Incumbency is changing

A paper From David Rossdale to resource Incumbents and their parishes as they engage with the challenges and opportunities which come when a priest has oversight of two groups.

“none of us can carry an organisation in our minds……..  what we carry in our heads are images, assumptions, and stories” Peter Senge[i]


For over thirty years parishes in the Diocese of Lincoln have worked creatively in sharing their ‘Vicar’ or Incumbent with neighbouring parishes as they have been reorganised into ‘multi-parish benefices’.  It has resulted in groupings of parishes having an ‘identity’ through their Incumbent.  Whilst the actual arrangements for the relationship between parishes within a benefice have varied from group to group, essentially a benefice is defined by the Incumbent (Vicar) having oversight of several parishes either as the Rector/Vicar or as Priest-in-Charge.  The word ‘benefice’ is the technical term for the area of responsibility held by an incumbent, it has, however, become common parlance for the word ‘group’ to be used when describing a ‘benefice’[ii].

Whilst this development was driven in the main by the spiralling costs of ministry, it was also a response to the underlying challenge that year-on-year there were fewer stipendiary priests available to be incumbents.  In the north of the Diocese, out of 376 parishes, there are now only a handful of incumbents relating to a single church/parish.

More recently, New Era has helped Deaneries to re-address issues around the availability and affordability of stipendiary clergy.  Deanery/MAPG plans have increasingly reflected the realities within which the Church has had to work in relation to the availability and deployment of stipendiary priests as incumbents.  The availability and affordability of stipendiary priests for appointment is also complicated by issues of “appointability[iii]”, for, as areas of responsibility extend, there is a greater need to ensure that incumbents have the necessary skills and disposition to flourish in their ministry.

The observations and reflections offered in this paper are intended to be a contribution to a creative engagement by both the priests involved and their congregations with the issues associated with extending the oversight of incumbent.

Long Vacancies

As Deaneries have developed and implemented their plans for the care and oversight of parishes within their area, the reality of longer term vacancies has developed.  There are various circumstances which bring about such situations, e.g.  to enable other elements within a deanery plan to be realised before further appointments are made, or where there is a desire to explore and experience new patterns of oversight, before moving to formal pastoral reorganisation.

In such situations the question of longer term pastoral care and oversight for a benefice develop.  During a ‘normal’ vacancy, the Rural Dean has a general oversight of a Benefice.  This involves offering advice and guidance to those in ministry (lay and ordained), supporting the Churchwardens, enabling patterns of worship, ensuring appropriate responses to the immediate pastoral needs of those living in the benefice and generally working with leaders in the benefice to enable the life of the benefice to be conducted ‘decently and in order’[iv].

When it becomes apparent that a vacancy is going to become extended, it has become the practice to ask a neighbouring incumbent to take on this general responsibility held by the Rural Dean, by becoming the ‘priest-in-charge’ or incumbent of the vacant benefice.  The effect of this is that the vacant benefice then has a ‘Vicar’, but the reality is that the priest already has a relationship with and responsibilities towards their existing benefice.  Incumbents taking on this extended oversight have to recognise that the model for being ‘The Vicar’ of a second benefice has to be different and the respective benefices will also need to understand that their incumbent is offering a new model for ministry, with different dynamics for all concerned.

Living with models

Understanding the nature of incumbency is complex.  There are no ‘job descriptions’ for the work of a Vicar.  Although the parameters for the role are contained in Canon Law and various Synodical Measures, in their ministry as incumbents, priests are expected to develop and interpret their work in the light of the context, their own skills and the people amongst whom they work.  The reason for this is that there are few ‘constants’ in the ministry of a parish priest.  Worship varies from parish to parish, the nature of pastoral ministry is shaped by the local culture and the needs and opportunities for mission are constant variables.  There are, however, approaches to ministry which can best be understood as ‘models’, for example (and somewhat simplistically), a Catholic model, an Evangelical model, a collaborative model, etc.  Such models are not hard and fast descriptors, but conceptual constructs which become an ‘inner guide’ to shape and understand ministry.

