Inspired to mark changes

9 11 2009

Victorian poet Matthew Arnold coined the phrase ‘dreaming spires’ when describing Oxford. But there’s something dreamy about Salisbury Cathedral’s spire. That’s the effect it has one me, anyway. There’s something strangely insubstantial about the Salisbury Cathedral – as if it were made out of paper instead of tons of solid stone. This was the impression it made on me over many visits to Sarum College between 2002 and 2005. The ordination training course I attended for those three years – STETS – had its home in that college, itself located in the Cathedral close.

I had occasion to return there last week for three days of a ‘consultation’ for Anglican priests in the region who have in recent months taken up their post of ‘first responsibility’. I think in the past it has been mainly for those who have been appointed vicar or rector of a parish after completing their curacy. In the ‘mixed economy’ church, there are a greater variety of shapes of ministry than would once have been the case. In fact those who were just straightforwardly vicar (or rector) of a parish were in the majority. Three of us had pioneer type roles. The majority were ‘junior‘ ministers in a team ministry. ‘Junior’ here does not necessarily imply an inferior role. It simply means that they weren’t the leader of the team (who would be styled ‘rector’) but a member of it.

Anyway, it was a good time to get away and share experience from a wide variety of settings and reflect on our own practice. We reflected on shaping roles, leadership styles, change processes and management and working collaboratively.

It was interesting to see just how tired most of us were at this early stage in our ministries. That wasn’t necessarily articulated in the discussion. But you could see it in people’s eyes and demeanour. Some were clearly dealing with some significant stresses. It should be a matter of concern, I think, that people only a year or so into their new posts should be finding it so exhausting.

One of the personal learning points for me was to do with handling transitions. Being a bit of a change monkey, I enjoy new things happening – especially if I’m leading the change. The discussions brought home to me the importance of properly marking endings and beginnings and supporting people in the liminal spaces in between. I was reminded that people (including me) move at different speeds and may be at different points.

That’s difficult for a temperamental pioneer. (It was encouraging to me that this came out as my leadership style.) You might think irrelevant for someone working on the edge where there’s nothing there to change. But there are two reasons why I think I need to work especially hard to pay attention to these nuances. First, my role involves leading what has been a parish congregation into a new future. As obviously necessary as that process of change appears to me, there are still big emotional investments that need to be acknowledged if I’m going to stand any chance of carrying people through that change. Second, even if my role was purely about starting new things, I’d be wanting to encourage any new community I helped to bring to birth to have openness to change as one of its founding values. Change would still be part of the future experience of that community. And even becoming a community to start with would be a personal transition for each of its members. Even for change monkeys like me, there is unexpected emotional fallout from change that must be taken seriously. It requires that we acknowledge and mark moments of change and give people time to grieve, adjust and celebrate.

Isn’t this just what a good parish priest does?

26 02 2009

One of the local clergy at a recent social gathering asked my wife what was so different about what I am doing. Why call it ‘pioneer ministry’? Isn’t it all just what someone might do as a parish priest?

Well my answer to that question is somewhat fuzzied up by my involvement with St Luke’s – a parish church.

But a difference has been crystallising in my mind in recent days.

I have seen more than one  model of parish ministry. I have seen someone operate as pastor/chaplain to a fair-sized congregation. I have observed another trying to grow their fair-sized congregation by moving into more of a chairman-like role – leading the leaders (or serving the servants if you prefer!) Those models are more prevalent, I think it’s fair to say, in more evangelical settings.

I’m not here to dis’ those approaches. They work to an extent if by doing so you can motivate your congregation for the work of mission. But you need a fair-sized congregation to start with. And it tends to result in an attractional model of mission. All well and good if you’re focused on the open dechurched. But if you’re attempting to make church happen out where the unchurched and closed dechurched people are at, it may well not get you very far.

Another model is a more incarnational one. Often, in more catholic leaning parishes, the priest sees her/his role as focused on the parish directly, not the parish through the congregation so much as in the previous models I’ve mentioned. That form of ministry places the priest in the community. It’s a ministry of presence. That’s perhaps closer to what I’m about in the pioneer role I have.

The difference, I think, is that those sorts of parish ministry tend to be about breadth of presence. You just are seen about in lots of different settings and so the community gets to know and trust you. Brilliant. But not the same as what I’m doing. I will be in a variety of settings over the next six months. But in order to identify/choose the one that will be the focus. A lot of what I do may well be about presence. But it will be sustained presence in one place. I will be looking to make *church* happen. But church as sharing a journey of spiritual exploration with all sorts of people – certainly not just those with a christian commitment. So it’s about depth of presence.

Now as I said that is complicated by my dual role, because it may be that one or two of the things I leave aside in making a choice about pioneer ministry, I pick up in relation to my parish role. But even that may well involve a new form of church community that doesn’t look quite like what church has traditionally been expected to look like. The St Luke’s post was advertised as requiring some form of fresh expression. We (the community at St Luke’s) don’t know as yet what form that will take, but we’re certainly asking the question…

ps. Sorry, this is a very Anglican post. I am an Anglican priest, and the language I have for exploring this topic is Anglican, but I know these issues are not being faced by the Church of England alone!