Yesterday, I commented on an excellent post called ‘Osteopath‘by my blogging friend and fellow Methodist minister, Dave Faulkner at Big Circumstances. Dave discusses the issue of the initial length of ministerial appointments (currently 5 years) and how that is not enough time to get to know the church and establish vision. I commented that the problem here is exacerbated by the circuit system in which a minister is only in her church for twice a month at the most, or those with more (or even many) smaller churches it can be once a month. Not having grown up in the British Methodist system, I have struggled (and here, I will admit the cultural difference – it’s like trying to understand rugby having grown up with American football). In part, the system makes no sense to me. It prevents me from living week in and week out with my congregations, walking life with them. It prevents me from preaching a sermon series (those who have been reading have seen my attempt at it – four sermons scattered over 4 months) and continually putting the vision and direction in front of my congregations mind. (NB: American ministers can have more than one church, but they will be at each one on a Sunday.) When talking with my American friends, they find our system confusing and their help in how they have moved their churches would be difficult to fit in our system.
That’s when I commented on Dave’s blog that I was encroaching on the ‘sacred cow’ of Methodism: local preaching. I was perhaps a little glib about my comment calling it a ‘sacred cow’, and it has been an important part of Methodist identity in Britain. Thankfully, other commenters, including a local preacher, have been kind. Fat Prophet has responded on his website with sympathy for my thoughts. Local Preaching is my anwer to my American friends on how the pulpits are filled when I am not there and because of that, many conclude that it is a necessary situation because we do not have enough ministers to fill each church. Dave, in his comments on the post, responded to that:
It is exacerbated by at least two problems, in my opinion. One is that the decline in the number of congregations has been slower percentage-wise than the decline in the number of worshippers. Mathematically, that leads to ministers chasing around several small churches, rather than having one large church. Suggest mergers and try to escape with your life!
But that is linked to the second issue, which I’ve blogged about before, and that is the doctrine of presbyteral ministry. We still have a Constantinian Christendom mindset that what everyone needs is a pastor who will administer the sacraments. It’s not fit for a missionary situation. I hope to explore this more during my sabbatical next year.
I agree wholeheartedly on the first point, and somewhat on the second point (Dave and I have slightly different understandings of sacramental ministry, but likely we are closer than we are far apart – but that’s a different story!). A colleague in my district talked about how Methodism grew when preachers would proclaim the gospel and then left the organisation of the churches (into the class system) to those already part of the movement. Wesley’s strict system set up the people on the path to discipleship under well-trained leaders. The preacher would then only come back to exhort (and as Dave points out, to administer the sacraments). The situation is different now and I think the Methodist Church is struggling to understand how ministers are leaders. And, as Dave says, we have yet to take the bull by the horns and truly discuss how many buildings we actually need. Doubtless those are hard conversations, but at some point we need to have them.
Related to the second point, Dave does point to the clergy-lay divide. We want to say we are in ministry together. We want to say we believe in our lay leaders and not everything relies on the minister because he or she is not in a ‘class above the “second class” laity’. Martyn Atkins cried out in his book that we need to let the laity loose from telling them that their job is to be there and then we start allowing them to minister. I agree with all that. But why do I talk to so many ministers who struggle to find those in their churches who are truly interested in discipleship? Why do property committees have more folk than bible study? Why is my church council agenda filled with practical matters (usually dealing with the building)? Is this the fault of me and my ministerial colleagues?
Somehow, the discussion on the posts above has devolved into ‘Yes, you can do theme preaching.’ Fair enough, working with the local preachers, I likely could do some theme preaching (and I have met many great local preachers – I don’t want to discount them or their ministry). But that doesn’t solve the problem I struggle with: namely, if I am the leader who is there to enable the congregation to catch a vision for building the kingdom, how can I do that if I am not living life with the congregations? With respect to the local preachers, how can I depend on them to know the vision if they do not see eye-to-eye with me, or even more important, are not a part of the congregation themselves?
I don’t believe in magic solutions. I get some who point out look at the Anglicans and their ministers are there every Sunday and they are struggling, too. Yes, and I point out that they have their own sacred cows they are dealing with and that might be a factor. But, if God is calling us to change our system, will we be willing to listen?