The great senior minister drought of 2020

Sydney Anglican’s puzzle of placements

There’s a lot of great jobs going in Sydney for church ministers, – and before you think this is a Sydney-centric advertisement, let me point out there is a bit of mystery involved.

These are well-paid jobs. Many of them involve leading a team of ministers. They come with keen congregations. And wonderful buildings.

“The vibe I’m getting is that’s a bit higher than normal.” – Peter Lin

They are jobs for “senior ministers” in the Sydney Anglican diocese (region). And there is an unusually high number of vacancies. On social media, the meme is “the senior minister drought.” (In Anglican-speak, “senior minister” means someone in charge of a local church)

Peter Lin, the Bishop of the Georges River region (area leader of South Western Sydney Anglicans), thinks that calling it a “drought” is overblown.

“Well, you could possibly say there’s a shortage of people willing to step up, but certainly not a drought of people,” he tells Eternity. “Vacancies have been harder to fill which doesn’t mean they’re not filled. They are eventually filled, but it is harder.”

At present there are senior vacancies in 30 parishes (local churches) out of the 270  in Sydney and Wollongong. “But the vibe I’m getting is that’s a bit higher than normal,” says Lin. “The irony is I’m Bishop of Georges River region and the Georges River region often had more vacancies than the other regions. But at the moment, I think we’ve got the least number of vacancies.”

The odd thing is that one of Sydney Anglicanism’s traditional heartlands, the North Shore, reportedly has a high share of the vacancies. And it is a region where one of the perks of being a Sydney Anglican minister – of possible access to church schools, at discount fees – can happen.

That is just one of the mysteries.

Another one is contained in Bishop Lin’s words concerning people “stepping up”. Because this is not a shortage of ministers, but of people who want to run a church, to be what the Anglicans call “rectors.”

Linn tells Eternity that, anecdotally, some ministers “are pretty happy to stay long-term assistant ministers … They are quite happy and enjoying ministry in a team environment  and are happy to stay in that team environment.”

Traditionally, Anglican Ministers used to be ordained as “deacons” and serve a type of apprenticeship as a junior minister. They then would be “priested” virtually automatically and take over a local church. But a few years ago, the Sydney Anglicans adopted a “permanent diaconate”, allowing for those who preferred to stay a minister  without progressing to rector.

If you became a pastor, simply to pastor people, preach, and spread the gospel, then not taking on the administrative responsibilities of running a church has its attractions. You can spend your time doing the things that make you love the job.

“There’s no denying that government compliance has increased substantially since I became a rector some 20 years ago” says Linn. In addition to the extra rules around child protection, the shift to having more paid staff that has occurred in Sydney Anglican churches, has meant that many senior ministers are managers, a job many of them were not trained for. “When I started in the late nineties, your accounts were basically a ‘P’ and ‘L’ or income and expenses and a balance sheet, a couple of other things. Now it’s far more complicated and, greater administration skill is needed to understand the finances.”

Lin now runs a “new rectors” program, to add management training to the theology study they did at Bible college.

“We also need to be doing some research to work out where there may be blockages for people of coming into the Diocese to do ministry …” – Peter Lin

Other reasons put forward for the senior minister vacancies are that other forms of churches – such as the Fellowship of Independent Evangelical Churches (FIEC) and other church planting groups – appeal to more entrepreneurial types.

“I think there’s a bit of a perception that they have a bit more freedom,” says Lin. “That’s true. But my personal experience was I was asked to plant a church here in Sydney, when I came out of college, much like the FIEC guys do. It was literally that was in my first year out of college, I was planting a church in the diocese and my Bishop didn’t restrict me at all. My Bishop said, you go for it and just call me whenever you need anything and I’ll support you in whatever way I can.

“That’s certainly what I try to do with people who plant in my region.”

Also, Lin points out that “there’d be a percentage, as well, who have had bad experiences as assistant ministers” with their rectors and don’t relish taking on that role themselves.

The vacancy problem may be a symptom of a larger issue – The Sydney Diocese has plateaued. Some churches are doing well, and others are shrinking, which is to be expected. But overall the diocese has ceased to grow.

Despite Eternity pointing out this issue, Lin says “I’m a strong believer that the Sydney Diocese needs to keep growing stronger and stronger. We’re seeing many hundreds of people going to ministry and not just here, but all around the world and we want to keep sending people into full-time ministry. I do think we need to be more deliberate and intentional in identifying people and recruiting them, to serve gospel ministry. But we also need to be doing some research to work out where there may be blockages for people of coming into the Diocese to do ministry and seeing how we might unblock those hindrances.”

Michael Jensen, a Sydney Anglican senior minister, mused on Facebook that maybe people like him have whinged too much and put people off. He told Eternity: “Being a pastor is exhilarating and exhausting in equal measure. We’ve lately focussed on the mental health of pastors. Rightly so! But we’ve forgotten to say what an extraordinary privilege the ministry is … how much fun it can be and how great it is to be doing something that people really need doing.”

“You end up privy to some dark things in people’s lives, but you also get to see the actual difference Jesus makes.” – Rory Shiner

To underscore the point, Eternity asked a couple of other pastors to comment. Rory Shiner, pastor of Providence church, Perth, offered this paean to the glories of pastoring:

“There are, of course, all the normal, big-picture factors that make Christian leadership a joy and a privilege: the forgiveness of sins, the truth of the gospel, the glory of God, the hope of Christ’s return, the comfort and empowering of the Holy Spirit. All magnificent and worth reminding yourself of when things get you down.”

“But, in addition to those reasons, being a pastor is actually a great job! For someone like me (undiagnosed ADHD), it’s just so stimulating! One minute you’re talking to the local town council about property plans, next minute you’re struggling with the Greek of the New Testament. You can go from a meeting with someone addicted to internet pornography to a meeting with the governance board looking at five-year plans and strategic opportunities. You’re part teacher, part academic, part counsellor, part team-leader, part strategist, part coach. It’s very stimulating.

“You end up privy to some dark things in people’s lives, but you also get to see the actual difference Jesus makes. Seeing people live for Jesus in challenging circumstances is so often what keeps me going. I think, ‘well, I’m finding it all a bit tough, but Jesus is making a difference for them, and that’s enough for me.’

“George Eliot ends [the novel] Middlemarch with these words: ‘… for the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been, is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs.’

“As a pastor, you get to see those unhistoric acts and hidden lives in Jesus and it makes you want to keep following him.”

“I count it a deep, deep privilege to journey with a community as it seeks to follow in the steps of Jesus.” – Beth Jackson

Beth Jackson, who leads St Ives Baptist on Sydney’s north side, responded by balancing the joys of pastoring with a dash of realism:

“As someone who has been in (employed) pastoral ministry for over 20 years, I understand living in the tension between the weight of the pastoral responsibility and the joy of the pastoral privilege. Still buoyed by a strong sense of vocation, I count it a deep, deep privilege to journey with a community as it seeks to follow in the steps of Jesus – even if it comes with a large administrative burden and a challenging set of relational dynamics!”

Today’s pastors are stepping up to lead a church at a time where Christianity no longer seems respectable in the wider society, with arguably more complex teams (paid and unpaid) to lead, in a role that was always difficult.

As James 3:1 warns – “Not many of you should become teachers, my fellow believers, because you know that we who teach will be judged more strictly.” By humankind, as well as God, it increasingly seems today. Yet “how beautiful on the mountains are the feet of those who bring good news, who proclaim peace, who bring good tidings, who proclaim salvation, who say to Zion, ‘Your God reigns!'” (Isaiah 52:7)