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Self-supporting-ministry: a foot in both camps

by
09 July 2021

Hugh Thomas extols the benefits to the Church of self-supporting ministry

The Revd Hugh Thomas an online service from St Cuthbert’s, West Hampstead, early in the pandemic

The Revd Hugh Thomas an online service from St Cuthbert’s, West Hampstead, early in the pandemic

THE Church Times reported last month that, at the national meeting of self-supporting-ministry advisers and others which I attended, self-supporting ministers (SSMs) feared that they were often considered “vicar’s little helpers” (Feature, 4 June).

I have been very fortunate in my ministry thus far, and have generally felt fulfilled. I was “fully” NSM/SSM for the first couple of years after my ordination to the priesthood in 2005. Then I was what is now called a “bi-vocational” priest: juggling ministry with work as a part-time regulatory lawyer, compliance officer, and head of compliance at investment firms in London. It is this “mixed ecology” of ministry which I have followed ever since.

During these years, I have served at several churches in the City of London and spent a couple of years at an inner-city parish. Then I moved to St Cuthbert’s, West Hampstead: I work for three days a week in my legal and regulatory position, and run the parish for the rest as a house-for-duty Associate Vicar.

In 2005, after studying part-time at the South-East Institute for Theological Education (SEITE, now St Augustine’s College), I was in the minority in not being convinced whether I was being called to stipendiary or self-supporting ministry (I had been recommended for either). I don’t believe I heard from any SSMs in the course of my ordination studies, and had to consider it alone.

I have probably always felt that SSMs were misunderstood in the Church of England, and were often not used to the best extent. Through my own contacts and colleagues from SEITE, I knew that there was an amazing cross-section of experience from most professional fields which SSMs brought into the Church of England.

As priests, we are called to serve with our whole selves. I am still a priest when providing regulatory or legal advice, and my legal and commercial experience has certainly helped me in the churches where I have, I hope, served to run things more efficiently, and to seize some opportunities as they arose.

For those being ordained now as SSMs, it is important that their “non-church” skills are fully recognised. We were trained at the expense of the C of E, but I fear that the Church may not always be getting enough of a return on its capital. This is not to suggest that SSMs should just take over stipendiary posts; but their wider skills and experience should be recognised in recruitment.

The Revd Hugh Thomas, with other members of St Cuthbert’s, receives donations for the foodbank, which was set up at the start of the pandemic and is continuing to operate

Over the years, I have also become concerned that, perhaps owing to the financial pressures on dioceses, SSMs were being expected to do a great deal for no remuneration (apart from accommodation, in some cases). A quick look at job advertisements in the Church Times shows that house-for-duty SSMs are often asked to run one or more parishes, where perhaps a full-time stipendiary priest had previously done so.

To research the area more formally, I have been accepted to read for a doctorate in practical theology through the Cambridge Theological Federation and Anglia Ruskin University, starting in September; and for part of that I am keen to hear about the experience of other SSMs.

 

THE C of E’s ministry statistics show that, at the end of 2019, 230 (eight per cent) of SSMs were listed as of “incumbent status”; 630 (22 per cent) were licensed to benefices where no stipendiary priest was licensed. This indicates that there are many parishes, like mine, where the parish is de facto run by an SSM.

Further, more women seem attracted to SSM, NSM, and other non-paid and part-paid posts. Of the 2920 SSMs in 2019, there was about a 50/50 gender balance; of the 7700 stipendiary priests, 69 per cent were male. This gender balance of SSMs much better reflects the expectations of the wider society, and, as such, should be viewed as a positive.

One area of my research will be how non/part-paid clergy are represented in C of E decision-making structures. It is noteworthy, based on the 2019 ministry statistics, that there are only six part-time senior staff positions in all the dioceses. It is not recorded whether any of those are SSM positions.

This does constitute a challenge: if nobody knows what it is really like to serve as an SSM, then false assumptions may be made.

In London, we are fortunate to have as Bishop the Rt Revd Sarah Mullally, who also trained at SEITE and began her ministry as an SSM. In another recent move, Prebendary John Lees, from Exeter diocese, is now the National SSM Officer, and leading a research project on self-supporting ministry. It is still disappointing, however, that not all dioceses have a bishop’s officer for SSMs.

 

THE first disciples and apostles were effectively “self-supporting”. We know that Paul earned money making tents, and James and Peter would have, I am sure, continued to fish when they could. Self-supporting is the original model of ministry. Churches have over-complicated matters ever since.

The Church should strive to recapture the pragmatism of those early followers of Jesus, and be innovative and experimental in how and where SSMs are deployed. In my research, I will explore the theological basis for the ministry of SSMs, look at other experiences in the Anglican Communion, and consider possible improvements to make better use of SSMs’ skills and experience.

As SSMs, we have the enormous privilege of being able to relate our ministry to our commercial, or other “real-world” work, and not based on historic recollection. This gives us a wonderful advantage when preaching and reflecting the word of God in daily life.

I am now more excited about the prospects of self-supporting ministry in the Church of England than I have ever been. It is a great time to be an SSM, and I welcome all SSMs ordained this Petertide.

 
The Revd Hugh Thomas is the Associate Vicar of St Cuthbert’s, West Hampstead, London. Any reader wishing to contact him with their SSM experience can email hughstcuthberts@gmail.com.

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