by the Ven Mark Ireland, Archdeacon of Blackburn and co-author with Mike Booker of ‘Making New Disciples’
Twice in the last ten days we have appointed excellent candidates from outside the diocese to fill vacant parishes, one a curate at the end of their curacy and one transferring from unpaid non-stipendiary ministry to a paid position. On both occasions their respective archdeacons told me that they would have loved to keep the candidate in their diocese but sadly there was an indefinite freeze on appointing anyone not already on the incumbents’ payroll ‘for financial reasons’. Whilst I am delighted that parishes in our diocese should benefit, I can’t help lamenting that other dioceses are following a policy which I fear will prove short-sighted.
Far from saving money, cutting the numbers of stipendiary clergy usually leads to a reduction in income, as less mission and ministry takes place and fewer people become disciples of Jesus Christ. When clergy are asked to take on more parishes in ever larger benefices, they somehow manage to keep all the services, buildings and occasional offices going, at least after a fashion, but they inevitably have less time and energy for mission and evangelism and planting new congregations. They also spend more time at their desk – and so have less time to spend in being a visible presence in the life of the community and talking to those who are searching for faith.
Another short-term cost saving measure that creates lasting structural damage is delaying the appointments to our vibrant parishes. The lack of ordained leadership for extended periods of time erodes parish life, chokes off growth and demotivates generous givers.
I know that the theory is that lay ministry will expand to fill the gap left by stipendiary clergy.
In a recent book (Making New Disciples, 2015) Mike Booker and I quoted a remarkable statistic that 40% of fresh expressions of church are led by lay people with no formal training or authorisation. However potential lay ministers need clergy with time to recognise their gifts, encourage their vocation and invest in their training and development. As an incumbent a major part of my time was spent discipling individuals and growing new leaders, but when I focused on that I never worked myself out of a job. Instead, the church grew and I was as busy as ever!
What’s more, freezing recruitment of parish clergy doesn’t make sense in spiritual terms.
We have been praying and working for a 50% increase in vocations. Just when God seems to be answering our prayers and the number of vocations is increasing, we should be prayerfully trusting God to provide the finance to enable us to deploy these priests. What other organisation would go to the trouble and expense of recruiting and training new staff, only to tell them at the end of their trainee post that there was no job for them?
Freezing recruitment also stifles the work of the Holy Spirit by hampering the growth of fresh expressions of church. Church plants sometimes grow to the size where they can no longer be sustained by volunteers. This is exactly the time when bold investment is needed to help the congregation transition to a paid priest. Such posts have potential to become self-supporting in time. However, if dioceses do not release funds at this point to pay a stipendiary priest the growth that the Spirit has given is I believe stifled and decline follows.
And it doesn’t make sense on financial grounds.
One diocese has cut a significant chunk of stipendiary posts to save money, only to find the deficit is just the same. Many dioceses post-Covid have seen a significant drop in income but also a significant rise in the value of investments, leading to an increase in total assets. Whilst diocesan boards of finance rightly focus on what is held in free reserves, they should not ignore total assets. Whilst a significant part of a diocese’s total assets is in housing for current clergy (which can rarely be touched), there is often other housing stock being held onto ‘just in case’.
Investments have performed remarkably well during the last three years, meaning that some dioceses may find themselves with increasing total assets at the same time as they are cutting clergy posts. The Charity Commission encourages charities not to accumulate large reserves but to use their assets for the object of the charity. During Covid we have endured an 18-month rainy day, so logically we should be reducing our total reserves significantly at this time to tide us over and help us maintain frontline clergy posts which will enable us to rebuild church life – otherwise there is little point in having such reserves. The diocese I serve in is committed to committed to building financial sustainability alongside strengthening our ministry both ordained and lay. To do so we recognise the need to realise investments now to underpin our vision.
God loves to answer prayer. We have prayed that God would send more priests, and God has – the number of vocations is increasing. We have prayed for God to raise up new local congregations across the country, and God has. Rather than cutting clergy posts, let us turn to God afresh in believing prayer, trusting that the One who is able to send us priests and raise up new congregations can and will give us the finance we need.
As Jesus said, ‘Seek first God’s kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.”