Ministry and Sabbaticals

One of the tasks I have as the St Andrew’s representative on Nigel’s sabbatical support group is to write the ‘Minister’s letter’ (see elsewhere) for the Church magazine. It always came around too quickly when I was in full-time ministry, supplying new thoughts for several churches, all with different deadlines. However this role does give me an opportunity to share some of my reflections of the life of St Andrew’s, a church I first came to well over forty years ago. Out of the twenty or so years away I have always remained in touch with a church where our children where baptised and learnt about the Faith, our daughter Clare returned for her marriage and from where I was sent into ministry. Recently we attended the marriage of Adrian Mitchell, a member of a strong St Andrew’s family in the past. It provided fond memories of our work together in the Pantomime, and the Singers and Drama Group productions.

As we came to resettle in Filton, two things struck us. First we were told St Andrew’s was closing! Second, membership was down and we had lost several key members to death or family re-locations. The former was inevitable if the news gets round – I heard it first in Swindon! – of a merger with another church but the religious scene in the area makes it both difficult and undesirable. It seemed to me to be a ‘throwing in of the towel’. At least the message is getting out there that we are not closing. It’s quite the reverse. On membership decline and aged congregations, St Andrew’s is no different to other churches even the one whose minister I talked to recently that has over 200 members. However with the opportunity to welcome onto our site an organisation such as Network – a great Christian organisation that I first met when I and they were based at Wesley College – has thrown us a life-line, and giving us some finances to develop our life and mission. This seems ‘a gift from God’ even if it is ‘the last chance saloon’ to retain a Free Church presence in such a very up-together community as Filton. It is also what the Circuit, and probably the District see as a strategic resource centre. I don’t think most church members realise the importance of this. 

In my time in ministry, I had a sabbatical after 10 and 17 years. I know how valuable they are and how they are the envy of many in secular employment. The pressures on ministers, like most professional employees these days, are the same. They are being asked to do more with no extra reward. Given they are housed, sometimes of variable and inadequate quality, ministers have to live on an income of a new graduate in the secular world, with no increases for performance or affirming bonuses. Not that ministers do their work for the money but for the Lord God. However the church has to be realistic about their workload in the church and wider society.

I hear too many moans about ministers. It’s usually that they don’t visit, are poor at administration, preach incomprehensible sermons and choose unknown hymns. That’s not to say there isn’t room for improvement as in all employment but these comments often underlie a lack of appreciation of the demands, an expectation of workload that the critics could not themselves sustain and a nostalgia for the good old days when the minister and usually his/her spouse were seen more often. There is still the demand for an omni-competent minister but such people do not exist. All these criticisms would have been levelled at me but of course I never heard them directly. The Methodist church has never been good at professional feedback and development as demanded in most secular employments. By the time concerns are raised it is usually too late.

Writing this at the beginning of the year that we welcome a new minister, it is important to take note of what I mentioned above. For the first time St Andrew’s is not the strongest church in the Simon Edwards’ section nor will his family live in the area. There are good reasons that we must respect for the latter and the former reflects somewhat on where St Andrew’s is as a church.However there is no need to be pessimistic. With strong support from the Circuit, a new suite ofspaces and facilities that will be much more cost effective to run, and fresh input from a new minister who will be different from the ministers in my time, Roy, Ernie, Geoff, Malcolm,Rosemary, Yemi, and Nigel, there is every reason to be optimistic about the future. This year has the potential to be a very exciting one. 

John Emmett