Methodist Ministers and Powerlessness

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.

So powerless?

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.

13 thoughts on “Methodist Ministers and Powerlessness

  1. Terry

    All interesting stuff, Dave.
    Just a couple of points really. Firstly, on stationing.
    I think the ‘itinerancy thing’ is rather overplayed these days. It is astonishing how many ministers seeking a move will only consider certain parts of the country, within five miles of wherever etc. My four appointments thus far have been north east of England, south east of England, north west of England and now on the south coast. Not many ministers move around far from their home patch any more. Many stay within one district throughout their ministry. This may or may not be a bad thing, but it is a significant change from how things used to be. Also, any matched minister has great power in that s/he can say ‘no’. There will always be another available appointment somewhere, but this is not the case for circuits. It is a brave circuit indeed who say ‘no’ to a match, knowing full well that there may not be a second choice available for them. In stationing, I think the power, if that is the word, rests with the minister, not the circuit.
    Secondly, on manses. Often, it is the minister who is to blame for this. I have known colleagues who have allowed the manse to become so run down (dirty even) that they will not allow the circuit stewards through the door. It is only when they eventually move out that the full horror is disclosed.
    Also, three months ago, I attended our circuit manse committee. There was a look of astonishment when I arrived. None of the committee could ever remember the superintendent attending this particular meeting. I took the opportunity to thank them for their work and interest, and also spoke as advocate for some colleagues who were in domestic difficulties. It was a very helpful meeting and, as a result, we are selling three unsuitable manses over the next year, and purchasing proper accommodation.
    Lots more I could say, but would just point out that in some things, we may please Christ and please ourselves, in others, we cannot please Christ except by denying ourselves.
    Ministry involves losing power over certain areas of our life, and trusting the Church to decide on our behalf. Risky business, of course, but that is the covenant relationship in which we serve.
    Love to you and your family as you prepare your first ‘real’ move. I have a feeling that this will be just right for you!

    Reply
  2. Susan

    An interesting thought about where we feel powerless as disciples – as a lay employed person for ten years in the Methodist Church I often am made to feel powerless when my experience and knowledge are denied by presbyters.
    Also I woudl like you to ask what it feels like to have no job security – something faced by many people near where I live. I know funding for my job will not be there in a few years time
    I do think too much emphasis is faced on the difficulties of housing and stationing. You do have a lot of choice. For 17 years my husband was a member of the Armed Forces – we moved every two years – indeed with on unexpected move after 6 months . My husband had no choice – he signed up to serve the Queen and if told to go he went and we as his family,had to follow. We aslo lived in a mixture of houses. Presbyters have a choice and also a calling to serve the King of Kings. So I plead for you to be thankful that you have a home and a choice.
    Hope the move and stationing is helpful this time.

    Reply
  3. Dave

    Terry,
    I don’t know enough about what many ministers put on their forms when seeking a move.
    While I expressed a preference for staying in the Northampton district (due to being in my 1st year of a 3 year term as district rep to council) I think on our short list of 5 there were 4 districts represented.
    Me not being a brave person means it would take a lot to say no to a circuit :-)
    I agree that while the process attempts to make all equal there is more power for ministers at present due to there being more stations than ministers.
    I don’t agree this makes ministers powerful, just less vulnerable. I also think that the pressure to attract ministers has made some circuits think longer and harder about their mission and vision (and yes I agree it would be good for ministers to do more of that themselves).
    Again I don’t have wide experiences of manses and we don’t have a manses committee where I have served. My only comparison is between being a landlord and a minister in a manse. There is a very different power dynamic.
    I agree that this is partly covenant. But as I say I think it is wider than that as the effects should be much wider than the covenant relationship between minister and Church.
    Thanks for the support, I am looking forward to serving in a new place, while already missing things here.

    Reply
  4. Dave

    Susan,
    Yes, I would agree that the Methodist Church, especially presbyters such as myself, have a poor history in our relationships with lay employed people. It is something that needs to be changed and I have argued that many times.
    Yes, I agree that there are many other forms of powerlessness and lack of job security is absolutely one of them.
    I was not trying to start any form of arms race in powerlessness. In no way am I complaining that presbyters have it more difficult than other people. In fact I thought I had made it clear that many other people are far more powerless than ministers.
    I hoped that as I was arguing that it was important for ministers to experience powerlessness (to put our trust in God, to help us relate to other people, to be good disciples of Jesus) it would be obvious that I was not complaining about powerlessness in stationing or housing.
    I am not sure what gives you the idea that I am not thankful or that I don’t appreciate my calling and role. If you read a little more of my blog you will see that I very much appreciate having been in the Nene Valley Circuit for 5 years and that choosing to not ask for an extension was not easy.
    So saying that in stationing and housing there is some powerlessness (Note I don’t claim award winning powerlessness) does not mean that in stationing and housing there is unhappiness or regret.
    Accepting God’s call to be a Methodist Minister is one of the best things I have ever done (just for the record it is a close run think between that and marrying Jane as the absolute best thing).

