Three posts on clergy life – coda – you get the priests you plan for

Gosh, Rev Sam’s post has really got me going! Having slept fitfully last night with a woman who’s suffering the adrenaline rush of having just been told her school is to be OFSTED’d next week (she’s the head-teacher; oh, and my wife incidentally…) I became aware of another train of thought Sam’s post had triggered, which wasn’t covered in the ‘Three posts’.

The role of the English parish priest is shaped these days by the circumstances of the Church in Britain. Most lay people now know that when you hear senior clerics talk about a new ‘strategy’, you reach for your gun. For the past 15 to 20 years, when dioceses have produced documents called strategies, what they have really produced is decline management plans. The primary trigger for change has been financial. The costs of running the ministry have gone up (mainly because of pension costs, and decline in central funding). The income is static. The financial support base (the proverbial bum on pew) is static or declining. A plan is needed, otherwise the diocese will go bankrupt.

In essence this means paying for fewer priests across the board. So a round of consultation ensues. This usually involves putting together groups of lay representatives who have little knowledge of each other’s situation, together with the clergy and some senior diocesan person. The result, in nearly every case, is some kind of boxing and coxing affair so that none of the churches have to close, priests (either existing or future) are shared across various kinds of combinations, and laudable things are said about the need for collaborative and lay ministry (as if these weren’t already happening). I have friends right across the Church of England, and it seems that there is very little variation on this theme. There are several things that ensure that this kind of activity will never be ‘strategic’:

  1. Those most affected by any change are the grass-roots paymasters. So they have the influence which shapes the policy ‘across the board’.
  2. This produces managerial timidity among those who have the greatest over-all vantage point.
  3. People always opt for minimum change, unless a long-term change preparation (not management) process has been adopted beforehand.
  4. Enforced change is the hardest change to make genuinely creative and strategic. When the prospect of enforced change is imminent, people are most resistant to taking creative risks – they go into survival mode, which is highly conservative. (This is sometimes called the ‘rabbit caught in the headlights’ effect.)
  5. People will agree to anything as long as they think the key structures will remain in place: these are i. My church, ii. Services pretty much as normal, iii. A ministry structured in a way as similar as possible to the one that’s about to change. After the changes happen, they seem to forget the other things they agreed to, and things revert to a state of minimum alteration. The strategic component dies with implementation of change.
  6. Churches in such plans are essentially congregations in competition with each other for limited resources: this is not conducive to creative collaboration or innovation.
  7. After one such ‘strategy’ scheme, lay people become understandably cynical with anything that claims to speak about growth and innovation but really is about saving yet more money – so should a genuine strategy come along, it becomes more difficult to implement.
  8. Everyone seems to forget the parable of the seed, which needs to die if anything is to grow.

A principal culprit in all of this is the received model of ‘the priest in the parish’. Both received models, ‘priest’ and ‘parish’, have proved very ineffective at bringing about a genuinely apostolic turn by the Church in this country. The thing is that they ‘work’ in their own terms. A solitary priest can serve a parish church, keep it going, and in some cases help build up that church either by being very gifted and charismatic, or by adopting good policies of nurture (Alpha courses etc.) The problem is that this does not work across the whole. There are points and places where the demands of the situation are just too much (inner-urban contexts, for example) or the church has dropped in numbers and effectiveness to the point where it cannot be turned around. Yet this model is the one that most people in churches cling onto or crave. There needs to be a breaking open to ‘new ways of being Church’ to quote a modern cliche. More importantly, people need to think more about what is necessary for the good of The Church, not merely ‘my church’. This is the single most important thing to happen: a change in horizon, leading to shift in concern and a change in motivation. This is what I mean by ‘the apostolic turn’ at the start of this paragraph. Only when ‘the apostolic turn’ happens for lots of lay people will a genuinely strategic process start to open up in the Church as a whole.

In the meantime, we are getting the priests that we’ve planned for. Clergy are given extra parishes, but without any genuine re-education of lay expectation, or with adequate preparation and training of lay ministers before they arrive. A multi-parish benefice is more administratively intensive that the cumulative administration of two parishes, because there is parish-A work, parish-B work, and parish A+B work. Clergy find themselves sitting on more and more committees. As a result, it becomes increasingly difficult for the priest to just be a priest. Essentially, he or she is running a small, dispersed corporation with two or more centres of activity. The only way to retain anything resembling the traditional pastoral model is to ignore the increased demands for co-ordinating leadership. If that is left to lay people, they will have to straddle the multi-location model instead. Few have the spare time to do this effectively. Few care with equal vigor about the next door church. The perspective remains parochial in the best and worse sense of this word.

For the Team Rector of a group of 15 or more outlying rural parishes, theirs is essentially a managerial task. The ‘priestly’ bits of visiting, teaching and leading worship can only be peripheral to the central role of administration. Again, you’ve got the priest you planned for. If someone asks when that planning took place, it happened when the path of least change was adopted, rather than a williness to make radical changes in the interest of the good of the whole Church. I know a good number of ordained priests who have left the stipendiary ministry because they felt that being stipendiary inevitably led to becoming a manager, and they didn’t have time to focus on both management and what they felt they had been called into the ordained ministry to do. This is a great loss to the Church of England in one sense, but the principle holds at national level too: you get the priests you plan for. It may be this instinct which led to a recent thought-provoking post by Bishop Mike Hill, where he wondered whether the best way of providing innovative, apostolic leaders was not to pay them.

