Mission or Managerialism?

That was the sabbatical that was… Part 2

There. I’ve used the “M” words, the two that inflame passions beyond all others in the Church today. Mission and Mangerialism. I’m a good Catholic, so I ought to add a third “M” – mass. That should at least keep up the interests of some who might read this…

For three months I’ve been thinking about the priestly life, Management and Leadership. Its been genuinely fascinating, and comes at a time when the Church of England is engaging in the Reform and Renewal agenda at General Synod. I’m even considering the possibility that this whole area might make a great subject for a PhD – something I’ve long considered, but never been quite brave enough to pluck up the courage to attempt.

This isn’t though an interest bourne out of something which happens to be en vogue at the moment. I think that there are real questions in this for every parish priest as well as for the Church as a whole.

Of the clergy who I have spoken to whilst I’ve been pottering around the country, almost all lead a larger parish church or cathedral. They have staff: clergy, lay or both to manage often with a building with significant listed status.

Without exception, all of them like me have had a similar response when asked “What proportion of your time is spent being ‘The Vicar’ and what proportion is spent as ‘CEO’ of your institution managing people, policies and projects. Universally, the reply is that 20% of time is spent on ‘priestly’ work or activity and 80% of time is spent on ‘management’.

It is an astonishing figure, well worth reflecting on.

When asked about how much training they have had for these respective roles, the figures don’t simply reverse – they fall off a cliff. Almost all our training concentrates on the priestly – and hardly any prepares us for what we actually end up spending large amounts of our time doing.

Put another way – is a challenge we face that instead of being immersed in the mission field, we’re increasingly manacled by management?

That’s a neat headline of course. It sets up a great battle – those who want us freed from the tyrants of ‘ecclesio-management speak’ –  against the ‘centralize, organize and incentivise’ people. Set them going and it becomes a debate of those who would ‘throw the babies out with the bathwater’ against ‘CofE PLC’. If you don’t believe me, try this article by Harriet Sherwood or this one, by the same author. A very helpful blog post by Ian Paul, a fellow general Synod member is here.

There are huge questions going on here.


Firstly, there is a question about what priests are for. That’s not a new argument – we’ve been having that debate in the Church of England since the reformation. I’ve already said something about that in New Directions based on an earlier blog post here. The last three paragraphs, I think, tease this out:

Mission, reform and renewal (or is it renewal and reform now?) and much of our hand-wringing today is, I think, routed in a perpetual debate about the nature of priesthood and the overlying questions that then stem from that about Incumbency.

How can we ‘let priests be priests’ in a way which adequately balances the responsibilities we’re given? How can we best, or better resource that? What strengths and weaknesses does our formation and training generate? What are the skills I need to acquire to manage the temporalities which add to, rather than detract from the spiritualities of my office, and vice-versa?

How can we rightly involve the laity, but in a way which isn’t dishonest, dupes or simply dump on them? How these poles of spiritualities and temporalities are lived, led and managed, and by whom, it seems to me, is so often at the root of power struggles in parishes. If both our theological training (of priests and lay people) and practical training (of priests and lay people) were clearer, surely this might help our life of worship and mission?


Secondly, and alluded to above is a question about ‘clericalism’ and the respective roles of clergy and lay people. Yes, there can be clergy whose attitude is very much rooted in both “Father knows best” as well as a martyr complex of “And Father will do everything”. We can easily propogate any concept of mission and evangelism, of ‘growth’ (however you might want to define that) as little more than ‘bums on seats’ and see the laity as nothing more than pew fodder.

But there is a reverse problem. I fundamentally believe that good mission and evangelism needs the whole people of God to be engaged with that task. I think that’s what’s meant by congregations being “intentionally missional” In this paradigm, congregations want to grow and flourish, want to share the Good News of the Gospel, invite others into relationship with Jesus Christ and so incarnate them into the sacramental economy.

There are fantastic lay people who indeed do that, thanks be to God. But, and here is the challenge, there are three other groups of lay people. There is the ‘hour a week’ group. They are happy that the Sunday service they attend happens, but that’s really it. They give (something), because that keeps the Sunday service (and their church) going – but they don’t really want to be more involved than that. They certainly don’t want to take on any roles – even getting some of them to read is like pulling teeth. They are often stalwarts who’ve been coming for years. They are by no means bad people – but they know what they like (and what they don’t) and that’s why they come. Energizing them is not an easy task. Getting them to mention they go to Church, or say the word “Jesus” the other side of the door….

The second group is ‘the do-ers’. They are a Godsend. They’ll pitch in and help with anything. They’ll take on the roles no one else is prepared to do. They do so without (much) complaint. Some of them have, after all, been landed with whatever task for decades. They will deliver leaflets, talk to baptism families etc etc etc.

