Developing a collaborative model for beginning public ministry

The context

The 1998 ABM Paper ‘Beginning Public Ministry’ recognises that “The first years of ordained ministry are the time for immersion in a wide range of ministerial experiences, and the development of the capacity to bear public roles and responsibilities of the ordained person”[1] The recommendations in that paper build on the model of a ‘Training Incumbent’ who “shares the Bishop’s oversight of the newly ordained”[2] as the key and pivotal figure in the early formation of the newly ordained.

Whilst the paper encourages a move away from a master/apprentice model in the first three years of ministry to that of facilitator and supporter, there lingers in the mindset of the church the dependant relationship of Vicar and Curate.  Such a mindset is reinforced by the realities of ecclesiastical office, licence and tenure which enable and underpin the ministry of the newly ordained.

Whilst the ABM paper points to a loosening of the model and a deanery perspective introduced into the formation experience[3] the essential figure of a ‘Training Incumbent’ remains central to the training and formation model.

In the twelve years since the publication of ‘Beginning Public Ministry’, the church has experienced a significant reduction in the availability of stipendiary incumbents – a reality which is changing not only the nature of incumbency, but also determining the texture of the local church.   The immediate impact of this is that incumbents are stretched ever further to meet the expectations and demands which parishes and congregations place on them.  A consequence of this reduction in the availability of stipendiary incumbents is that the ‘pool’ from which skilled training incumbents are drawn is becoming smaller.  There is also the reality that the newly ordained are seen as another ‘pair of hands’ in a church with fewer priests – a blessing visited onto ‘major churches’, but having no immediate benefit for the majority of parishes, yet who are expected to contribute to the costs of the curates in the Diocese.

In the Diocese of Lincoln it has become increasingly evident that a texture to the church of the future will be its collaborative nature, with the ongoing life of the church increasingly being enabled through the ministry of the laity. It is also becoming clearer that the ministry of stipendiary incumbents will become ‘itinerant’ within the parishes under their care.  Those exercising incumbency will only thrive in their ministry if they are comfortable with the complexity which comes from relating to and authenticating a diversity of expressions of church life, worship and community.  Collaboration will demand that an incumbent becomes shaped in their ministry by their context, by the resources available and by the needs of the diverse elements within their benefice, whilst maintaining their own identity and theological integrity.

The reduction in the availability/affordability of stipendiary clergy has engendered patterns of multi-parish, multi-benefice incumbency not only in the rural parts of the Diocese, but also in the suburban and urban areas.  A consequence of the complexity of church life is that there are no longer any ‘light cures’ or ‘first incumbency posts’. Those coming out of their curacies have to be able to respond to and develop complex and diverse patterns of parochial life.

It is therefore essential that the first four years of ordained ministry should prepare those beginning public ministry for the nature of responsibility inherent in stipendiary posts of responsibility in the Diocese.

Key Features for Incumbency

Three generic features for the ministry of an incumbent in the emerging church are becoming evident:

Collaboration To work with lay and ordained colleagues, not as a delegator of ministerial functions, but as an orchestrator of the gifts, skills and potential of those with a vocation to resource the local church in its mission and witness.

Complexity To creatively engage with the subcultures of the communities to be found within a multi-parish/multi-benefice cure.  Such sub-cultures reflect the realities of rural/suburban/urban life, but also reflect the economic, demographic and historical variations which are an inevitable dimension to ministry over a wide area.

Diversity To encourage and affirm the diversity of worship, ecclesiology, spirituality and theological method to be found within a multi-cure grouping of congregations.  To work effectively within such diversity an incumbent has to be able to secure their own identity, spirituality and theological integrity as a faithful servant and witness.

A collaborative model

Whilst there are many strengths to the received model for supporting deacons and priests into their early years of ministry, against the background outlined above, the received model of a title parish with a single facilitator/supporter (with echoes of master/apprentice) may not sufficiently prepare those beginning public ministry for their first post of responsibility. Additionally, the essential relationship between the training incumbent and the curate is not necessarily one which models or encourages collaboration. There is also a significant and costly risk in that a successful training outcome is highly dependent on the quality of that relationship between training incumbent and curate.

These factors, coupled with a diminishing pool of those equipped to be training incumbents and the fast changing natural of incumbency, prompt the development of a different model.

It is proposed, therefore, to build on the strengths of the received model, whilst introducing collaboration and an in-depth engagement with the complexity of parochial ministry and priestly oversight from the outset.

