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Self-Supporting Ministers ‘misunderstood’ and ‘too often pigeon-holed’ as assistant clergy

04 June 2021

‘Vicar’s little helpers’ was one perception that arose at a meeting last week on Zoom

(clockwise from top left): Charles Sutton, Bishop’s Officer for SSM, Bristol), speaks about his SSM research across 11 dioceses; John Lees, National Officer for Self-Supporting Ordained Ministry, speaks about his new role; and Hugh Lee, retired Bishop’s Officer for SSM, Oxford, speaks about serving as one of the C of E’s longest serving SSM officers

(clockwise from top left): Charles Sutton, Bishop’s Officer for SSM, Bristol), speaks about his SSM research across 11 dioceses; John Lees, National O...

SELF-Supporting Ministers (SSM) are too often pigeon-holed as assistant clergy at selection, and those responsible for deployment fail to understand that priesthood can be exercised outside the parish context, the National Network of SSM Officers and Advisers suggests.

“Vicar’s little helpers” was one perception that arose at a meeting last week on Zoom, with representatives from every diocese in England, and from Europe and Wales. It was convened by the Bishop of Ely’s Officer for Self-Supporting Ministry, the Revd Dr Jenny Gage, and the recently appointed National SSM Officer, Prebendary John Lees. The two are carrying out a research project on self-supporting ministry for the Ordained Vocations Working Group.

The focus must move away from whether clergy were paid or not, Dr Gage said on Tuesday. “It is so frustrating that nobody can find a way of talking about us which isn’t about money, or about whether we are assistant or incumbent status — though these things, of course, matter to the individuals concerned, and we have to cover the roles that have to be covered,” she said.

“I would like to see us thinking not in binary categories, but as an ecology of ministry which features people who are ordained and not ordained, paid directly by the Church or paid to be a chaplain or in secular work. There will be some working in a directly ministerial role, and others who feel they have a ministerial work where they are. There are so may intersecting axes in which a person feels they fit.”

The meeting raised issues of enabling SSMs to offer leadership in incumbent-status positions; how much curates in training were enabled to develop their identity and practice as SSMs; to what extent they were included in deanery development strategies; and how to ensure that diocesan directors of ordinands (DDOs) and their teams were not discouraging this ministry, or ministry in secular employment, among younger people discerning a vocation to ordained ministry. These were all questions to be put to individual dioceses, the meeting suggested.

A report in 2010 by the Revd Dr Teresa Morgan called for SSMs to be “equal partners” in discussions about the future shape of the Church. She deplored the frequent references to SSMs as “volunteers”, and called for the Church to “learn to value its clergy by some measure other than Mammon” (News, 29 January 2010).

Dr Gage referred to an encounter with a young man in training in his early thirties with a secular job, who was under pressure by his diocese to be a stipendiary. “He doesn’t want to: that is his calling,” she said. “If you are under 40, the diocese doesn’t understand that you have a calling that doesn’t mean being in the church full-time.”

Change was likely to come because of the financial situation, she suggested: many dioceses were unable to afford the number of incumbents that they wished to have, and many parishes were unable to pay the parish share.

“If they want priestly ministry, it is probably going to be somebody not on a stipend. I think money is going to talk louder than anything else. But things will change, too, when a new generation of archdeacons and DDOs and others involved in placements start to have more experience of working with SSMs and seeing what is possible.”

Dr Gage concluded: “There is something about the freedom of being self-supporting which is good for the individual and for the wider Church. It gives the opportunity to think so much more creatively.”

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