The last group are ‘the talkers’. They want to be on everything, do everything and lead everything. They talk. They talk a lot. They’ll talk to anyone and everyone (inside the church) sometimes until the people they’re talking to look like crying. They can talk at a PCC on any subject as if Just a minute were extended to just an hour! They have an opinion on everything – but when it comes to actually doing anything – well, they’re far too busy talking… But woe betide anyone who gets in their way. Some of this group can turn a bit nasty. If I was being really waspish, the ultimate aim of this group is to change the kingdom of God into an eternal deanery synod meeting. Lots and lots of talking for remarkably little if any return. What of course quite a few of them would really like to be is the Vicar. The fact that they aren’t doesn’t stop them believing that actually do run the parish (despite or in spite of the Vicar), and so their lives are ordered to achieve that end…

Now, this is a terrible caricature, with some hyperbolic purple prose. But, there’s a grain of truth in there… What do we want of the people of God? What do they actually want – and how receptive are they to the latest episcopally inspired scheme?


By this I mean not the people, but our buildings. They are a glory – and a millstone. We arguably have better kept churches now than ever before. We (mostly) rejoice that there are toilets, and some churches are even warm (by which I mean, places which don’t induce hypothermia after 10 minutes). But they are a money pit. Try improving them, and believe me, the world and his wife suddenly appear. Correspondents who once set foot in the building in 1954 and knew the 3rd cousin of the architect write to object that the ‘idiot vicar’s new scheme’ will cause sacrilege by moving great aunt matilda’s flower vase by three inches – a view expressed in green ink from the comfort of an armchair in Camberwell.

Our buildings are an asset, they really are – but they aren’t museums. Again and again I’ve listened to colleagues who have spent vast amounts of time having to deal with not just day to day items, but significant schemes to stop their buildings decaying.

This is, itself a business today. I want to pay tribute to many heroic parishioners up and down the land who spend immeasurable hours preserving, protecting and promoting their parish churches, chapels, cathedrals and other places of worship. They are fantastic – but they increasingly have to deal with systems for effecting repairs and obtaining grants which can challenge even the most committed.

That’s all by way of saying that in many many places much of the energy and focus which might otherwise be better channeled into worship and mission is consumed by simply ‘keeping the show on the road’. This is a consuming management task – both for clergy and laity. The bigger the building(s) then the more difficult that task can be.

‘Church management’ as bricks and mortar management, it seems to me, receives little honest treatment in the present debate. How we manage our buildings is just as much a mission question as how we convert people. Enthusiasm for Jesus can wain quickly if the parish loo should be condemned or the only place to change a nappy is covered in mould…

Staff and Volunteers – a question of capacity

Many larger parishes have staff. They have them not because the Vicar likes HR, but because as places grow, the demands grow. Growth creates work, and beyond a certain point, it creates work which can exceed the time or the ability (or both) of the volunteers that are available.

Churches which want to grow have to have capacity – either in terms of volunteers or staffing – and ideally both. More kids in church – great! But that means more people to help with Sunday school – or to start a creche. And that means more safeguarding work. And as those kids grow, shouldn’t we do something about teenagers? Who’s going to do that?

Again, churches can be excellent about talking about what they want to do – but those plans run out of steam if no one is available to roll up their sleeves and get it done.

There are two distinct challenges I think we face today with this. Firstly, a generation of ‘do-ers’ is now retiring (often for the second or third time). Those who had lots of free time and generously donated that to the Church are fewer than before. The “Gen X” typically have had their children later, work longer hours than ever before and have an array of activities which didn’t exist thirty years ago. They’re great (often with good skills) but their time is constricted. This is a group which (for want of a better term) pits their time as a committed Christian against their other leisure activities. Sometimes, God wins.

Second, whether or not a church can afford staff (part time, full time, interns etc) those who volunteer their time need better care, support and management then has previously been the case. Many now volunteer their time outside the church and want to know why the church’s acknowledgement and engagement with their church volunteering isn’t of the same standard.

Time and again, in conversations with colleagues there has been a question about being realistic with volunteers. How many parishes end up with depressed treasurers becuase what started out (with a bit of arm twisting) as ‘pay a few bills’ and ‘do the accounts once a year’ actually turned out to mean “It’s 10 hours a week minimum, but you’ve done it for 17 years now, its a bit late to complain about it, and there really isn’t anyone else to do it….”

Job descriptions for staff, role descriptions for volunteers (and officers) aren’t any longer wishful thinking. They help define what needs doing, by whom and for what purpose. A church which employs people, or asks them to give generously of their time cannot any longer do so on the basis of a few figures and notes scribbled on the back of a fag packet.

