Sunday, April 17, 2011

Empty Chairs and Empty Tables

Good evening God,
I just wanted to say thank you for today - for the inspiration and the courage to challenge the congregation as to whether or not they are a Palm Sunday people - all in favour of the big parade, but unlikely to follow through with any real commitment. The Church will die unless a new generation of officers and class leaders come forward and learn how to tell our stories and share the good news.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Panic, Perfection and the Word of God.

Good afternoon God,
Did you ever wonder if you would survive long enough to die?
I ask, because it's about this time in the run up to the festival of Easter that I often think I'm not going to make it - so many home communions to do, so many services to write, so many people to visit, so many things to buy/organize/make/plan in order to make sure that THE day (actually - let's be honest here - the hour) manages somehow to communicate something of the wonder, mystery, joy and power of what you did 2000 years ago.

At this moment in time, I could take heart from the idea that you might have gotten a little 'fretful', that you might have worried (even if only for a moment) about missing something. It would help me to feel that there were split seconds when you had small doubts, were you sure you had said all you wanted to say - all that was necessary to enable us to piece it all together again later?
Were you confident that you were 'ready'?

Were you human enough to want everything to be perfect - and human enough to panic that it might not be?

Planning great moments which celebrate both life and death demands breathtaking courage and audacity doesn't it. The celebration of Holy Week and Easter has to be genuinely emotive enough to liberate tears and smiles, yet rational enough to sustain more than just the heart in the days and weeks that follow. It has to be simple enough to understand, yet complex enough to carry truth, mystery and awe.. and all this without artifice!

It's at times like this that I really understand, value and appreciate Scripture.

When I don't have the words, I find you do - when I've run out of contemporary stories and illustrations, you supply me with your Word and ask me just to let it be read -
You teach me, year on year, to trust that it has your power to move, liberate and mystify.
It is, after all, by your grace, not by my exposition that people will be saved.

So.. before the real panic begins, before the stewards and the organists, the readers and the flower arrangers all start.. before the ink is dry on the orders of service for Maundy Thursday with its 7 different readings, and for Good Friday with its complete reading of the passion story - let me say thank you for your Word.

It tells YOUR story better than I ever could.. and spares me the embarrassment of trying to improve on perfection.

Bless you God

Monday, April 11, 2011

Healthy Circuits?

Good morning God,
at Synod on Saturday we were treated to a discussion starter document entitled 'Marks of a Healthy Circuit'. It is based on the premise that 'In London we know that our members' diversity of experience in different denominations and Connexions means that what a Circuit is and how it works is not always fully understood'. In order to help us understand the nature of a Circuit better therefore, this document outlines seven marks of a healthy circuit 'as a basis for thought and discusssion and to help understanding as circuits face urgent questions about their future'.

It certainly does provoke discussion.
If Saturday's conversations can be used as a judge there are a variety of different ways of understanding what does, and does not constitute a 'healthy' circuit. The District really is to be congratulated on having produced such a provocative document.

As an example - mark number 1

A Healthy Circuit has:
An effective Staff Team of between 5 and 8 ministers or full time staff.
 'it is clear that one of the big gains in Circuit mergers has been the increased quality of staff fellowship, support and teamwork'.

Apparently - fewer than 5 can lead to 'major difficulties' in the case of ill health,sabbaticals and 'relationship issues'.

I agree it is certainly easier to keep relationships light, non-confrontational, non-informative and polite when there are enough people in the room to divert attention away from key issues. It's a lot easier for example, for a person in a group of 8 to stay silent and unnoticed for an hour than it is for a person in a group of three or four.  I am also inclined to agree that many of the problems in circuits stem from conflicts amongst the circuit staff, but I'm not sure the answer is to create a situation where they can be ignored hidden, minimized or disguised.   And what about the role of the laity, of Supernumerary and sector ministers - are they not part of the 'team' with a role to play in resolving any such issues? What would St Paul say about such issues,what is our calling in such circumstances?

Similarly - it is suggested that more than 8 staff can create a loss of team focus and accountability - so how on earth does a circuit meeting which is larger and more diverse, hold focus and accountability?
  Last - but by no means least - a staff team of between 5 and 8 creates better training opportunities and the possibility for diversity in gifts and graces.

And of course - there is the problem that none of this applies particularly well to fresh ways of being circuit (see Conference report in 2008)

Thinking about all this theologically - I guess the first thing I would want to say is that Mark 1 of a healthy circuit could do with being about YOU God, not about ministers!
Something about a willingness and a commitment to work together to serve God and engage in the mission of God to this circuit.

In general, I think we need to take the focus off the HOW and onto the WHY.. if we really want to inspire people to create healthy(?) - missional circuits which are able to help the District fulfill the mission statement we adopted on Saturday.

