A job for life is something of a bygone era. Many in our society today know the pain and anguish that can come from redundancy. Sadly more paid clergy are discovering that same pain within the Church of England today. Back in October 2020 Portsmouth Diocese started a process that will lead to changes in way that many of the churches in the diocese are led. There are good reasons behind this process that we understand and accept.
- There is a need to reassess how churches are best structured and led to address a steady and prolonged decline in numbers with many of our churches.
- We are also well aware of the impact of Covid on our own church finances and the knock on impact on the finances of our diocese as a whole.
Sadly the way this has happened has resulted in many clergy spending the last nine months not knowing whether they would lose their jobs through this process or not? And if their present role is to go will they be offered a new role in the revised structure or not, and what would that role be?
It is really important to bear in mind that when a stipendiary clergy person loses their job it has far more impact than others in our society being made redundant. Yes our job and role will be lost, our whole lives, the entire focus of our time and energy are invested in the parish we serve. We will lose our homes as we are legally required to live in the vicarage. Some of us are fortunate to have our own home to move to, but by no means all clergy have this option. We are also expected to cut all ties and relationships within the parish that we will be asked to leave. For some this will mean leaving and moving away from their entire friendship network.
But the change doesn’t just impact on clergy, it also has a massive impact on their families. Not only will clergy lose their homes and friends but wives and children are massively impacted as well. Some, or maybe many, clergy spouses today work. What will happen to their jobs? How far will they have to move and can they still retain their existing jobs? Children may have to move schools as well as moving homes, so their friendship network will be radically changed.
But there are more reasons why clergy are upset, stressed and angry.
One of the most significant areas of upset is that churches, clergy and laity together, were hoodwinked into thinking that the changes would be locally rooted and plans would be developed from the bottom up. We spent many, many hours in meetings and conversations, some of which were not easy. Through this we started to make progress towards planning for the future shape of churches within our deaneries. We bought in to these plans because we were deeply involved in producing them. However in March this year it emerged that the senior leadership of our diocese had different ideas. They had done their work and research in the background without our involvement, they had also paid an unspecified amount to a consultancy firm to help with their research and planning. The result was a strong recommendation, if not a directive, that, with only one or two exceptions across the whole diocese, all churches are to be reorganised into groups within what the Church of England calls Team Ministries. Now none of us have a problem with teams, indeed many of us are already leading teams. But legal Team Ministries are a different thing altogether and an option that many clergy are strongly opposed to either because they have been part of legal Team Ministries elsewhere that have been dysfunctional, haven’t worked or have led to decline rather than growth. Or they know friends or colleagues who have these experiences.
Whilst there is indeed a general and overall decline in church membership this isn’t true in every church. But the present approach from Portsmouth Diocese is talking about this narrative of decline, even in settings where there is growth, and tarring every church with the same brush of decline. The official statistics that the Church of England produces would show that the church that I lead is in decline because they are based on our main morning service. But these statistics don’t show the growth in our ministry to families which, pre-pandemic, was leading us into overall growth. Churches with visionary leaders, who are bucking the trend will, at present, be expected to undergo significant structural change that may well negatively impact on their future capacity to grow.
Some weeks ago I was a signatory to an open letter addressed to our Commissary Bishop and others in the leadership team in Portsmouth Diocese. This was signed by fourteen people, both clergy and laity. There are many more who would have signed the letter had they not feared for the impact that step might have on their future prospects. It is a really sad situation where Bishops hold such sway over clergy that they cannot speak openly and honestly for fear of the repercussions.
Sadly today Portsmouth Diocese is not a positive place to live and minister as a stipendiary clergy person. My local church community is great, however the wider context is incredibly stressful. Remember that all of this is in the context of one of the most stressful times to be a church leader in living memory.
On a personal basis I have accepted that my role will disappear through this reorganisation process. It hasn’t been easy to accept that likely outcome but I am almost certain it will happen. One of the real stresses for me now is not knowing when. Will I still be the Vicar of St Paul’s Sarisbury Green in six months, twelve months or eighteen months time? I don’t know and the not knowing is really stressful and difficult.