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New thinking, new initiatives needed to meet ministry shortcomings

By Paul Titus

At Methodist Conference 2008 the Church will ordain four new presbyters and farewell nine who retire. This ratio has become the norm in recent years.

Some of this shortfall is made up by presbyters brought into full Connexion from other churches. The numbers, however, are indicative of a trend that has seen many parishes share or go without a presbyter for periods of time, and in some cases permanently.

Methodists are not alone in facing something of a crisis in regards to ministry, at least within their Pakeha and Maori divisions. The Presbyterian, Anglican and Baptist Churches are all reviewing their approaches to ministry.

Any discussion of ministry raises questions marks over the traditional model of training and stationing. For Methodists the familiar scenario is a person receives training while in residence at Trinity College for several years, is ordained, and serves in a succession of parishes. The future of this model is cloudy.

On one hand, uncertainty lingers over the future shape of Trinity College, now divided between the campus it shares with the Anglican Church in the Auckland suburb of Meadowbank, and the Ministry Training Unit at Pitt Street Methodist Church in downtown Auckland. It has become increasingly difficult to find the money and people to maintain Trinity College in this way.

On the other hand, in the heartland many parishes can no longer afford a full-time presbyter, when one was available to serve with them.

As a result, the role of presbyter is evolving to become one of an ‘enabler’ rather than the traditional parish priest who “preaches on Sunday and visits on Tuesday”, in the words of director of Tauiwi Pakeha ministry Rev Nigel Hanscamp.

Enablers help congregations set up their own ministry teams to carry out key tasks – worship, pastoral care, outreach and administration. Often referred to by Methodists as Local Shared Ministry, such teams of lay people are becoming more important in other churches too.

Nigel says the Methodist Church has to become more discerning in selecting people who can fulfil the enabler role, both candidates for ministry and presbyters recruited from overseas. The Church must also provide the money and resources needed to up-skill lay people and provide them on-going training.

“Ministry development director David Bell is developing some of those resources, and lay people can also up skill themselves in their home settings through programmes such at EIDTS [Ecumenical Institute of Distance Theological Studies]. But the issue is also one of building confidence. We need to develop workshops and perhaps mentoring programmes to help lay people build the confidence they need to be effective,” Nigel says.

Though the Church will put more energy into building up lay ministry, Nigel believes full-time ordained presbyters should not and will not disappear. “We still need well-educated ordained ministers who have a solid theological and biblical education,” he says.

His views are echoed by incoming MCNZ president Rev Brian Turner. Brian is interested that the Baptist Church has abandoned ordination and replaced it with a more flexible process of commissioning resource people to carry out particular tasks. He believes such an approach could help the Church be quicker on its feet in a fast changing world.

Training lay and ordained people in their home settings through distance education and workshops can be an effective way to prepare them for such tasks. But the Church also risks losing depth and effectiveness by abandoning residential training and ordination entirely.

“Today it seems the mission and ministry of the Church is up for grabs. We need to decide what sort of church we want to be and then develop the resource people we need to be that sort of church,” Brian says.

“Who decides these directions is critical. With the termination of the Board of Ministry and the appointment of a commissioner we need to be careful that the traditional bottom-up decision making of Conference is not replaced by a top-down executive style of management. Decisions formulated by the base of a community or organisation may be slower to emerge and more difficult to clarify, but they are usually more acceptable and durable in the long run than those imposed from above.”

Another dimension of ministry in the Methodist Church is the diaconate. Deacons’ model of servant ministry is central to Methodism and should be a key element when enabling lay ministry teams, says national co-ordinator for the Diaconate Task Group Deacon Shirley-Joy Barrow.

“I want the church to thrive. But without a strong servant ministry, I don’t believe the church will survive. People look to the church for love and hope, and we have to get out and meet them where they are.

“Ministry teams of lay people, presbyters, and deacons are clearly the way forward. Deacons have an important role to play, not necessarily as an exclusive order, but in sharing their gifts to bring the world into the church and to equip the gathered community to take the church to the world,” Shirley-Joy says.

No one has been accepted for training as a deacon in the NZ Methodist Church since 1993, though people have expressed interest. For the good of the Church, Shirley-Joy thinks this should change.

Deacons require three aspects to their training – a good grounding in theology, the social work skills they need to do community work, and ministry leadership and formation.

Because deacons work in the community and with other with other denominations and faiths, a good knowledge or the ecumenical scene or training in an ecumenical setting are preferable. Trinity College’s partnership with the Anglican Church is ideal for this but not necessarily the exclusive route to diaconal training, Shirley-Joy says.

Another aspect of the changing face of ministry is the growing importance of districts and synods. Districts are already starting to play a larger role in setting up circuits of congregations who share ministry resources and/or funds for property development.