I think it is a brilliant idea to produce such a document - we DO need to look carefully at circuits (which is why the Connexion produced a report about the missional nature of the circuit)

I would just want to make a plea for it to be a CHURCH document - ie a theological document, focused on  YOUR work God, not ours, and so something that takes into account important considerations such as the quality of Worship, the provision of the means of grace, the equality of ministry, the commitment to social justice and growth in grace and holiness for all your people - the obligations of membership and the responsibilities of good stewardship, the MISSION of the circuit as part of the District.

I think I would want it to spell out how it relates to the discipline and doctrine of the Connexion - and how adopting it can help us to become a more missional, inspirational people and a more effective witness to your gospel. (That might even help people to understand what CPD is all about!)

All of which is just a case of making explicit what is largely implicit in what we have been given. So, I really do want to thank you God, for giving us people who care enough about your Church to want to wrestle with it and engage with it, and persuade us to do the same - in order that YOUR will be done.

Friday, April 8, 2011

The death of an idealist and the birth of an unhappy pragmatist.

Good morning God,
It's depressing to contemplate how much of my life has been lived as a lie. Unintentionally I grant, but a lie nonetheless. I actually believed in the work I have been doing, in the theology behind it, in the doctrines that motivated it and the passion for you which was supposed to have inspired it. Worse than this - I taught it to others; shared the lie, encouraged them to believe and want to live the ideal of Connexionalism; to take up the challenge of serving you as a minister in the Methodist Church.
There is no finer calling, I told them, than to serve you by loving your people.

God - do I feel a fool!

It's taken a while, but I finally understand Don Cupitt and his insistence that it is perfectly possible to have a vacant faith - to practice religion as a social rite rather than an expression of faith, to 'do the job' rather than live the life of a servant of Christ. To be an almost Christian as Wesley would say - and to be perfectly happy in it - indeed to argue for it as being the most sensible, practical way of surviving in ministry today. It certainly has the potential to reduce the heartache and preserve some integrity when ministry is more like a job than a calling and vocation.

I only have myself to blame. I allowed myself to be seduced by the theology of the priesthood of all believers, to be intoxicated by the idea of truly representative ministry, where lay and ordained sought to model the coming kingdom by their work together in the circuits and local churches. Circuit ministry was different from Parish ministry I believed: diakonia, collegiality and collaborative leadership - lay and ordained - was written into our structures. Connexionalism bound us together in an outlandish equality before you God. Small rural churches were deemed as important to the body of Christ as large suburban churches were: a probationer minister was paid the same basic stipend as the President of Conference.  Yes there was a hierarchy of sorts, but it tended to be based on respect and seniority, earned through fidelity to the Gospel and the service of your people rather than granted by job title. We were all under the same discipline of the Church which called us to a life of scriptural holiness and social justice.

Of course this was all an ideal - and yes - Of course I knew this - I'm not THAT much of an idiot: but it did seem to me at one time that it was an ideal, a model, that the Church was still holding up and striving for: The reconfiguration of the representative session of Conference as a means of ensuring parity between laity and clergy being but one recent example.

But I think I was mistaken. The dream was mine.

I can find little evidence in what I read of our new structures, disciplines, and forms of ministerial oversight of a theology that can be reconciled with a search for truly representative ministry or with the doctrine of the priesthood of all believers. To take but one example - gender equality : we have to concede that the number of women superintendents is declining, not increasing. Team focus has apparently led to a significant reduction of women in positions of leadership at Connexional level, and we are a long, long way from parity at District level. Have we unwittingly been walking backwards, by forging on with the management of our priorities without thinking through how this might impact on the practical outworking of our core doctrines?

In our determination to be 'better' more coherent, more financially responsible and personally accountable are we unknowingly developing a blindness to our theology, to our calling, to our purpose and identity?

I'm not sure what the dream of this once great movement is now, the priorities tell us what we have agreed we will spend our time, money and resources on - but they say very little about why. We are committed to making new disciples of Christ - but to do what?  What is the ultimate goal of all our restructuring, management and mission? What is the PURPOSE of our priorities and how does that UNITE us in one common calling or identity?

There are some great things happening at every level of the Connexion. Fresh ways of being Church are springing up at local level, new and alternative ways of being circuit are being discussed and implemented, Districts are finding creative and innovative ways of encouraging lay leadership, and at Connexional level we are seeing some real fruit - the youth participation scheme, the new free resource Talking of God the Venture FX project, and not least, the wonderful wonderful way in which the media and joint public issues teams are working to try and give the work of Christ a voice that will be heard, must be heard.. 

And for as long as I live, I too will continue to try and play my part in making the priorities a reality - albeit differently.  No longer the idealist, more the unhappy pragmatist. (Wesley would be proud)
For where can I go Lord - you have the Words of eternal life. 

