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Team Ministry Model – Where’s The Evidence?

I can clearly remember a question that was asked of our acting Archdeacon at a zoom meeting of local clergy and churchwardens in early May this year. The opening question was simply ‘Why Teams?’ Why did the senior leadership of our diocese believe that Team Ministry was the model for parish organisation that was the best to produce future growth?

A short, and important, diversion about language and the use of technical terms. We all work in teams, whether that is our PCC, ministry team, worship team etc. etc. All clergy today are used to working in teams and for virtually all it is welcomed and the norm for ministry today. However whenever you see the word ‘team’ in any document that Portsmouth Diocese releases today they mean something very specific. A Church of England Team Ministry is where two or more parishes have combined to become a single parish. Clergy are no longer the vicar of a particular church or parish, they are now either the Team Rector (the visionary leader of the team) or they are Team Vicars (licensed to the entire team covering all churches in the new parish).

It is this technical context that the question ‘Why Teams?’ was asked. The question wasn’t answered, instead the response was ‘Why are we still asking that question, I thought we’d moved beyond that because we’ve been discussing this for the past year.’ The reality is that the leadership of our diocese may have been discussing legal Team Ministry for over a year but for the vast majority of clergy, churchwardens, PCCs and laity the conversations were only just starting.

That question ‘Why Teams?’ has never been answered despite multiple opportunities to do so. The question remains, where is the research and evidence that legal Team Ministry is the very best structure for future growth in depth, impact and numbers into the future?

It has been suggested that the new legal Team Ministries in North and South Gosport could be a pattern to be reflected in other parts of our diocese. On the surface this sounds great, and I hope and pray that both of these new Team Ministries grows and prospers and brings many to a living faith in Christ. However there are a number of problems with using this model for other parts of our diocese.

Firstly the parishes and churches that have been combined into these two new Team Ministries weren’t strong thriving parishes. You can’t take a model of church amalgamations where churches that have experienced decline and are struggling and apply that same model to churches that are strong, may be growing and have paid their parish share in full even in the teeth of the pandemic.

It is notable that there has been no overall reduction in stipendiary clergy posts in these two new Team Ministries. We understand that will not be the case elsewhere where there will need to be a reduction in clergy stipends in order to balance the diocesan budget.

It is also notable that in the Gosport Deanery there are two large, effective and strong churches that are not part of these new Team Ministries. Both these churches continue to be led by full time stipendiary ministers. This is interesting against a statement from the diocese that all churches in the diocese would be expected to become part of new legal Team Ministries with only one or two exceptions. Are both those exceptions in Gosport?

If we are embark on the largest change in the structure of Portsmouth Diocese in living memory with almost all churches becoming part of legal Team Ministries we need to see evidence that in other places this has led to sustained growth in depth, impact and numbers over 5-10 years. We also need to see evidence that this growth has continued through periods where there has been a change in both the Team Rector and the Team Vicars. North and South Gosport, the benefice of Newport Minster, St John and Carisbrooke and the Isle of Wight Deanery feasibility study are all too new to provide such evidence for many years to come.

Having had ample opportunities to provide evidence and persuade clergy, churchwardens and PCCs that legal Team Ministry is the way to go, and having very sadly failed to produce such evidence, it was rather galling to read in the latest paper from Portsmouth Diocese that amendments to the model of legal Team Ministries might be considered ‘based on evidence.’ We can only hope that any evidence to support the model proposed by the diocese is shared in the coming weeks and months before any decisions are made. Without this any changes are massive experiments that put at risk the livelihood and ministries of individual clergy and the mission of the churches they serve for many years to come.

Why Are There Upset, Stressed And Angry Clergy In Portsmouth Diocese?

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.

Update On The Future Of Ministry At St Paul’s

Back in the autumn of 2020 Portsmouth Diocese embarked on a process of consultations that will eventually lead to the restructuring of many parish churches across the diocese. This started with the diocese asking every deanery to compile a plan for how the churches within the deanery could best be structured to thrive and grow for the future. The background to the plan also included an awareness of financial difficulties in the diocese caused by the pandemic which will mean a reduction in the number of stipendiary clergy in Portsmouth Diocese. Considerable time, effort and energy was expended in collating and drawing up a plan for our deanery.

