It was a Sunday morning. and I was preparing to go to church when the phone rang. When I picked it up a voice said, ‘This is (name) at the Health Department’, and then rather diffidently, ‘I wonder if it would be possible to contact the Minister’. When I said, ‘Yes, I’m the Minister’, I wondered why the caller seemed to be rather taken aback. As the conversation continued, it soon dawned on me that the call was not meant for me at all. A civil servant friend staying with me as a lodger (and still in bed at that time on a Sunday morning) was personal assistant to a junior minister in the Department of Health, and in those pre-mobile phone days, my phone had been registered as an emergency contact number.
What do I call myself?
This is one of the minor irritations of being a minister. What do you call yourself? During my year in Glasgow it was easy, because the Church of Scotland has ministers, but in England and Wales I never quite know how to answer when strangers ask me what my job is. My fellow Baptists would never call me a ‘vicar’ or ‘clergyman’ – those are Anglican expressions. ‘Priest’ implies an Anglican or a Roman Catholic. ‘Parson’ is a rather old-fashioned and slightly jokey word. Baptists might call me a ‘pastor’, but this term is associated with a certain kind of evangelical church outside the main stream. In Free Church circles I am definitely a minister, but in order to avoid confusion with a cabinet minister I usually feel I should say ‘Baptist minister’. This too goes against the grain for me, because I don’t want to flaunt my denominational allegiance, and most of my ministry has been spent in ecumenical situations. My usual answer is ‘a minister in the church’, and if people call me ‘vicar’, ‘Father’ or anything else I just let it pass.
What am I qualified for?
The ministry is a strange ‘profession’. The problem of what to call oneself is a reflection of the deeper uncertainty of our role in society. Where is our expertise, and what qualifications do we have? Today, colleges for the training of ministers have a much more practical curriculum than they used to have. In my college days our chief priority was to get the degree in theology. We read texts in Latin and Greek, we learned scholarly methods of studying the Bible and its background, we got involved in all the now rather outdated arguments of the early Church about the Trinity, and we had a smattering of church history.
Our specific training for the work of ministry was outside the University curriculum, and a bit hit-and-miss. We had lectures about the practical things like how to do weddings, funerals and baptisms and how to deal with problems in the church – ‘everything from deacons to drains’ as we called it. These lectures were mostly given by tutors on the basis of their experience in a church for a short time before becoming academics, though occasionally we had visits from people with longer experience in the ‘front line’. We had the gruelling experience of the weekly ‘sermon class’, where we took it in turns to preach and to have our sermon torn to pieces by the staff and fellow students. For one year in the course, we had a ‘student pastorate’, in which a pair of us would be placed with a little rural church, with a tutor to back us up in case of any problems. There were occasional courses on pastoral counselling, but only a few of us had the opportunity to attend these. The emphasis today is much more practical, but even now it rarely results in solid qualifications that would be accepted by most professional bodies.
In the sixties and early seventies there was something of a crisis as to what a minister was meant to be and to do. Congregations were declining, a generation was growing up for whom church or chapel was not part of their life experience. Simply preaching on Sundays, visiting the ‘flock’ through the week and being recognised in the community as ‘the minister’ was no longer enough. We had to find a way of doing ‘mission’ or ‘outreach’ or engaging with social issues in order to show in practice what the Christian message was about. But were we qualified to do any of this? Many of my contemporaries dropped out of the ministry after a few years and re-trained to become social workers, probation officers or teachers. They wanted a job in which you knew what you were expected to do and were qualified to do it.
At the same time, people both within and outside the churches still recognised the traditional role of a minister, and called upon it from time to time. This is still true today. Church weddings are not as virtually universal as they used to be: people get married in all kinds of places, and often live together without being married. But a significant number of people still want to get married in church, and even more want to have their babies ‘christened’.
As for funerals, only a tiny minority feel they can dispense with the services of religion. When I was in Pontypool I had a funeral almost once a week, nearly always for a family that had no connection with the church. I often wondered what my real function was in this situation. If the people were not particularly religious it was useless and unhelpful, if not cruel, to give them a sermon about judgement, heaven and hell. I could only try to help them with some thoughts that might comfort them and give them strength to face their situation, and perhaps challenge the congregation as a whole to reflect on their priorities in life. Sometimes I thought of myself as a kind of family philosopher or ‘poet laureate’ whose job was to find the words to express what the people were feeling.