So I will celebrate and rejoice in the good that I see, and pray earnestly that you will find some way to speak to us and get us to speak more of YOU. That you will inspire us and fill us with confidence once again in simple words like love, trust, respect, faith and hope and point out to us why it is these things that abide - long after models of leadership, management and governance have been changed once again. That you will remind us that you called us to be a movement - not a monument, to work with you for the building of your kingdom, not our structures, and that in Christ, there is neither chair, nor synod secretary, superintendent nor circuit steward, neither lay nor ordained... just your people.

And maybe, just maybe God, the prayer will challenge me to believe in Connexionalism again.

Thursday, April 7, 2011

Supervising - or Pastoring - the difference matters

Good morning God,
Can you please explain to me why the Church feels the need to Supervise its ministers rather than provide them with Pastoral Care?
When I worked in industry, when I employed people with job descriptions and measurable outcomes and provided a foot in the door for young people on YTS or BTEC or similar programmes, supervision meant comparing expected measurable outcomes against achieved outcomes.
If the company expected 20 units a day to be tested or put through quality control and the person being supervised only managed 15, then we could have a conversation about whatever it was that was causing the difference.  Supervision allowed the person being supervised to compare how they thought they were doing  to how the company thought they were doing. It allowed us to identify future training needs and to give praise where praise was due.
Supervision was always a two way process - but I was never under any illusions about which way power was slanted: as the employer, it was the supervisors assessment of the area under supervision that mattered - not the employee's. We could talk all we liked, and I was always open to hearing constructive criticism about the working of the company - but in the end - it was not the company that was being supervised. This is what made it perfectly possible and acceptable for employees to be supervised by  line-managers and a member of the Human Resources team - both of whom could be (and often were)  less experienced and less knowledgeable about the actual work being done by the employee than the employee was.  They had taken a course in supervision - and it really didn't matter what the employee thought. Supervision was never about a relationship of equals, or even first among equals. Super-vision implies that the person conducting the interview has greater ability to 'see' what has been and needs to be done than the person being supervised.(i.e. seen by this superior vision)

My first Superintendent was a senior minister, someone who had spent their entire life in the service of the Church. He knew the joys and the sorrows of circuit ministry. He knew what it was like to be loved into the work, and what it was like to love the work in spite of those you are called to serve. He didn't 'supervise' my probation - he provided genuine pastoral care: Honesty where it was needed, advice where it was asked for, and support and encouragement to develop and grow further. He walked with me, not once a year at a staged supervision - but weekly as we met in staff meetings. I learned and grew as a minister by listening to my colleagues discussing ministry, by sharing in prayer and learning how to be open and not possessive or defensive about my own calling, We shared the contents of our diaries and watched over one another in love. He inspired me, by his pastoral care of me,  to become all that I could be in your service God - even though my own particular gifts and graces were very different from his. The only power at work in all this that I was ever conscious of, was your power God.

The Church's most recent vote of no confidence in its circuit ministers means that we are set to turn Superintendents into line-managers and supervisors. At a stroke we deny the theology of pastoral care which once meant so much to us and create a sub-structure of the Church in direct contradiction with one of the most fundamental aspects of circuit ministry - collegiality. As a line manager and the person designated to conduct the annual supervision, the Superintendent ceases to be a colleague, a fellow minister, the 'first among equals' described in the 'What is a superintendent' report. Instead the Superintendent becomes the boss, the record keeper of a minister's attempts to measure up to some unwritten 'measurable outcomes' of ministry - and the (potentially unqualified) judge of their performance. So who will pastor to the pastors - because supervision is NOT pastoral care. There is nothing 'pastoral' in supervision, nothing 'gracious' or deliberately of you God - supervision is a performance indicator - nothing more and nothing less. And I doubt that it will be too long before annual supervision reports are held in the new personnel files for ministers.

I hate to think that I will end my ministry outside of the discipline of my Church - but I object to the very idea of being 'supervised' in the manner currently being proposed. I am opposed to it on both theological and practical grounds.  Will I reflect on my ministry - of course, I have been and always will be a reflective practitioner: will I do so with my Superintendent as part of a formal, recorded annual supervision of my 'performance' in the Church - I very much doubt it. Why not - because it may be good management - but its just not good pastoral ministry. 

I am happy to reflect on my ministry with an experienced practitioner and spiritual director and to then share those reflections with colleagues in staff meetings as part of our pastoral care of one another. I am happy to be held accountable to my colleagues and to the Circuit meeting for the conduct of my ministry - isn't that what circuit ministry is?

I do understand why the Church feels that it needs to introduce supervision - its a neat, tried and tested way to bring employees to heel and maintain discipline amongst the work force. It allows the managers to set standards and outcomes and task the workforce to ensure that those outcomes are achieved to the desired standard.