All the deanery plans were submitted to the Bishop’s Council in March this year, (this is the diocesan committee who have oversight of our diocese). The senior leadership for our diocese then made a presentation to Diocesan Synod. This presentation we were told at the time was an amalgamation of all the deanery plans into an overall plan for the diocese. The main strand of this diocesan plan was to create groupings of amalgamated parishes in legal Team Ministries. This was a surprise to many as it slowly emerged that this was not a main thread of the deanery plans, indeed some had specifically said this was not their preferred structure. It was included in a minority of the deanery plans and only in specific settings where it was felt that this was the best option.

Over 10 years ago the previous deanery plan had included St Paul’s reducing to a half time clergy post. With this in mind our PCC initially indicated our willingness to consider amalgamating with one other parish with a single PCC giving oversight to both churches and with a resource of one and a half stipendiary clergy posts. At our meeting in May this year our PCC passed the following resolution: ‘The PCC of St Paul’s Sarisbury Green affirm our commitment to increasing collaborative working with other churches in the Western Wards of Fareham.  We also affirm our previous agreement to explore further a legal Team Ministry with St John’s Locks Heath. However, we do not believe that a further expansion of that legal Team Ministry would be in the best interest of mission and ministry in the Western Wards.’

What would this mean for St Paul’s? Firstly it does not mean St Paul’s will close, indeed if this plan is accepted it gives the best opportunity for St Paul’s to grow and flourish with a reduction of stipendiary clergy resources. St Paul’s and St John’s would work closely together with a sharing of ministry and other resources between the two churches. I believe this is a good fit for St Paul’s. Both churches serve very similar communities. Both have a similar approach to our style of worship and both have an emphasis on ministry to families as a primary focus for mission and growth. There is a lot of synergy between our church congregations and our parishes. We would also work closely with our neighbouring parishes of Warsash and Titchfield. This could include shared Alpha Courses, Lent courses and other similar opportunities. We could explore sharing of the administration of funerals as well as sharing resources and expertise in other areas of administration. Those who work with families could meet together and again share resources, expertise and ideas. Collaboration could also include ministry to the retired, schools ministry and pastoral care.

But this structure differs from the preferred diocesan model which would amalgamate Locks Heath, Warsash, Titchfield and Sarisbury Green into one single mega-parish with a combined population of over 45,000, a combined average weekly attendance of nearly 500 and a combined parish share of over £300,000. Personally I think this would be a bad option for St Paul’s and more likely to lead to decline in the coming years. What are the reasons for my reticence to consider the diocesan preferred option?

  • Previous diocesan reorganisation plans were in areas with failing parishes. None of our four local parishes are failing. 
  • Whilst there is a lot of synergy between St Paul’s and St John’s this is far less the case with the churches in Warsash and Titchfield. These are are far more village churches with a lot less in common with St Paul’s in the areas of style and ethos.
  • In this mega-parish St Paul’s would be the smallest church and therefore stands the possibility of being squeezed out.
  • To amalgamate the four parishes would take a considerable amount of time, effort and energy. Whilst this could be achieved it will severely detract us from our focus on mission for a significant time.
  • The diocese believes this structure will free clergy from governance and administration, however I believe it will do exactly the opposite with additional levels of governance and meetings being required.
  • There are no examples in Portsmouth Diocese of any legal Team Ministries that have led to sustained growth, indeed the pattern in this diocese is of decline.
  • I personally know of three examples from colleagues who have been involved in legal Team Ministries that have resulted in decline and the eventual breaking up of those Team Ministries back into individual parish churches. Personally I don’t know of any colleagues who have been part of successful legal Team Ministries that have led to sustained growth.
  • There is nothing that I’m aware of within the structure of a legal Team Ministry that cannot equally be achieved within a group pf individual parishes who willingly collaborate together.