Conceptual models are also ways in which we understand other people and their work.  We develop these models from our experience of similar patterns of work.  This isn’t confined to ministry that is also to be found in relation to the work of teachers, nurses and doctors.  The question, “What does a Vicar do?” is often answered out of a mental model which has been formed by a past experience of a Vicar and what they did.  Incumbents themselves have similar unconscious models based around those who have influenced them in the past.

The way in which priests are formed in their ministry reinforces this concept of developing models for ministry.  The practice of placing those new to ministry with an experienced priest for their first three years is known as “formation” and is intended to develop models for ministry.  When the relationship between vicar and curate works well, such models and the practice of ministry associated with them are drawn into the formation of the new priest and become an indelible part of them.

Parishioners also develop such models to interpret and understand the ministry they receive and observe.  The ministry of past incumbents frequently becomes the measure against which other ministry assessed.  Phrases such as “When Mr.  xxxxxx was Vicar we used to…..” or “Father xxxxxx always ran the ……..” or “Mr xxxxx used to visit everyone in the parish” reveal inner models being used to interpret the ministry of successive priests.  The connection with past practice is very powerful, especially if we have benefitted from such a ministry personally.  Our perfect model for ministry is frequently formed around those who have been closely involved at distinctive moments in our lives– marriages, births, deaths, baptisms and confirmations etc.

Those who have studied the influence of these inner or conceptual models (not just in relation to priests but across all walks of life) have observed that when new practice develops or new patterns of work are implemented, it can have a profound effect both on those who do the work and those who benefit from that work.  New approaches to ministry can leave those involved feeling as though things are not quite right and a disloyalty towards those who have developed our inner model for ministry.  This disturbance and disloyalty is known as ‘cognitive dissonance’ and can have a profound and at times irrational effect on us because our means of interpreting aspects of life are challenged.

As we face the reality that there are going to be fewer full time priests available to the parishes, the received models of ministry will not be sustainable.  We can expect to be disturbed as we develop new models for being a Vicar and for our relationship with our incumbents – our disturbance is however evidence of the importance we place on this vital element within the church’s ministry .

The present model

In most of the received models for the ministry of an incumbent, the Vicar is placed at the centre of church life.  The Vicar is a public figure in the local community, known to many people who don’t go to church and involved in the public life of the community.  In most situations, the Vicar knows every member of the congregation and is frequently involved in celebrating the life events of members of the congregation.  Having a Vicar is seen to be an essential feature of parish life and, however good the quality of lay ministry may be, there is frequently pressure for a new Vicar to be appointed when a vacancy occurs.  The incumbent has been the source of pastoral ministry and whilst this has increasingly become a shared ministry, the incumbent continues to be considered to be the source of the church’s pastoral engagement with its community.

The development of the multi-parish benefice challenged received models, and yet in practice (and because of the commitment of priests to their ministry) the centrality of the incumbent has been maintained even though the area of the responsibility has been extended.

Received models for incumbency identify leadership with the Vicar and the legal framework for ministry clearly places the incumbents in the centre of the decision making processes.  Even in an age of collaboration and a commitment to the ministry of the laity, expectations of leadership are still fundamental to the model which we have for incumbency.  In many benefice, little happens in the life of the churches which does not have the Vicar’s approval and very little happens which does not resonate with the incumbent’s sense of what is appropriate.

There are however limitations to the received models for ministry.  They rely upon presence and a consistency of relationships.  They are shaped by expectations that the incumbent will continue to deliver a reflection of past patterns incumbency.  They are increasingly challenged by the expectation that the laity will pay for the cost of their ministry and the sense of ‘ownership’ for that ministry which develops from such payments.  This latter issue becomes increasingly complicated in places where a congregation has welcomed people from Church traditions which have a different relationship with and expectations of their minister.

As the ministry of the stipendiary ordained becomes more associated with the oversight of other people’s ministry and oversight of the life of parishes where their relationship with the community is more distant, the received models for incumbency sustain undeliverable expectations both by the priests themselves and from the people for whom they have the ‘cure of souls’.

