pastoral theology, and doctrine, that the ministry of the Church, in all its manifestations, is something intrinsically shared, intrinsically collaborative.

“It’s not something that the Church does economically, as a way of getting the job done. It’s an understanding that at the heart of all ministry is the ministry of God based on baptism.”

The Great Vocations Conversation: A year of inspiration and challenge for ministers by Andrew Watson and Magdalen Smith is published by Church House Publishing at £7.99 (Church Times Bookshop £7.20) (Books, 11 January).

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