Nearly 50 years ago, in a conversation with my father about my sense of calling to Christian ministry, I said I wanted to develop another career before becoming a Baptist minister, probably on a part-time basis. I recognized, even as a teenager, that full time paid ministry was a huge financial drain on church life. I went on to study law at university, ending up with a degree in economics. Two years later, I left my job as a Local Government Officer, having done just one year of a three year graduate training programme, and started preparation for the ministry. I have been at it full time ever since.
It turned out the way it did largely because of the way ministry was understood and practised. The standard route to becoming a Baptist minister was through a full-time college course leading to a degree in theology, followed by an invitation from a local church and ordination. There was very little scope for part-time ministry, or combining ministry with another career. There is more flexibility today, especially in patterns of training, but the full-time, “professional” minister, is still the norm in most churches and denominations.
The need for a change has now become urgent. Partly this is because because of the growing financial pressures on churches – increased stipends, pensions and housing costs are an intolerable burden for many – and also because it is becoming clearer that full time career ministers are no longer appropriate. The pattern, among Baptists at least, was set in the nineteenth and early twentieth century, when large congregations gathered to hear preachers, churches were prominent social institutions and the role of their ministers widely recognized and respected. Now, it is harder to explain what a minister is and does. For churches that practise a congregational style of government, having a full-time, paid minister has always tended to encourage an unhelpful clericalism, and that seems even more anachronistic today.
A pattern of non-stipendary or part time ministry should become the norm rather than the exception. The number of part-time ministers is already increasing, as is the number of churches feeling unable to call a minister at all. Often this is for financial reasons, and accompanied by a sense of failure. How much better to actively promote a different model of ministry as a positive thing, rather than as an alternative for churches that cannot afford the real thing. There will still be the need for specialist roles in mission, church support or training, for example, many of which will be full-time. But churches should no longer expect to be served by full-time, professional, paid ministers. If they do have paid staff, it is more likely they will be involved in such things as social enterprise or community work.
A predominantly non-stipendary ministry implies threats and challenges, as well as opportunities, for ministers, congregations, colleges and the wider church. Institutional and cultural change is slow, and rarely comes from the top, or from office holders within existing organizational structures. It is really up to local congregations to think about what kind of ministry is right for them, and to seek it out. A special responsibility rests with the larger churches, which can set the pattern for others.
Pioneering approaches to ministry need to be nurtured, celebrated and brought into the mainstream of denominational life, rather than thought of as exceptions to the rule. People thinking of ministry, as I was 50 years ago, will then have models before them which are much more appropriate for the twenty-first century.
Peter Shepherd (November 2015)