Thursday, 5 August 2010

How not to be the Church

I’m suffering from daily headaches at the moment, and it’s making it really hard to write anything. But never mind, this is an issue that’s been worrying me for many years.
I’ve been a member of the Methodist Church for twenty-eight years now, since 1982. I’ve been in two very different churches; one in a village in Cornwall, in a rural circuit where every church was slowly collapsing due to a combination of declining membership and inappropriate buildings, and one in central Birmingham. The first was all white, the second eighty percent black, with members from three continents. My current circuit is urban, multicultural, and some churches, at least, have modern buildings which are more or less appropriate to their needs. Others are being brought to their knees by the cost of maintaining dilapidated Victorian barns. I should know; I’ve been responsible for the property in both the churches where I’ve been a member. You’d have thought the problems in the two circuits would have been very different, but no. They’re almost identical.

Firstly, buildings. I’ll never forget one church I used to preach at in Cornwall. When it was built, at the end of Victoria’s reign, there was, apparently, a village there. The church would seat about 100 comfortably. When I started preaching, in the mid-1980’s, the village had disappeared without trace, the walls were streaked with green mould, and part of the ceiling had collapsed. The congregation was about half a dozen, which came out from St. Austell, a few miles away. Another, in a slightly better state, served a village that had long disappeared under a mountain of china clay waste. One in the town itself had been built for 750 people, and I used to get a congregation of three or four, including the organist.

In my present circuit we have one church which has a huge, cathedral-like building, with an extensive range of rooms which include a large hall in which they now meet. The congregation is about fifteen to twenty. I always feel there’s some life there, but it’s slowly being stifled by a derelict building they don’t seem, finally, to be able to get rid of. Other churches are also struggling with buildings they don’t need. In many cases they could sell, buy a large house nearby, convert the ground floor into a church, and upstairs into flats. The rents would go a long way towards maintaining the church.

Another, associated, problem is poor to suicidal leadership. As long as I’ve been in the Methodist Church, I’ve seen a slow trickle of people leaving because they’re marginalized, ignored, their ideas aren’t wanted. In the worst cases, they go due to outright bullying and rudeness. In some cases the behavior I’ve come across has been truly abominable. Only last year, I had to deal with a case of libelous letters being sent, falsely accusing a builder’s workmen of theft. The firm had been contracted by the Church Council to do work which the writers hadn’t wanted, and this was their way of hitting back. Clearly, the people responsible are no longer running that church. But they make it blindingly obvious that they think they ought to be.

On many occasions, I’ve seen good people elected to office, then not recognized. In the 1980’s, there were complaints about black church stewards being used as tokens, without being allowed to do the job. It goes deeper than that; it happens to white people as well. It happened to me. When I was in Cornwall, the Senior Steward at my church retired, then carried straight on doing the job exactly as before, ignoring their successor. Officially, there’s no such office as Senior Steward, but it’s always been more convenient for ministers to have to talk to one person rather than all the stewards, and for anyone wanting power, this is always the one to go for. Then they can exclude all the other stewards. In my present church, I was a steward for years before anyone asked my opinion of anything. Eventually, once again, the Senior Steward retired.

I was already in a situation where I had taken on responsibility for the property, but someone else, who has never been a Property Steward, and shows no understanding of what’s involved, thought she should be in charge. So I was being undermined and pressurised in the expectation that I’d eventually give in as my predecessor had. Then the woman we’d appointed as the new Senior Steward gave up and left, after a similar experience. She was a perfectly good steward, of many years’ standing, who could be trusted to listen to the rest of us. The trouble was, she wasn’t the strongest character, and she listened to the wrong people.

Fortunately, we had a couple of strong characters in the church who were already stewards, and with support from the minister, we’ve – hopefully – been able to get to a situation where people appointed to do jobs actually get to do them. We still get undermined though, and still have situations like the woman who comes occasionally taking services, and refuses to speak to the duty steward. She’ll only work with her friend the former steward, and we haven’t really tackled that one yet.

This is why the Six Year Rule, which says that stewards, who are officially responsible for ‘providing leadership’, have to step down after six years, doesn’t work. By the time it gets to that point, the person in control has probably been bullying everyone else for years, and anyone who might stand up to them has left. On the rare occasions when a minister insists on applying it, they carry straight on pulling strings, then force their way back in as soon as that minister leaves. Problem people in a church can only be dealt with effectively by laypeople who are there for the long haul, and are prepared to stand up for themselves over many years if necessary.