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  5. Tim Chesterton

    After twenty years living in rectories I moved to the Diocese of Edmonton where they pay clergy a salary and we buy our own houses. It works very well for me as I live in a city and my parish can afford to pay me a full salary. Several country parishes can no longer afford to pay a full salary (because, as you say, it’s more expensive), so those are now half time positions.
    I would never want to go back into a rectory; I love having my own house. However, I know it’s been tough for some parishes and for some ministers who are now in half-time rather than full time positions.

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  6. Dave

    Do you feel less powerless now you have your own home and a salary?
    If so has the change had an impact on your discipleship and ministry?

    Reply
  7. Tim Chesterton

    I don’t think I’ve ever thought of it in terms of power and powerlessness.
    What I have noticed is that it’s a wonderful thing to have a sanctuary. People from church rarely call me at home except in an emergency, and two-thirds of the people in the parish don’t really care where I live. I work in an office at the church, run study groups in the church basement and in a local cafĂ©, visit people in homes and coffee shops, and then go home to my sanctuary. It’s really refreshing and I believe has had a lot to do with the general lowering of my stress level.

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  8. Dave

    My background includes my parents running their business from home from when I was about 16 until their death.
    It includes 7 years of running my own business, while we had separate offices for much of the time I still worked from home a lot.
    I much prefer being based at home as a minister. I feel it makes my life more integrated. If it means that people from the Church will see me in my dressing gown because they call round too early in the morning – well in the morning really, then that is a small price to pay.
    However, I do think reflecting on power is a critically gospel issue for us all. I have met too many clergy who have been unaware of their power (even worse complaining about a lack of power while wielding it like a baseball bat).
    I hope and pray that we all find ways to be powerless and/or vulnerable. For me these two (stationing and manse) are a helpful part of my ministry.

    Reply
  9. Tony Buglass

    It has been said many times recently that itinerancy as a system is breaking down, for the reasons that Terry cites – especially that ministers refuse to consider moving beyond a certain radius, for reasons of school, spouse’s work, etc. I think these are among the arguments for a radical overhaul of the whole system, but the Church has so far refused to challenge the sacred cow of itinerancy. As things stand, notwithstanding what ministers put on their forms, Conference does have the final say. A minister may express a preference to stay in a given area, but if they are then moved by Conference to somewhere a long way away, they have one choice: obey, or resign.
    Like Dave, I have no wish to score points with the powerlessness experienced by other people. I agree with Susan about job security. However, I have seen too many examples of ministers and their families damaged and wounded by the stationing process, and have felt the unbelievable stress of having to fight against an unfair process which completely ignored my children’s educational needs, against all instruction and direction. Other people in other careers also face awkward moves – most of them do at least have the possibility of refusing and changing jobs without facing the prospect of homelessness at the same time.
    Itinerancy was designed to fit the needs of an 18th C revival movement, allowing the deployment of preachers in such a way as not to challenge the leadership of Mr Wesley. It worked in a the growing church of the early 19th C, and arguably into the settled institution of the 20th C, in which ministers’ wives had no careers or callings of their own separate from their husbands’ work. This has changed radically during the last 50 years, to the extent that the system is increasingly unfit for purpose.

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  10. Susan

    I’m not sure that ‘most people’ have the choice to change jobs without the fear of homelessness. In teh street where I live three of the ten families are homes where the men have to work away from home as there is no work here and their families have to stay here without them as there is no housing help.
    I wonder if more cirucit stewards need better sort of training for the stationing process, in how to listen and apreciate how difficult teh whole process is?

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  11. Pete Taylor

    Hi Dave, I don’t know you (but good friend of mine in Syston Jules sent me your blog piece). Vey good read, my wife (Deacon) and myself (Presbyter) are in first 6 months of probationary appointments, in Barry, a long way from our family and core friends in the East Midlands. At times you feel powerless and quite bereaved. It is going ok but as with all Methodist ministers/lay workers, there is a sense of feeling vulnerable. Reliance on God is crucial, though that can be easy to say at times. Thanks again, Pete Taylor

    Reply

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