In the meantime, my thoughts return to Mad Priest’s kindly criticism of Rev Sam, and the unease they provoked in me. If priests are called to serve the Church, then like it or not, we have to serve in ways that we are asked, however flawed they may be. It is going to become much more difficult for priests like Mad Priest to move to new posts, as increasing numbers are shaped by the kind of ‘strategy’ outlined above. Perhaps a priest who really wants the time to pray deeply, form seriously transformative relationships with people, preside over worship and teach the Faith, and still have quality time left for their own human and family development is going to have to seek a ministry outside the formal and stipendiary structures of the Church of England. You get the priests you plan for.


Rev Sam 03/02/07 - 1:55 pm

Yes, that’s exactly it. I particularly agree with the need to change lay-expectations, and your last paragraph. I’m not interested in managing decline…

Tom Allen 03/02/07 - 2:53 pm

Thanks Paul for all this series of posts which seem to based on a great deal more practical experience than the Mad Priest post which triggered it off. The one on visiting is particularly supportive in a parish where people think it only applied to church families but is so impractical in a commuter village. This last post hits home in our deanery where some clergy have suddenly (ie in 18 months) been given two extra churches and PCCs – but others do not want to see their ministry consumed by keeping church clubs going and are loosing the missional parts of the role which we were called to as priests.

Staring into the distance as far as our eyes can see at Christian Selvaratnam 03/02/07 - 4:22 pm

[…] Three posts on clergy life – coda – you get the priests you plan for […]

David Faulkner 03/02/07 - 11:42 pm


I’ve just linked to this post on my blog. What you say has great relevance to Methodism and to other denominations. Many thanks.

Saturday is links day » The Cartoon Blog by Dave Walker 04/02/07 - 12:06 am

[…] staring into the distance::as far as our eyes can see Paul (always good value) has three four posts on the same aforementioned topics: 1. Clergy stress 2. “If you meet George Herbert on the road, kill him” 3. Visiting 3.1 You get the priests you plan for […]

cheryl 04/02/07 - 7:46 am

This is a very timely post for me- reading it before I go and start the round of services in my own multi-parish benefice and having spent a day yesterday at a meeting for a new team which is happening because of exactly the kind of re-organisation you describe above. As a Rural Dean I was given a scenario with a scarce resource ( that would be us) and told to come up with a plan that I could get the deanery to agree to. It is exactly the kind of plan you describe above, which is fairly inevitable given the context. But as you say I am here to serve in the imperfect church we have and to ponder how much is just the inevitable sacrifice of ministry and if there is ever a point when I should say ‘Enough is enough’. What depresses me most about this as about much else in the church is the failure to admit what’s really going on which I think makes the stress much worst for the hapless over stretched and riddled with guilt parish priests. Thank you for articulating our dilemmas so well in all these posts- me, I’m off to apply for a single parish post!

The young fogey 04/02/07 - 2:10 pm

This series of posts seems to ring true cutting across all theologies and churchmanships to describe what priests do. Thank you!

John Richardson 05/02/07 - 3:06 pm

BRILLIANT! This is so accurate it is funny. Everything you need to know about most of what passes for ‘strategic planning’ in the Church of England is here. In our diocese (Chelmsford) they’ve hit on an even better variation: get the Deaneries to come up with a ‘strategic plan’! So, a body that couldn’t agree how to boil a kettle gets to shape the future. Still, at least the centre doesn’t get all the blame for making the cuts this time. Machiavelli, watch and learn. We actually get our ‘Deanery Plan’ rolled out tomorrow night and I really can’t wait.

Now I have to go back and read the previous three posts – I started at the wrong end!

John Richardson 08/02/07 - 9:01 am

Further to my last post, I can now report that our Deanery meeting was exactly as Paul describes it above. I’ve posted a report on my Ugley Vicar blog: “A hopeless vision: Deanery Strategy in the Diocese of Chelmsford”.

Eric 20/02/07 - 1:52 pm

‘Perhaps a priest who really wants the time to pray deeply, form seriously transformative relationships with people, preside over worship and teach the Faith, and still have quality time left for their own human and family development is going to have to seek a ministry outside the formal and stipendiary structures of the Church of England. You get the priests you plan for.’

This certainly chimes with my own experience – thanks for the thread Paul – very helpful and perhaps another step on the Way.

Lengthy spells on diocesan bodies which pay lip service to prayer and idolise management have helped me to see that what we’ve got is far from being the church and that in the C of E we are well down the path to congregationalism as the managed get fed up with the managers (I though it was meant to be about bishops, priests and deacons). . . and before anyone sets off with regard to ‘not ignoring the lessons of modern management ‘techniques” (aaaaaaaaarghhhhh!). Please note that a brief survey of said techniques will find you adrift in a sea of shifting sands which in the way of ocean currents eventually bring you back to where ou started (and this is as common in the Church as elsewhere) and b) as someone once said ‘My kingdom is not of this world – really’

Staring into the distance as far as our eyes can see « Christian Selvaratnam 25/03/08 - 6:59 pm

[…] Three posts on clergy life – coda – you get the priests you plan for […]

The Writer


The Time

clockTH clockUH Valve clockTM clockUM Valve clockTS clockUS
  • Category Cloud

  • Meta

  • Make me happy!