All of that, of course, needs careful planning and careful management. Of course, some bright spark always says “oh we don’t need to do that here” – but try that one when there’s a safeguarding problem created because the proper policy wasn’t in place and followed through.

We might rail that we’re being professionalised – but there are times we really do need to be professional.

Mission and Managerialism

The argument today it seems to me is a false dichotomy. Badly managed churches don’t grow. Over managed churches can be souless. This isn’t either / or – its both / and (or if you’re of a more theologically literate mind, this is the modern outworking of anaologa entis).

I can find God in the celebration of Mass. I can find God in priestly service of his people. I can find God in the pastoral encounter, the sharing of the Gospel, in leading others to faith. But as an Incumbent, can I find God in my buildings, in managing staff and volunteers, in a balance sheet, in a mission plan, in the tedious monotony of even a deanery synod?

Well the answer to that must be, yes.

Do I think that there are many things we can learn as a Church which would mean our buildings and people are in better condition?

Well the answer to that must be, yes.

Are there times when I wish I had less to manage and could spend more time with people?

Well the answer to that must be, yes.

But there is a false proxy debate going on.

Leadership and management aren’t the same thing. They are though often confused. In reform and renewal we need to be much clearer about which one we’re talking about. I think in truth, we’re talking about both – but we need to be wiser about that. It would be easy to pin our hopes on one style of management or one style of leadership when different approaches are required in different situations.

We need support, training and encouragement to learn and put that into practice. Every single dean (and parish priest of some of the “greater” churches) who has been on the recent mini-mba training has said it was fantastic, helpful, and (wait for it) theologically adept and not the sort of ‘management speak’ nightmare that some though it might be. More than once though I heard the words ‘would have helped even more if it had been available earlier in post’.

Clergy need to be able to lead and manage. Many of us do – but more by luck than by design; more by the grace of God than with certainty and courage. Most of us ‘re-invent the wheel’ in our parishes and institutions when we could help each other far more effectively than the hours spent googling for a job description for a [insert post you’re trying to create/define/sort out].

Clergy training cannot stop at the end of IME. And post-IME a really good course on parish finance can be sometimes what I need. Sure, another course in “great preaching from the book of Leviticus” can be fun…

I am a priest. I am not a branch manager of an ecclesiastical business. I am a parish priest. But I have to manage staff and volunteers and buildings and support those who want us to succeed in mission. So I am a priest, but I need to develop the skills by which I can manage to grow a parish. That might well be managerialsim – but I believe it is also mission.

And yes. I can always say another mass. I can wear ever more lovely vestments to do so. I can pray harder – God knows, I ought to be better at that too. But I cannot, and will not stick my head into the sand and pretend that if only the tat was nicer, the liturgy more mysterious, the silver better polished and the sermon more erudite then that will fill the Church with more people by itself. It won’t. That’s the harsh reality we have to face. I absolutely believe in worship (no surprise there) – and in catholic faith and practice. But if all I can do is to bore on about the virtues of facing ‘east’ or ‘west’ should I be surprised if one day there is only one old lady and a dog left? And if my only answer is ‘plant a hip church’ with a better band and a funky (I’m showing my age now) light system and fantastic coffee that does little more than steal other congregations from the “we were achingly trendy yesterday” cafe church next door, is that any better?

Nor indeed will shoving up a banner with the details of the latest go-to HTB inspired course. I’ve read lots of books on mission whilst I’ve been away. The biggest beneficiaries are no doubt the authors – they must be raking it in.

We need more priests. We need more volunteers. We need more staff. We need better management. This isn’t one or the other, and there is no magic cure for decline – there is only hard work to be done.

But let’s not spend decades poo-poohing those who try. But let’s do so from a level playing field. If there’s big bucks from the Church Commissioners, will there be fair and equal access to that for rural churches, estate churches, rich churches and poor churches? Or is the fear it’ll only go to the funkiest out there – creating a network of proto-HTB cathedrals in every University town?

What have I learned on sabbatical? Here’s the list:

  • There is no easy answer – but God asks us to try.
  • When someone has something that works, share it.
  • Don’t fear failure.
  • Most books on mission tell you what the problems are. Very few offer solutions.
  • I am a priest. I am a leader. I am a manager. Train and support me to do all of these to the very best of my abilities and in turn I will help and train others.
  • I cannot do this alone. I rely on those who work with me.
  • Above all, God is to be found in the mass, in our mission and in our management. Sometimes we just need to look a bit harder – and trust that he’s there.

You can follow me on twitter: @GaryWaddington





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