Non-stipendiary ministry (NSM) has become an important expression of priestly ministry within the life of the church and, together with the ministry of Readers, has become an essential to the worshipping life of the Diocese.  It could be argued that NSMs should be deployed to address the problems created by the reduced availability of stipendiary priests to take on incumbency.  Whilst at first sight such a proposal has attractions (and the use of House-for-Duty posts has been a step in this direction), the availability of NSM priests willing to be deployed in this way would not actually address the underlying issues and where NSM priests have taken on such responsibility they encounter expectations that they will meet models of incumbency from the past.  Such a practice may well reinforce expectations of incumbency which do not necessarily equip the church for a different future.

Developing new models for incumbency

As we consider new models for incumbency we need to keep in mind that, at present, incumbents are priests with a ministry of word and sacrament[v].  Their ‘cure of souls’ develops out of these two elements within a Priestly ministry.  They are the principal president for the Eucharistic community and they lead in preaching and teaching.  As priests, authority for their ministry comes from the Bishop and they share their responsibilities with the Bishop – “receive this cure of souls, which is both yours and mine”.  New models for incumbency need to reflect this relationship with the Bishop to ensure that incumbency does not just become a manifestation of institutional management.

New models for incumbency will also have to reflect the nature and ministry of the parish church within its community.  There are four key aspects to the ministry which the parish church, both as a spiritual community and as a physical presence, has within its local community:

1. The identity of the parish church is bound up with it being a worshipping community.  Whilst there are many dimensions to the ministry of the church within its community – pastoral, social, service, prophetic etc.  – they all flow from the ‘dance with God’ of those who respond to God through Jesus Christ.  Christian worship celebrates the people of God being drawn into the movements of Father, Son and Holy Spirit as they engage in mission.  It is an invitation to ‘dance’ which is celebrated in the sacraments and through words of prayer and praise.

2. The parish church is a community of faith.  It is a place where those who are exploring the possibilities of God are drawn together in discovery and exploration.  It is the community where faith is nurtured and deepened.

3. The parish church is a sign of God’s presence within the everyday of life of a community and a witness to his abiding commitment to the world.  The parish church is open and available to all who live within its community, not because they are members, but because God’s interest and welcome encompasses all people.

4. The parish church also has a ministry to ‘make sense of God’ within the local community.  In this dimension to its ministry, the parish church as a spiritual community is also a theological community – speaking of God through its corporate life, the way it is organised, the activities it generates, the causes it supports and through its engagement with those who would not count themselves amongst those gathered in worship.

In the context of extended oversight, models for incumbency need to reflect how a priest, as a leader and as a minister of word and sacrament, can encourage and develop the vocation of the parish church to address these four aspects to its ministry.  The received models for incumbency place the incumbent at the centre of this ministry.  As the availability of stipendiary ministry to take this ministry is reduced, the incumbent will inevitably move from being centric to parochial life, to becoming eccentric to the daily/weekly rhythms and patterns through which a parish church’s ministry is expressed.

The following four models are not offered as definitive constructs for an incumbent’s ministry and they are only brief descriptions to be fleshed out through conversation and reflection.  They are offered as foundations upon which new conceptual models for an incumbent’s ministry can be explored.  I have used images to encourage an imaginative engagement with these issues , as we try to envisage how this vital ministry can be made available across a number of parishes either in enlarged benefices or where responsibility is held for two benefice.


The invitation for the people of God to become involved in the movements of the God who has revealed himself as Father, Son and Holy Spirit, has been described as an invitation for us to dance.  One way in which we respond to this invitation to dance is in worship – not necessarily in the literal sense, but in a metaphorical sense of a people finding a rhythm to be in step with God.  An incumbent therefore has the responsibility of ensuring that there are opportunities for people to worship, but, like an impresario, an incumbent will not necessarily attend every opportunity for this dance.  Their contribution will be to ensure that the venues and the organisation are in place and also that the quality and attractiveness of each such opportunity is worthy both of God and of the people who are drawn together to be in step with God in worship.