This was especially brought home to me on one occasion. It was a funeral service that was held in the church. The man who had died was not a regular churchgoer. He was a fairly ordinary retired miner, but he had given many years of practical service to the Labour Party and other local causes. There was a huge congregation, including councillors, head teachers and other well known people in the town. I had a sudden feeling of nervousness – who was I to stand up in front of all these important people? Then the thought occurred to me: many of these people are far superior to me in their own professions, but I am probably the only person here who can say what needs to be said on this occasion, articulate what is in their minds, and enable them to go away feeling that justice has been done to the memory of this man. Ever since that day I have never doubted that I am doing an important and challenging job – inadequately perhaps, but hopefully improving.
One thing that has concerned and frustrated me in the ministry is a certain lack of real challenge on the practical side. This begins with the rather laid-back vocational training in the theological colleges and continues in the day-to-day conditions of the work. Entry to most professions is conditional on specific qualifications and a rigorous interview process. Even once you get a post, the work is demanding. You have to to keep up to professional standards and adapt to changes and developments. If you fall behind in this you will soon find yourself left at the bottom while others are promoted, or out of a job altogether. If you have your own business and don’t run it efficiently, it fails. If you are an ineffective politician, you lose the vote, The Christian ministry is one of the few professions in which people can get away with poor standards of service. Ministers can bore their congregations with long sermons every Sunday and do very little else in the rest of the week, but still stay in office. People who are not churchgoers only meet a minister when there is a funeral or a wedding, and if the occasion is cold and unsatisfying they assume that is the way things have to be with religion. It takes something really outrageous to occasion a complaint. I have often been surprised at the profuse appreciation people have expressed to me after a wedding or a funeral when I have simply tried to do a decent job.
Chaplaincy – the front line
My post-retirement situation as a University Chaplain has revealed another side both to the qualification question and to this issue of standards. It has made clear to me the unique value of a faith based service. The University has specialists of all kinds, able to give students teaching, mentoring, financial advice, health care, counselling, help with visas and so on, but the Chaplaincy is the final resort for those whose problems fall outside these categories, or are so complex that one agency is not enough to deal with them.
Moreover, the people who work in these agencies have built-in limitations to what they can do, including the fact of only being there in office hours. The Chaplaincy is more flexible, with connections in the wider community and access to voluntary help through the churches. Above all, as Christian ministers we see our work not as a job but as a ministry, a calling to serve the whole person in their whole situation and to be available whenever needed at any time of the day or night. Other people in the institution can sometimes go beyond the call of duty, and some are conspicuously helpful and dedicated, but the Chaplain is the only one who is expected to ‘go the second mile’ as an integral part of the job, and to concentrate on the person and not just the issue.
Chaplaincy in a secular institution is also under a stricter obligation to be accountable. The idea that a minister’s function is just to comfort people who are troubled and send them on their way with a vague offer of help ‘any time’ doesn’t work in chaplaincy. The institution expects pastoral care to be realistic and consistent. If there is a crisis, it wants to know whether the Chaplains were aware of a problem and if so what they did about it. It is essential to keep records and to be seen to be offering all the options for dealing with the situation.
The problematic side of this accountability is the tendency – to some extent, the necessity – for an institution to measure everything in terms of statistics and cost effectiveness. Measurements like this can never really be appropriate for personal and spiritual ministry. Saying the right word at the right time may take only a minute, but can be more effective than an hour of formal interview, while spending a whole day keeping company with someone and doing very little else can save a life. Social events can look more like fun than work, yet they are essential to the building of a friendly, mutually supportive community. Chaplaincy has to respect the ethos and methods of a secular institution and somehow at the same time claim the freedom to be itself. Integrity and trust are the building blocks of this kind of relationship.
Chaplaincy is different from the environment of the local church, and yet it seems to me that it is in many ways a model of what the church ideally ought to be. We work with people of all faiths and none, not trying to change people but only to serve them and to expect nothing in return, not even faith. Yet through it all the real good news of Jesus Christ shows through, often recognised in unexpected ways and unexpected people. It leaves me in no doubt that the Christian ministry is a real and essential job.