Thursday, 5 February 2009

Too Many Ministers?

My turn to do a month's worth of opinion pieces for the Baptist Times' "Outside Edge" column has come round again. With the agreement of the editor I'm posting my BT article here. To check out the Baptist times as a whole click here.

Will God respond to the economic crisis by calling more people into ministry?

A strange question? Well, I’m lead to believe that there is a discernable pattern. During past recessions we saw a marked increase the number seeking recognition and training. If this happens again how should we respond? It’s not straightforward.

Last year, well before the credit went crunch, our colleges enjoyed a boost in the number of students. As for this year, it’s a bit early to say but if the trend continues we will face a number of interesting questions.

To start with, should we put a quota on the numbers we are prepared to accept? Two considerations might lead us in this direction. First there is the potentially painful prospect of a surfeit of people seeking pastorates three or four years into the future. Those who train to be Baptist ministers make great sacrifices in order to test and pursue the call of God. What if, after such sacrifice, there is no invitation to a specific church, which in our Baptist polity is the ultimate test of call? What about the personal cost?

Secondly there’s the quality of ministerial formation. Even Spurgeon’s, the largest of our colleges, is by no means a big institution. All the Baptist colleges are able to take a personal and flexible approach to our work with ministers-in-training. This way of operating relies on a high staff to student ratio. Increasing student numbers would put us under great pressure.
If training Baptist ministers were a money making venture there would be no problem. As numbers increased income would increase and we could employ more staff. Would that it were that simple. The enterprise isn’t set up to maximise per captia profit!

Perhaps it’s time to reconsider the question of centrally funding ministerial training? But doesn’t such an approach run against the Baptist grain? And anyway where would Home Mission raise the extra funding at a time of financial hardship?

Maybe it’s time to get serious about rationalising our ministerial training resources by merging some of our colleges. But the very strength of the current set-up is the close links that colleges have developed in their own regions. We may well release funds but much would also be put at risk.

As well as the practical, personal, educational and financial challenges that an increase in people training for ministry would bring there are bigger strategic questions.

Surely an increase in people hearing the call of God to ordained ministry is reason for rejoicing. If we are to limit access to training how are we to determine who gets in and who doesn’t? Are some more called than others?

Maybe our whole conception of ministry needs an overhaul. What if the blockage is our assumption that we are primarily training pastors to lead churches? At the moment all those who leave colleges have to receive a call to a church.

God knows the release of more experienced, educated and equipped people into the mission field of modern day Britain would be an exciting development. What if God is hollering some into other forms of ministry? Maybe we are being prompted to equip and release more pioneer planters, community ministers and chaplains. Perhaps we a need a shift in our terminology. What if we thought not of being called to a church but being called by a church – and then released into, let loose upon the wider world?

Of course this still leaves the question of who would pay these people to exercise their ministry. Perhaps that notion too needs to be revisited. Could it be time to look again a bi-vocational ministry? Or what about new patterns of communal living with a sharing of resources to release people for ministry?

As I said, lots of questions. And yes, the situation may never come to pass. But surely now is the time prayerfully to consider the issues.


Catriona said...

Good post (my BT seems to be stuck in snow, maybe I should switch to the online version?).

A couple of thoughts that strike me

... given that already around 1 in 5 students has not settled when the they leave college, and (if the BUGB directory is to be believed) some take years to settle should be be more honest iwth our students about this

... how do we square an increase in 'calls' with a decrease in numbers of churches able to afford to pay for ministers? On my patch ministers are already being given notice and many more churches are struggling financially?

As you say the whole discernment thing is incredibly tricky and in the current financial climate ecclesiological questions - which then impact missiological and ministerial realities - become very pertinent indeed.

Glen Marshall said...


Wasn't aware of the 1 in 5 figure. That's important.

BT on line? That's what I do and I've found I'm actually more likely to read it these days.