In this sense, a key responsibility will not be to administer Service Rotas, but to serve the people of God by ensuring that they can worship at times and in places which meet the people’s needs, rather than the needs of the incumbent .  Such worship will be in the heart of the local community thus ensuring that the parish church has an identity as the centre of worship for its community.  An impresario does not necessarily become part of the opportunities which they create, but are fulfilled in knowing that they have created opportunities for people to ‘dance’.  Developing lay and ordained resources to serve these patterns of worship will be fundamental to being an impresario.


Faith is essentially about a relationship – God’s relationship with us and ours with him.  Relationships are triggered in many ways and there is no formula for developing the relationship which leads to faith.  Yet our experience is that it is frequently encouraged by faithful people being catalysts for other people to discover God through the sharing of their relationship with him.  If the Church is to grow, then such growth will be a consequence of developing and deepening relationships with the God we know in Jesus Christ.

In Science a catalyst participates in a reaction, but ultimately does not become part of the reaction.  The ministry of an incumbent is to ensure that there are contexts and opportunities for people to react to God, but not to become part of that reaction.  This isn’t a new dimension to ministry, but increasingly an incumbent will be encouraging the development of Alpha courses, Emmaus courses, confirmation preparation and other opportunities for the relationship with God to be deepened – but they themselves will not necessarily be involved.

One of the features of the Anglican Communion worldwide, which became apparent through conversations at the Lambeth Conference, is how the church is growing through the ministry of lay evangelists.  Lay people trained and working to develop congregations in situations where there are few priests, but willingness and a thirst for the church to grow.  In the multi-benefice context of an incumbent’s responsibility, there may be patterns of lay ministry for us to discover if we are to ensure that faith is shared and nurtured in the parochial context.


The role of a missioner is to constantly point the church to opportunities for its ministry and witness to be unfolded.  A Missioner holds an overview of the context for the church’s ministry – interpreting the local culture and understanding the patterns of life.  A Missioner will lead a Christian community in its engagement with its context, but they never become essential to that engagement, for their ministry is inevitably peripatetic.

A Missioner is the agent of a God who sends his Holy Spirit to equip his people for their ministry in the world.  The primary task of a Missioner is therefore to encourage the Christian community to discover and understand their vocation as the people of God.  A Missioner is therefore allergic to the kind of dependency which ministry can create around the person of the Minister, for such dependency places the Missioner at the centre of church life rather than on the edge, encouraging and enabling of the ministry of all God’s people.

Community theologian

As a minister of Word and Sacrament, an incumbent will have been trained with the expectation that they will be a public theologian.  They share this aspect of ministry with others (NSMs, the retired clergy and Readers), but their role and position within the church ensures that they can speak distinctively of God in the public arena.

David Tracy suggests that theologians have three ‘publics’ – the Church, the academic community and the wider society[vi].  In the local context the parish priest is the local theologian who addresses these three ‘publics’.  They speak within the congregation about how we understand God as revealed through Jesus.  They teach out of an engagement with the academic exploration of God’s revelation and they speak of God’s attitude and values within the public forums of funerals, weddings, baptisms, assemblies, harvest thanksgivings, Remembrance Sundays and countless other opportunities which distinctively come the way of those who are incumbents.

The essential issue is that for the local church to be a theological community, its leader has to have a self-understanding of being a theologian for that community.

It is as the community theologian that the incumbent becomes a commentator on the life and work of each parish church within their responsibility.  The way in which a parish church organises its life, its priorities and its agenda speaks of its relationship with God.  Extended oversight may mean that an incumbent is not able to be at the heart of everything, but they can reflect theologically with the leaders of each parish church about what their church might be saying to the community in which it is set.  In the same way, ensuring that the worship and governance of a parish church is done ‘decently and in order’ is a theological issue and not just the necessity of the institution.


The development of ministry in the Church of England has been a process of evolution[vii].  New models of ministry have evolved as the church has adapted to changes in society and within local communities.  As with all evolution, the process of adaptation which leads to the development of new models for ministry has not been a uniform process and in some places received models have endured because the local context has not changed at the same rate as the rest of the country.