The proposed collaborative model engages three key players in the support and guidance offered to those beginning public ministry – a facilitator, a supervisor and a theological reflector.  Of these three, only the facilitator would per se need to be a priest, thus opening the way for further modelling of collaboration with the laity. They will be drawn from across a Deanery/Mission Area[4], to work collaboratively with the curate to ensure that :

–        there is a rich and diverse experience of ministry from the outset,

–        supervision is robust to secure a foundational capability for the curate’s ministry

–        theological reflection is appropriately critical of the practice observed and experienced.

Together with the curate themselves, these three will establish a Core Support Group for the training.  The distinctive contribution of the three contributors to the collaboration will be:

The Facilitator The contribution of the facilitator will be to offer much of the support currently offered by a Training Incumbent – hospitality, collegiality, a discipline of prayer through the Daily Office, diary management, the practice of ministry (how to conduct funerals, Baptisms etc.) whilst also providing a ‘home base’ for the curate.  In addition they will have specific responsibility within the Core Support Group for securing opportunities for both a regular pattern of pastoral and liturgical engagement for the curate and also for facilitating a pattern of engagement with the wider community.

The Supervisor The Supervisor will have specific responsibility within the Core Group to liaise with the Diocesan ICME officer to ensure that the curate is ‘on target’ to develop the experience and competencies needed for them to move  onto a post of responsibility.  They will also be responsible to the Bishop for the oversight of the training and formation.  They will confirm to the Bishop, after consultation with the Core Group and the ICME officer, whether or not a curate has gained both the insights and the experience initially to be ordained as a priest and later, whether they are ready to be appointed to a post of responsibility.

The Reflector The Theological Reflector will facilitate theological reflection on the practice and patterns of ministry experienced and observed as a critical part of priestly leadership and formation.  Such reflection will be an essential factor in enabling a priest to maintain their own identity and spiritual integrity, whilst at the same time sharing their ministry with communities which find themselves at different points on the theological/ecclesiastical/liturgical spectrum. The contribution of the Theological Reflector is to encourage the process and discipline of theological reflection as a robust theological critique of context and praxis. They will particularly encourage the development of a missiology rooted in the diversity and complexity of the church life observed and experienced.

An additional feature to this collaborative model will be to cluster curates around a ‘hub’ for training, which will be based in the benefice of the facilitator.  Such a ‘hub’ will set the context for formation within a collegial and collaborative setting. It will be the responsibility of the Facilitator to ensure that the ‘hub’ remains a healthy and positive context, thus ensuring that the ordained are exemplars collaboration.  To develop a collegial and collaborative approach to formation, the ‘hub’ will also draw in others new to public ministry such as OLMs, NSMs and Readers.  The ‘hub’ will become a community to go out from and return to for support, encouragement and renewal.

Developing patterns and opportunities

The Core Support Group will identify patterns of ministry for the Curate, initially as deacon and subsequently as priest, which will ensure that there is a consistent experience and exploration of the urban, suburban and rural life, worship and witness of the church.   These patterns will go beyond the ‘placements’ already in the received model, to become the ‘norm’ of the ministry of a curate.  They will be engagements which will go beyond a liturgical involvement and require an ongoing pastoral engagement with the context.

At the same time, the Core Group will develop opportunities for a curate to understand the perspectives of others in ministry as a foundation for collaboration.  These opportunities might include shadowing Readers and Lay Ministers, working with/shadowing Archdeacons, Bishops and a regular involvement in Diocesan Church House.

The key to such patterns and opportunities will be to root the formation experience within the diversity, complexity and collaboration which is becoming (and in many places has become) the feature of the church which the newly ordained will both serve and lead.

An unfinished model

The above model will need to be refined through experience.  Expenses will need to be negotiated with those parishes embraced into the pattern of experience envisaged.  New ways of relating to curates will need to be negotiated by those who already have a rich experience of the Training Incumbent model.

As with all collaboration, the new model will require an investment of time from those involved. Yet if we are to support and enable stipendiary ministry to serve the church of the future, then we will need to invest in models of formation which will resource the ordained to be comfortable in unfolding their vocation within the diversity and complexity which comes with incumbency and priestly ministry.

[1] ABM Ministry Paper No. 17 January 1998 ‘Beginning Public Ministry Para 22

[2] Para 24

[3] Paras 26 and 29h

[4] In the north of the Diocese of Lincoln the Deaneries have been meeting together in clusters approximate to Local Authority boundaries to address how to advance Mission.

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