And it's so tempting to think that that will solve our problems out in circuit. There can be no denying that we do have a problem, the increase year upon year in discipline cases tells its own sorry story - as do the terrifying tales of abuse of care in circuits. But am I alone in wanting to challenge the very idea that something that so completely undermines the theology and value of circuit ministry and the collegiality of ministry is the best answer we can come up with? Make no mistake, I believe it is important that ministers do reflect and are held accountable for their ministry: But is 'Supervision' by the superintendent really the best way to achieve this?

If, as a Church we have problems with discipline - then why not deal with the root cause of it.
Might our problems be caused by the practice of sectional instead of circuit ministry? We now actively encourage the idea that the minister is assigned to a Church or Churches rather than to a circuit as part of a circuit team.  Is this because we are too 'busy' or unwilling to practice 'circuit ministry - to meet regularly - to spend time in prayer and conversation with one another - to watch over one another in love - and yes, that does mean censure one another where appropriate?
On second thoughts God - perhaps the Church is right - it's just so much easier and neater to supervise staff once a year..
after all - who needs pastoral care?

Friday, April 1, 2011

District Superintendents - What's in a name?

Good morning God,
I've been wondering as I read through this month's council papers what difference will a change of title make to the work of the Church.
On it's own - probably very little, but joining up some dots provides a very interesting picture.
The structure of the British Methodist Church is four-fold. We have Local Churches, Circuits, Districts and the Connexion or Conference depending on how you want to think about it.
This provides us with Ministers, Superintendents, District Chairs and the  Conference/Connexional Team presided over by the President and Vice president of Conference and the General Secretary and Connexional team secretaries.

Contrast this with the largest Methodist denomination - the United Methodist Church who have a different sort of four-fold structure of local Churches, Districts, Conferences and General Conference.
This is served by Elders, District Superintendents, Bishops and their General Secretaries - one for each Global Board.

Now add into this mix the 'Regrouping for mission' or 'Mapping a way forward'  programe of British Methodism which is an encouragement to create circuits as large (if not larger) than many Districts were. Add the call to change the names of our District Chairs and Connexional Team secretaries.. and what do you get?

Could it be a gentle but inevitable and predictable mapping of the UK Methodist structure to the UMC structure..?
Circuits are slowly disappearing, being replaced by smaller Districts overseen by District Superintendents. (the name change suggested for chairs) Our Connexional Team being headed by Connexional Secretaries with particular areas of responsibility.

Which leaves only one more office/name change - and we have already been warned that we will have to make some bold and difficult decisions about the episcopate - Bishops.
Only, in our case, the current thinking seems to be that the preferred choice (of those who want bishops!) would be the President of Conference: a presiding Bishop (just like in the UMC)

This is not 'conspiracy theory' this is just joining dots and seeing what pictures emerge. A  linking together the consequences of our reports and actions to see where they might possibly take us. I may well be wrong - but its fun to do and an exciting prospect nonetheless.

Of course the dots could also be seen as preparation for fulfilling the current Anglican/Methodist covenant. The loss of circuits and a mapping of smaller 'Districts' to Deaneries where District Superintendents become area Deans and the president of Conference becomes the Bishop. (But this picture is much less 'artistic' and 'fun'  to draw - in my opinion.)

The name changes and the push for the removal of circuits by the 'regrouping for mission' program do seem to suggest that strategically thinking, the UMC is the most likely candidate for future belonging and collaborative work.

Personally, as I have stated before I would rather see British Methodism relate more closely to the UMC. If we are going to enter into covenants or consider greater collaboration then why don't we look to other Methodist denominations first? The UMC approach to ministry, their unashamed ownership of Wesleyan theology, their evangelistic zeal and commitment to world wide mission have much to offer us: And we have much to offer the UMC - not least our greater inclusivity in ministry and membership and our commitment to combined social justice and political activism.

So it would seem there might be three options on the table:
  • Fulfill the Covenant with the Anglican Church and become a Methodist Concordat within the Church of England
  • Gently merge with the URC
  • Become the British Conference of the United Methodist Church.

Add to this the ecumenical programs of both the British Methodist Church and the United Methodist Church and the picture becomes even more interesting. It could well be possible to fulfill the basic requirements of the Covenant AND our current relationships with the URC  - by being part of the international dialogue between the Methodists and these denominations.

So what's in a name God?

Well, in my opinion these changes might open up the future and enable British Methodists to recognize that they are part of a massive world-wide movement based on the theology of grace given to us by Wesley.
They suggest a common structure throughout world-wide Methodism and so may provide access to the ecumenical relationships that exist between global rather than local denominations. This might be a faster route to the interchangeability of ministry than the Covenant.

And they make great fun for people like me, who like to guess where we might be going in the future - and how we might be getting there.

Not that there is any real evidence of any deliberate action being taken for any of this to happen of course.

Just a bit of fun - but the change of name gets my vote as a step in the right direction.