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Think radically about clergy pay

02 July 2021

It is time to give serious consideration to abolishing the stipend, argues David Ford


THE outcome of the report on clergy stipends was never going to be anything but disappointing to those clergy seeking a significant uplift (News, 25 June). The affordability of a stipend varies enormously according to personal circumstances and the choices that individuals make about their lifestyle and family size. Coming up with a level of stipend of universal relevance is quite impossible. Add in the increasing unaffordability of stipends to most dioceses, and one wonders why a broader review was not considered.

For all clergy households, the decline of the stipend, in real terms, is, at the very least, a concern, if not an anxiety. What is actually received in the bank each month is much more relevant than any headline figures that suggest generosity. A notional value of a stipend might be £50,000 per annum in some parts of the country, but monthly bank statements suggest a different level of income entirely.

Stipend erosion takes a number of hidden forms, too, beyond the obvious inflation and the lack of an increase in recent years because of Covid. As a simple example, compare the ten-per-cent increase in motoring costs over the past decade with the stubbornly resistant 45p mileage allowance.

What would have been truly refreshing from the stipend review would have been an examination in detail of the feasibility of weaning the Church off the stipend model entirely. This could be managed in planned stages over a generation. In reality, the Church will probably be forced into doing it, but at a pace not of its own choosing. The intentional elimination of stipends could also be used to help level out the stark differences in wealth between dioceses.

WHAT might such a strategy look like?

First, dispose of the “benefit” of living in tied accommodation. Diocesan property portfolios are very significant, and, although they accumulate capital value steadily, they do so in a way that exacerbates the wealth disparity between dioceses.

Replacing the portfolio with housing allowances for everyone, set according to local market conditions, would be an equitable move, reducing demand for posts in expensive areas, enabling clergy to have more control over their housing (rent or buy?), and would mean more clergy living in homes with neighbours. Too many clergy are living in homes far too large, isolated, and costly for personal and ministerial needs.

Second, set a national date for all dioceses to have moved away from stipendiary ministry entirely (a little like net-zero carbon targets), and then set forward dates for each benefice to have moved to self-supporting ministry (SSM) or lay parochial leadership. These dates could be set at any time over the next 30 years, but would provide clergy and parishes with the end goal in sight immediately, and offer something definite and tangible to work towards. In parallel, training budgets should be shifted from stipendiary to SSM and lay ministry, so that all recognised ministries receive the same level of investment. Reports on ministry have pleaded for this repeatedly, with little effect.

Such a strategy could be achieved only through natural churn. Ministerial development reviews could help: what measurable progress have you made towards developing vocations to parochial leadership, lay or ordained? New posts could include the transition as a core objective in the post’s description. As the benefice’s transition date nears, new stipendiary posts could be made short-term, interim ones to match the transition dates for the benefice in question.

Finally, and this requires national leadership, quotas and timescales could be set for stipendiary ministry levels in each diocese, but biased towards the poorest. Those dioceses with the strongest SSM and lay-leadership communities would be expected to transition fastest. Those with limited SSM and lay parochial leadership would need a longer timescale. To an extent, these differences will reflect wealth disparities, although not entirely. In the mean time, the additional costs that accrue from such a transitional programme should be shared among the more richly endowed dioceses, with some Church Commissioners’ support.

OBJECTIONS to ideas such as these are plentiful, because of the rigid mind-sets that we have about the ideal nature of parish ministry. We expect our parish clergy to be available six days a week; we do not expect them be in ordinary employment.

Yes, if stipends are simply eliminated, multi-income households will automatically have even more of an inbuilt advantage than they have today. Without stipends, it might be harder to recruit working-class clergy, but the existence of stipends has hardly made a difference to that challenge, anyway. Individual dioceses could refuse to comply with the strategy, as could individual parishes. The potential headaches are enormous, but we must get real and acknowledge the genuine limit to the potential to grow parish giving to fund posts.

The outcome of the stipend review does not suggest a Church that is trying to become “simpler, humbler, bolder”. The vision of a Church without stipends speaks of a trusting faith that is all of these and more: exciting as well as inexpensive. Imagine a Church embracing the missional advantages of clergy in ordinary employment and parishes’ retaining substantially more of their income to invest in local ministry and mission.

The Church must stop tinkering around the edges of change. Unless brave strategies are identified and implemented soon, events will overtake us all. We owe it to the parochial leaders of tomorrow to stop pretending that it is business as usual.

The Revd David Ford is Team Rector in the Bromsgrove Team Ministry, and Rector of Dodford, in Worcester diocese.

Read about the results of a survey about clergy pay here

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