There are two areas of life and work where I guess most British Methodist Ministers will say they feel at least somewhat powerless.
Firstly, the stationing process.
The sense of powerlessness is most keenly felt when you are first stationed as a probationer. You have no choice in where you go. The Church simply sends you somewhere, you go to view it but at that point neither you nor the local Churches have any say.
However, the "normal" stationing process (see 42: Methodist Stationing 1 and 42: Methodist Stationing 2) while less dramatic still leads to this feeling of powerlessness for many ministers (I am of course writing as a presbyter, but for Deacons I believe it to be even more so). While both ministers and circuits get to express preferences a minister can end up being matched with a Circuit that they had not short-listed (obviously the same is true for the circuits). They can turn down the match but then the choice of alternatives will be more limited.
For most people choosing where you live and work is a key element of control they choose to have over their lives. It may not seem that there is a lot of choice for a lot of people who feel limited by the possibilities in their area. However, there are choices open to them that are not open to a Methodist Minister (yes I do recognise that a Minister can choose to not be a minister any more).
Secondly, the housing situation.
Methodist Ministers get a house provided with the "job", a manse. It is paid for and maintained by the Church. For those who have never lived in a house provided with a job these can seem an attractive thing. Especially as compared to many homes they can appear quite large (4 bedrooms plus a study is the expected specification).
We need to remember that the Church chooses to provide ministers with manses for two reasons. a) It is cheaper than paying ministers enough to buy their own home, b) It gives the Church more freedom to move ministers around (eg at short notice to a more expensive area in the middle of a recession).
I have seen a fair bit of mis-understanding about how it feels to live in a house provided with your job. When work is done you always get someone saying something like "Why are you replacing that boiler just because it is so inefficient? I have had my boiler for 30 years and can't afford to replace it" (let us nearly kip right over the logical rubbish of that statement – if a boiler is very old it is costing you a fortune in wasted heating bills and a new boiler would pay for itself very quickly). The key point is choice. If this is your home you can choose to replace the boiler or not, you can choose to make any manner of changes or not, you can sell and move or not.
Ah, what about people who rent their home I hear you say. They too have more choice than a Methodist Minister, after all if the Landlord does not keep the home to a satisfactory standard they can choose to leave and go elsewhere.
This sense of powerlessness is at it's most acute when things go wrong in a manse. You can't simply act but have to wait for others to decide what is going to be done, by whom and when.
Please do not make the mistake of believing that I think Methodist Ministers are completely powerless. There are many ways in which the role is a powerful one and it would be a mistake to interpret what I have written to mean that there is complete powerlessness for ministers in either stationing or housing. This is relative powerlessness.
There are few if any situations in the world where people choose to be powerless. There are many many situations though where people are made to feel powerless by situations and the behaviour of others. We see it all around us if we keep our eyes and sensibilities open.
That brings me to my conclusion about powerlessness and Methodist Ministers. I believe we need these areas in which we are powerless. I believe that they are a critically important element of oor discipleship and witness. I believe that it is essential that Methodist Ministers do feel powerless in some aspects of their lives and these two (where we live/work and the home in which we live) are vitally important. Let me give some reasons why:
- We need to be constantly reminded to put our security in God, to trust the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Having significant areas of lives where we feel powerless helps us to do this. It counteracts our tendency to want to be in control which takes us away from God.
- it helps us relate to ordinary people who struggle with powerlessness everyday. It especially helps us connect with those at the bottom of the economic system who are particularly vulnerable to powerlessness.
- In a small way it guides us into better ways of modelling the teaching and example of Jesus (thinking here of Philippians 2:8 where Jesus humbled himself ie gave up power).
So whilst the areas of powerlessness that a Methodist minister lives with may seem minor compared to many, I do think that despite the frustrations (and sometimes fear) that this is appropriate, right and helpful.
In fact I think it is a helpful challenge to all who are called to ordained ministry in the Church, in what ways do you live with powerlessness? For that matter I challenge all Christians to examine how they experience powerlessness as part of your discipleship.