The root of many of our problems has probably been the ordained ministry. Ministers come and go. The norm at present is that they come for an initial five years, which can be extended. If things don’t work out, they can be moved on, but this is rare and difficult; normally you just have to endure them. Some are brilliant, some appalling, but very few look beyond their few years in that church. The result is that we suffer from short-termism, and systemic problems are rarely even considered. I’ve been in my current circuit since 1987; over that time, we’ve lost a large number of members. In all that time, there has never been any discussion about the problems. In many cases, the same people who were running things when I arrived are still there now. At last, we’ve scheduled an extra Circuit Meeting, where it will be on the agenda, but this came from laypeople not ministers.

Where ministers attempt to provide leadership, and there are still plenty out there trying to operate on a minister-led model, they routinely fail. We had one who wanted to turn us all into charismatics, another who bullied and upset everyone. They arrive, not knowing the people, with little real information about the church, and try to take charge when they’re actually less qualified to do so that anyone else. This can only lead to problems, and sometimes it creates mayhem. One church in the circuit was disastrously split by a minister who openly tried to elbow aside everyone but fundamentalist charismatics, and almost twenty years after he retired, that church still has serious problems. His successor had a similar attitude, surrounded himself with yes-people, and pushed them into office long before they were ready. On one notorious occasion, he nominated someone for a note to preach, the beginning of the training system for lay preachers, a fortnight after he had become a Christian. The better ministers listen, and try to encourage the good things they find going on in a church. But then they move on, and we never know what we’re going to be landed with next. When there are major problems, they can offer little help.

Lacking information, sometimes with their heads full of stereotypes of what they think the church ought to be, they’re vulnerable to manipulation. Power in the Methodist Church has traditionally come via a sort of devil’s bargain between ministers and their yes-people. Anyone eager for position and power would gather round the minister, agreeing to anything they said, in the hope of being ‘nominated’ for office. In return, the minister supported the office-holders, and ensured that they should rule the roost – which is probably the main thing they wanted – unchallenged.

I think the practice of ‘nominating’ people to office is one of the worst aspects of Methodist tradition. Decisions of all sorts are taken by little in-groups, and then rubber-stamped by the meeting. This happens at every level; it has been many years since Conference last voted against the platform, for instance. Appointments are made by putting a ‘name’ to the meeting, which is then traditionally accepted without question or discussion. The result is a network of little power cliques, controlling everything, along with their ministerial allies, and having a veto over the appointment of anyone except themselves and their friends, and managing to ignore everyone else. That’s what leads to the situation I mentioned, where someone comes to my church imagining themselves too good to have to speak to the person responsible for the smooth running of the service. It’s an appallingly corrupt system, and if we want to rebuild the church, it has to go.

Fortunately, some aspects of it are dying by inches. When I was in Cornwall, I was regularly accused of being ‘disrespectful’ to a minister who I addressed, and referred to, as ‘Tom’ not ‘Reverend So-and-so’. I arrived in Birmingham to find that practice was long gone, but the slightest criticism of any minister was instantly met by patronising speeches about how ‘special’ they were. That stopped by the end of the 90’s.

When I came here, there were three Circuits, and six ministers in mine alone; I think there were a total of five in the other two. The three are now amalgamated into a single Circuit, with three ministers. The result is, of course, that a lot more is done by laypeople. I believe we are the first Circuit in the country to have appointed lay ministers, who are not ordained, but who do everything ministers do apart from weddings. There’s no block to their doing that, but they’d have to be officially appointed for a particular church, and it hasn’t happened yet.

It hasn’t really made much difference to my church, as we’ve always done everything ourselves. Originally this was down to weak ministers and a domineering leadership clique, these days it’s because we really do believe in inclusiveness and democracy, and our current minister supports us in this. The only thing we really rely on her for is a bit of support now and then, and decisions are regularly taken over coffee after the service, with everyone participating. We’ve recently given jobs to two ladies on the fringes of the church; a new member has taken responsibility for cleaning the church, while our latest trainee worship leader hasn’t got as far as membership yet. Time will tell whether I’m right in thinking this is a way of bringing new people in. Things can be done differently; it only takes the will!