Where have all the senior ministers gone

Recent stories by Bishop Peter Lin and others about the shortage of Anglican rectors – senior ministers in charge of a church – in the Sydney Diocese (region) produced a mixture of emotions in me.

On the one hand, it is very encouraging to see this issue receiving public consideration in a careful and godly manner. However, in my view, much of the discussion does not go beyond the proximate causes of the clergy shortage to address the root causes and factors which have brought the Sydney Diocese to this situation.

Reasons exist why existing clergy are electing to play it safe, have moved to another diocese, or have left Anglican ministry all together.

For example, some have come away from Bishop Lin’s article convinced the solution simply involves encouraging assistant ministers to take more responsibility and bumping up the enrolment numbers of Sydney’s Moore Theological College. Personally, I am far from convinced that is the case.

I am one of the “missing rectors” – part of the group of clergy ordained within the last decade or so who would otherwise be approached to fill one of the current vacancies. I am one of those who are being talked ABOUT rather than TO. This group being discussed in absentia are my contemporaries.

Some of their struggles and frustrations have been mine also. Reasons do exist why existing clergy are electing to play it safe, have moved to another diocese, or have left Anglican ministry all together.

First, we must consider who and how the current system selects for senior minister roles. As Peter Lin noted, the role of rector requires not just Bible teaching but also administration and compliance tasks. In practice, the role has come to be viewed as a highly specialised ministry that preferences those who have been immersed in parish contexts.

So the candidate for the presbyter (a “senior minister” who is authorised to run a church) process of ordination who has completed a ministry traineeship in a medium to large church – and then later secures a sustainably-funded assistant minister position with full congregational responsibility at a similar type of church – is highly likely to be viewed as someone who “ticks all the boxes”.

That man is a “Parish Man” – he knows what to do and what is expected of him. However, the candidate who has not followed this pathway – who has not done a pre-College traineeship, has needed to change parish positions, has been focused on planting a new ministry or been in chaplaincy, and so forth – will find ticking the (many) boxes much harder.

This man is not considered a “Parish Man”. While he may have strengths in leadership and practical skills, he is implicitly considered a riskier bet. Flexibility in the criteria is minimal, and the discernment process focuses almost exclusively on the candidate’s present parish role. In other words, while the need for diverse modes of ministry and leadership has become more widely acknowledged, the process for selecting rectors has narrowed, leading to a growing number of assistant ministers feeling like they don’t fit the mould.

Second, several recent official policies and external circumstances have combined to discourage or derail many candidates from the rector pathway.

While sound in theory, the Permanent Diaconate policy has ended up not being ideal in practice. (NOTE: Anglican ministers begin as deacons. “Permanent diaconate” means that ministers can stay as deacons rather than become senior ministers/presbyters. It is relatively new in Sydney.)

Ordination candidates and new deacons were explicitly told: “Do not apply to be a presbyter just for the sake of it, because if you do you will be put on an active presbyter list and you’ll be expected to accept what gets offered. You should stay a deacon; you won’t be penalised, and then begin the presbyter process when you’re ready for the responsibility.”

Post-ordination training also (while generally practically helpful) was accordingly entirely disconnected from any ongoing ordination pathway.

So, one reason for assistants not taking on rector responsibilities is because, for years, diocesan senior leadership were telling them that remaining deacon was a legitimate ordained ministry. Then the GFC chickens came home to roost around about 2012 and, by the end of 2013, more than 30 assistant ministers across the diocese (many of whom had naturally not started the presbyter process) were made permanently redundant.

After a decade of ministry, I have seen and heard too many stories of parishes with toxic cultures and patterns of workplace abuse that I believe some kind of systemic problem has been permitting this to happen.

Those candidates still in theological training (or considering it) saw the impact and heard the warnings from senior clergy that there were no guarantees of jobs after graduation. Enthusiasm for that pathway accordingly declined. And now, five or so years later, we are seeing the impact of these factors on the numbers of available rector candidates.

The third factor that must be addressed is, sadly, while many assistant minsters find parish life a joy and a blessing, for a significant number of others this has not been the case. After a decade of ministry, I have seen and heard too many stories of parishes with toxic cultures and patterns of workplace abuse that I believe some kind of systemic problem has been permitting this to happen.

I have close brothers in Christ who have left ordained Anglican ministry with no intention of returning after what they have been through, and others report that they (or their wives) will never wholeheartedly trust a senior minister of a church again. Was it always thus? I have no idea. God help us all if so!

I am heartened by changes to Safe Ministry guidelines and reporting procedures which may identify ungodly behaviour earlier and see that it is appropriately addressed, but this is not a problem that will be solved with a few strokes of the pen.

If new ordained ministers are to be raised up to fill the current shortage, it is imperative that not only the proximate causes of the current rector shortage are examined.

In my view it is necessary to question whether the existing presbyter pathway has been adequate and appropriate for providing the required parish rectors for 2020 and beyond. Are the best new leaders being identified or excluded by the process?

Anglicans at all levels must reckon with past shortcomings, so that young people who are willing and desirous of a life of full-time ministry may have confidence that they are being invited into a better system than recently has been operating.

Luke Collings was ordained in 2011 and served in parish roles and with Anglicare in Sydney. He is currently the senior minister of Moranbah Anglican Church in the Diocese of Rockhampton.

Collings points out that Peter Lin responded to the earlier version of this article and this is acknowledged on Collings’ blog.

Explanations in brackets have been added by Eternity.


Some prayer points to help

Pray that all churches will have good hiring policies. Pray that the vacancies in Sydney will be filled with capable people.