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Angela Tilby: Sheep need shepherds, not managers

26 April 2024

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THE Evangelical website Anglican Futures last week published a desperate letter from a serving incumbent, lamenting the impact of managerial culture on clergy health and well-being. It is one several red lights in recent years which suggest that traditional parish ministry is at breaking point.

With ever increasing paperwork, pastoral reorganisation, and a shortage of lay volunteers, it is hardly surprising that so many clergy find themselves depressed. The description of parish clergy as “key limiting factors” in the mission of the Church has not ceased to irritate and wound (Leader comment, 9 July 2019). New structures for ministry, such as those implemented in Truro and Leicester dioceses, and by Wigan in Liverpool diocese (News, 29 September 2023), however well-intentioned, end up eroding personal priestly ministry. Lay ministry is often a blessing, but in a diocese near me there are examples of poorly trained laity regularly leading non-sacramental worship, while cheerfully claiming that they see no need for liturgy or any kind of supervision.

Some bishops, meanwhile, seem to consider that, on attaining office, it is their primary task to test the capability of their clergy and enforce the departure of those appointed by their immediate predecessor. Diocesan money is squandered on so-called settlements, as clergy are pushed out, so that the bishop can appoint his or her own “team”. It is no use pointing out that, though this might be the way in which business culture operates, it is not the way that the Church is meant to be. Bishops should read the Ordinal. They will discover that priestly ministry in the Church of England is meant to be pastoral and personal, modelled on the example of the Good Shepherd, who knows that his job is to know his sheep.

I am not surprised when I hear that some of those whom I helped to train for ordination have left the ministry, often because they feel that they cannot do the job that they were ordained to do. Some have retrained as counsellors or therapists; some have returned to academia, or to posts in the voluntary sector. Their call to discernment of the human spirit has not gone away, but they realise that they cannot flourish in a culture that no longer values, or even recognises, their role.

The crazy thing about all this is that the evidence, such as it is, points to a vital connection between church growth and visible, personal, priestly presence in particular communities. The sheep know when they have been abandoned, as many of them were during Covid, and as they increasingly are, as their desperate clergy chase between six, eight, 13 parishes. Uncared for, the “sheep” simply stop coming, and, of course, they also stop giving. It is sad that so many of our episcopal managers continue to squander money on vanity projects and appoint yet more taskmasters to demand bricks, while withholding the straw.

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