Do churches need ministers? Not as much as they think

Just how important is the minister? Professionals who've trained for two or three years at a college and probably done a bit of an apprenticeship too might not particularly like to hear it said, 'Not very much.'

That's not quite what Andy Griffiths is saying in his Grove booklet, Refusing to be Indispensable: Vacating the centre of church life. But there's certainly an element there of Anglican vicars ministering in such a way that they do themselves out of a job.


Griffiths is co-ordinator of curate training in Chelmsford diocese and a continuing ministerial development adviser. And, as he points out, what's now desirable is shortly to become inevitable. Up to half of Anglican incumbents – vicars or rectors in charge of congregations – will retire during the next 10 years, leaving around 5,000 compared with 23,235 in 1901. How should incumbents relate to their congregations in such a way that they help them minister to themselves and to their local communities?

He has five metaphors for ministry, speaking of the incumbent as the 'vanishing priest' who points to God without herself being present, as apostolic team member, team builder, doorkeeper and 'planet' – that is, one who orbits around the Sun of Righteousness rather than herself being the congregation's centre of gravity. That's a thought borrowed from Pope Benedict when he was Cardinal Ratzinger, and there is a refreshingly broad range of reference in this little book.

There's lots of hard-won wisdom in it. Writing of the incumbent as an 'apostolic team member' he stresses the importance of working together with other ministers. Drawing on Titus, he writes of the incumbent as a team builder – that is, someone who creates a framework and trains other people to do the job so that the incumbent can move on and do something else. The incumbent is also a 'doorkeeper', in a sort of liminal place between the established congregation and the wider world – Griffiths says he tried to spend half his working week in each sphere. Of the incumbent as 'planet', he concludes: 'I simply do not have the energy to be Jesus any more, and anway, I need his rays as much as anyone else does.'

At a first reading, it's very Anglican in its wrestling with the role and significance of the minister. In other traditions, much of what he says is taken for granted, at least in theory. Baptist and independent evangelical churches are not as fixated on the ministry of an individual; ministry arises from the congregation, the will of God is discerned in the church meeting and 'every member ministry' is just standard. Church life is, I suspect, much more collaborative; certainly ministers have far less executive or magisterial authority. So churches which assign a special 'priestly' role to particular people – or 'presbyteral', in the case of Methodists – are going to have particular issues, as the assumption is that they will make the decisions and do the job for which they are being paid.

While there may be a built-in bias in this way, though, non-Anglicans can read this booklet with profit as well. Any congregation, whatever its formal system of church government, will tend to look to its minister – if it has one – as a 'leader'. It's assumed that the function of the leader is to tell people what to do, and to make decisions – the right ones, if possible. There are all sorts of questions to be asked about that 'leadership' model of ministry, but we do seem to have an innate desire to be told what to do rather than taking responsibility for ourselves – that 'Give us a king, so we can be like other nations' the prophet Samuel was faced with. Griffiths' story about the elderly lady whose son complained she was never visited by 'the church', when he really meant the minister – plenty of people visited her, actually – rings true to ministers of every denomination; we've all coped with congregations that think they own us and need to be shown that there's another way of doing church.

Transitioning from one way of ministering to another is always grindingly hard, and it usually leaves a trail of disappointed people behind it. But the Church of England has no choice, and this is a useful contribution to how its ministers can continue to do their job without burning out entirely. Other denominations are further down that road already, though, and it might be interesting to get some wider insights from them.

'Refusing to be Indispensable: Vacating the centre of church life' is published by Grove Books, price £3.95. 

Follow Mark Woods on Twitter: @RevMarkWoods