The process of planning the restructuring of parishes and churches across the diocese started as a bottom up process where plans were to be locally rooted and based on the extensive local knowledge of clergy, churchwardens and PCCs. Amongst the clergy there is also a wealth of previous experience from many parts of the Church of England of differing church structures. This local knowledge and experience is a vital part of any restructuring at a time when the senior leadership of the diocese has undergone significant changes of personnel who now know little of the local contexts. Sadly, at present, the process appears to have switched to a top down process where local churches will have little say in the primary ways in which churches are restructured and only an input on how this is implemented locally.

Thankfully the breakneck speed of this process has recently been slowed to allow greater time for conversations and for plans to be developed. However the need for change has not gone away and any outcome is almost certain to include significant change for our church community and for me personally. 

Questions and comments are welcomed. Please either comment here or send me an email at sandy@spsg.org.uk

What will change in the CofE actually look like?

Over the past decades the Church of England has divested itself already of all of the easy downsizing options. As I look around our area none of the churches are on their last legs (yet). All have active congregations and all are engaging in some ways with mission and outreach. And there comes the rub, some, if not many, of these churches will lose their stipendiary leadership in the near future.

We may need to close some churches entirely! We may need to close some churches as they exist today with the congregations encouraged to move to other local churches. That would then allow the buildings to be used as resources for fresh mission, outreach and evangelism.

As we move into the next season of church life we must be willing to change, because whether we like it or not change is going to happen, and to be honest it needs to happen. If we carry on as we are the church as we know it will cease to exist in the next 10 to 20 years.

That will be painful.

Let me paint an entirely hypothetical scenario.

In the coming reorganisation a large parish of the churches in the Western Wards of Fareham is created. This encompasses St John’s Locks Heath, St Mary’s Warsash, St Paul’s Sarisbury Green and Whiteley Church. Each church no longer has it’s own PCC but each has representation on a joint, new PCC for the new mega parish.

Across that parish there will be two full time stipendiary priests and one half time. The compares with the present situation of two full time, one half time and one three quarter time (yes I know it’s odd the way the CofE has done things!). One of the full time posts will be mainly focussed on growing a new church community in Whiteley. This might be supported by another church in the diocese helping to provide a strong foundation for future growth.

That leaves one full time person and one half time person to support ministry in Locks Heath, Warsash and Sarisbury. Sunday ministry will look different. There is no longer a morning service at St Paul’s on any Sunday. Morning services at St John’s and Warsash have also been reorganised with a more traditional form of worship at Warsash each Sunday and a more contemporary form of worship at St John’s.

In Sarisbury the focus is on children and families. There is now a service every Sunday afternoon. This alternates between one focussing on younger children and their families which is similar to our present Tea Service and one that focusses on older children and their families.

So much for Sunday mornings, what about the rest of the week. Across the church communities there is now a joint Open The Book team that leads Collective Worship in all the Church Primary schools on a regular basis. One of the clergy focuses on this ministry and on building links, relationships and connections with all the schools.

There is also a combined ministry for those who are retired. This has a regular lunchtime session at St Mary’s every week which combines a social time over lunch with short times of worship, a thought for the day and sometimes guest speakers on a variety of subjects.

Administration is a headache for all clergy, however as there is only one PCC this burden is significantly lessened. St John’s is the administration centre for the whole mega parish. All baptism, wedding and funeral enquires are funnelled to the admin team at St John’s. There is a pastoral team which works across the whole area which has responsibility for baptism preparation and bereavement visiting. This team also covers many of the pastoral needs across the area.

Finances are now centralised so there is now one treasurer and one set of accounts. There is a clear budget set and each person with responsibility for an area of ministry has an allocated budget to work within.

However these changes have had an impact on the giving across the new parish. Before the changes their joint income was nearly half a million pounds of which a quarter of a million pound was given to the Diocese in Parish Share. Income has dropped by 20% and the new joint parish is no longer able to contribute it’s full parish share each year. It is however hopeful that the new congregations started will within the next 5 years start to give more and help the parish to return to positive balances.

There has also been a reduction in the overall numbers of people attending services. For some the change was simply too much and they have stopped attending any church. For others the time during the pandemic has meant they have developed new patters of life and habit and again no longer attend. Still others are now attending other local churches and for some whilst they do attend it is less often.