The pace of change to which we are responding here in the Diocese of Lincoln has been rapid over the past five years.  In many ways the scenario to which this paper responds puts us ahead of the rest of the church in England, for we are prepared to address fundamental issues associated with the reduced number of stipendiary priests being available to the church.  Over the last five years the Diocese has experienced a significant reduction in the number of stipendiary clergy deployed by the deaneries.  We therefore have to evolve new patterns of ministry and models for incumbency over a very short period.  We can help this process of evolution by continuing to overtly address the issues and possibilities.

This paper is offered as a resource for both congregations and clergy and as an encouragement for them to engage in meaningful conversations about these matters.  This is not about ‘tinkering with job descriptions’, but fundamentally addressing both the nature of an incumbent’s ministry and also the expectations which are attached to it.  New models will emerge by default and there has been a remodelling of incumbency going on in the Diocese for over 30 years – but this is a time when we can gain an advantage by helping new models to evolve quickly enough to meet a rapidly changing context.

There is one thread running through the development of incumbency in the Church of England which I have not addressed, namely issues of power and control.  The received model for incumbency has been heavily influenced by these two factors.  One of the challenges associated with extending the oversight of incumbents is that there will be an inevitable change to the patterns of power and control within the local church.  A key to ensuring that the God-given gifts of ministry through incumbency are available across all communities will be an acceptance that changes in patterns of control and power are not a threat, but can actually be a liberating factor for the work of the Holy Spirit amongst the whole people of God.

Evolution is never an easy thing – it can be painful and destructive of what has been beneficial in the past, but which has become untenable in a new context.  Yet a church which is committed to being the body of Christ is fundamentally an incarnational community.  It therefore has to adapt to each new context for its ministry, for it to be authentic in proclaiming the Good News of Jesus Christ afresh in each generation.

[i] Senge Peter, 1990, The Fifth Discipline : The Art and Practice of The Learning Organisation London : Doubleday

[ii] Under the 1983 Pastoral Measure a ‘Group’ actually refers to an agreement between benefices and their incumbents to work together. The use of the word ‘group’ to describe parishes within a benefice is not therefore the same as a ‘Group Ministry’.

[iii] In this context ‘ appointability’ refers to a complex series of factors relating to the posts created and the priests looking for the next stage in their ministry, e.g. skills and competencies needed for a particular post, issues of churchmanship, rural/urban realities, employment for spouses, children’s educational needs etc.

[iv] I Corinthians 14:40

[v] Incumbency could become a lay ministry, but at present that is not legally possible and discussion of such a possibility in this paper would be a diversion which would not help us address present realities. It is, however, an interesting possibility, which the church may well have to consider and explore at some point.

[vi] Tracy, David The Analogical Imagination : Christian Theology and the Culture of Pluralism, SCM Press

[vii] This theme is explored by Martyn Percy in ‘Clergy: The Origin of the Species’ Continuum International Publishing Group Ltd

2 Responses to Incumbency is changing

  1. jenny major says:

    This blogg is useful, but to the ordinary PCC member it becomes a marathon learning curve. It is not hard to comprehend that things must change and a new mindset has to grow on us. The offices of Secretary, Treasurer and Church Warden, are becoming time consuming to the point that only the retired have time to take the tasks on.
    Being without an incumbent leaves a gap of advice on house keeping matters within the local church.
    Worship Leaders are useful sometimes, Lay Readers with greater responsibility to serve have a superior standing and it should be recognised by definition of there training. But if such people dont feel the call to be ordained it should not deter the church from giving them a church to adopt and be responsible for. Perhaps it is allready so. That would be one way of making sure a church in a vacancy, is not feeling out in the cold with no particular face to call their own. A list of those available to be called on, is a must for Church wardens, it is the ringing round to find someone, that can be hard.
    We are at the moment, well organised and a plan is in place for the time being. When I was a church warden we were between priests and I had to ring round for cover for some services. New faces do not want to be asked if they will be on the PCC and then be expected to take a task on.
    Perhaps stepping in when others step back, is an opertunity to learn and experiance new tasks.
    Modern life has become complicated and volunteered help or ideas now have to be treated with extreme caution. Some are reluctant to even try. Yet they want their church

  2. Peter Dalby says:

    Dear Bishop David,

    Having read this paper with interest could you please say when it was written and if it is still relevant?
    Best Regards,


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