LAST year was a difficult year for parish-share payments; 2021 could prove even more so. Perhaps now is the moment to transform the way in which we calculate the cost of ministry.
The Early Church shared all things in common (Acts 2.44-45). Today, the Church’s financial and management culture simply reflects the market-driven economics of Western capitalism.
The weaknesses of this are now being felt as diocesan managers strive to make sense of eye-watering deficit budgets. Yet, there is just as much opportunity to change our economic culture as there is to change our ecclesial culture. We simply need to choose to do so.
Stipendiary ministry is currently based on a transactional model rooted in the assumption that economic growth is necessary for sustainability, let alone development. An alternative approach based upon recognising reciprocal investments in ministry, however, may be possible.
ONE approach is to acknowledge in our calculations that there are two kinds of ministry in every parish: ministry offered and ministry received.
Ministry offered is the ministry offered by churchgoers through lay-leadership programmes such as Readership and authorised lay ministry; ministry received is the ministry whose costs are covered by parish share, primarily the cost of the clergy.
The cost and value of these two types of ministry is invisible to the opposite party. Diocesan officers often simply do not know what level of ministry is offered in a parish by churchgoers, paid and unpaid; parishioners often simply do not experience the ministry for which they pay through parish share, either because the work of their clergy is largely invisible beyond Sunday morning or because “share” covers costs that they do not “see”.
Our transactional culture preserves and reinforces these divides; a reciprocal one strives to overcome them.
An indication of just how pervasive these cultures are is indicated by the sense of entitlement that parishes can express, especially at the point when a vacancy arises. The ministry previously received speedily becomes the expectation of the ministry that is to follow, quite regardless of need.
We could turn the process upside down and begin not with expectations, but with needs: Ministry Needs minus Ministry Offered equals Ministry to be Received
Ministry Needs are often skated over because they are so difficult to define. The “need” is limitless, and so the process of defining it becomes very subjective. Attempts rarely happen outside a vacancy. Then, a well-worn path is followed, resulting in parish profiles that frequently let new clergy down. The process benefits the articulate.
To avoid this, there needs to be ongoing dialogue between the parish and the wider church community (perhaps the deanery). Honesty and transparency should become central; competition for scarce resources should be avoided. A national framework for identifying priorities of needs would help to ensure fairness and consistency.
Then, affirm the lay leadership already provided by the parish by calculating its financial value. Parishes, as well as diocesan boards of finance (DBFS), invest in ministry: Readers and other lay ministers, paid and voluntary administrators, and children’s, youth, and family workers, etc. At a time when the Church is waking up to the importance of the ministry of the whole Church, we should begin to place a numerical value on these ministries. Apportion each a nominal proportion of a stipend, as already happens with actual stipends and house-for-duty posts.
Local investment in ministry is real and speaks powerfully of the spiritual and leadership health of parishes. By giving a notional financial value to lay ministry, DBFs will have a much stronger grasp of the sustainability of individual parishes.
WITH a clearer picture of the ministry that the parish needs and the ministry that it is already offering, it is easier to grasp the level of ministry which the parish needs to receive and finance.
Dioceses could hand stipendiary budgets to deaneries to allocate in whatever mix of ministry worked best. Decide at the lowest level with maximum flexibility. Where parishes have active retired clergy or lay leadership, there is a case for spreading stipendiary posts less generously. Sacramental ministry might become less identified with overall parish leadership.
Here is the possibility of a sustainable model that becomes more sustainable as local investment in lay ministry increases. It provides senior diocesan officers with accurate data about the health of lay ministry in any particular benefice and identifies those benefices most able to move towards reduced dependency on stipendiary ministry. It helps to ensure that limited stipendiary posts go to places of greatest need, not to the loudest voices or deepest pockets.
Yes, this approach accommodates and possibly encourages a reduction in the very ministry that it is seeking to finance. But, as this reduction is happening anyway, devising a system that affirms the value of everyone’s ministry can only be good. Linking the financing of ministry to the development of lay leadership in the Church provides a unique opportunity to draw our financial and discipleship conversations into one.
All this speaks of a culture of fellowship and partnership, of covenant and mutuality, of transparency and reciprocity. Dare we try it?
The Revd David Ford is Team Rector in the Bromsgrove Team Ministry and Rector of Dodford, in Worcester diocese.