Other things have gone. None of the churches produces a church magazine any more. None of the clergy are now ex-officio governors at our schools, that role has been taken by lay people. Whilst each congregation has a clear leader, that person is no longer necessarily ordained. There are significantly less communion services than there were before. Music is now organised across the whole of the area with one choir who has become a festival choir. There are now three music groups who rehearse together and support the services across the different centres.

I could go on …….

This is entirely hypothetical. But how would you react if something like this happened? Would you stay connected? Would you stop attending entirely? Does this excite you with new opportunities and possibilities?

I don’t want to be here!

From time to time I’m sure we’ve all felt we didn’t want to be doing what we were doing, whether that was looking after children, being in a church service or going to work. We all have the times the we feel we’d rather be at the beach, or doing something entirely different. I certainly admit to that on occasional Sunday mornings over the years.

There’s a story of someone saying to their spouse ‘I don’t want to go to church this morning’ and the response comes back ‘You have to. You’re the Vicar!!!’ I can clearly remember the Sunday when I felt I don’t what to be here. Not just as a preference and I’d like to be somewhere else more enjoyable, but I’d rather be anywhere else than here. It happened one Sunday and happened regularly over a period of months before I had my breakdown. There were occasions when I felt like walking out of the back door of the church during a service!

What does a vicar do when they feel like that? You can’t be totally open and tell everyone! I told a very few close friends, some of whom have no connection with St Paul’s. Most were very understanding, supportive and helpful. But I was also told to man up and get over it as we all feel like that at times.

The reality is that most people in our church community never knew what was going on inside me. I still led services and preached. I still celebrated communion. I still was a part of our Open The Book team each week and took services in the community. I still took our Remembrance, Christingle, Christmas and other big services as usual. I was still a governor at two local schools. etc. etc.

There were one or two however who did notice – thank you so much, it really means a lot to me that you knew and you cared.

What would I say to other church leaders who experience the feeling that they’d rather be anywhere else than leading their church service? Get help now. Don’t wait. I waited far too long.

The difficulty is it’s very difficult to get help in the midst of ministry. What I needed was a break and professional counselling but that was only available after I was signed off work due to stress!

The Breakdown Rollercoaster – How it all started

Why and I writing about this? I hope it will help in three ways. Firstly I hope it will be cathartic to me personally. As an introvert I don’t often share or show what is going on within me. I hope by sharing It will help me. Secondly I hope it may help others locally who are themselves experiencing stress and depression. When you experience it you suddenly start to recognise and understand better what others may be going through. Some may find it helpful to know they’re not on their own. Thirdly I hope it may help some colleagues, as ministers we often don’t share our weaknesses. To know that someone else is experiencing stress and depression in ministry my be helpful.

At the end of May last year I went to see my GP. I was shocked that he signed me off for a month due to work related stress, depression and anxiety. I simply wasn’t expecting that as I didn’t think I was that bad. Looking back I was experiencing a breakdown and I really, really needed that time out. I ended being off for 6 months with the added addition of a cancer scare that was eventually found to be benign.

What happened to lead me to my breakdown? Early on I looked back over the past 5 years and recognised that I had been on a downward spiral for a period of years. I had experienced a number of stressful church issues over these years. Each on their own was difficult but not insurmountable but together they mounted up. Over those years I also experienced a number of stresses that many families face. The cumulative effect on my mental health was entirely different, and to me, unexpected.

Reflecting back I think the most difficult thing was the inability to share openly and the loneliness of leadership. Because of confidentiality and safeguarding there are things that a minister simply cannot share with others within the local church. This can often lead to misunderstanding which is difficult for ministers to handle. Others can sound off to friends and house groups etc. The minister simply cannot do this and rarely can say what is they actually feel and think. There was a sense that others can say what they like but the minister cannot defend themselves. That is possibly the most stressful area of ministry.

I’ve always thought I was fairly broad shouldered and could cope with pretty much anything without buckling. The last year has shown me how wrong I am. If only I’d noticed some of the signs earlier!

One of the biggest stress point was on the Sunday when for the first time I felt ‘I don’t want to be here!’ More on that in my next blog.