19 May 2022

This isn’t ‘faddish irrelevance’, it’s vital to the church

Church numbers are dropping. Picture: iStock

By Chris Porter 

16 April 2022

A contextualisation of the old children’s nursery rhyme for the post-COVID era might go: “Here is the church, here is the steeple, open the doors … but where are all the people?”  

Recently we have seen a variety of responses to the questions of church revitalisation, which is in some cases a question of revivification. More recently a “Save the Parish” type model has been put forward, which would see a return to a traditional model of parish ministry. However, I submit that this suggestion – and many others – belies the complexity of the situation before us. 

The “Save the Parish” model advocates for a return to parish-based ministry, focused on the physical place of the church and the person of the vicar. This vicar is “known… by name an on sight,” he or she regularly says the office, conducts liturgies of the church, and visit pastorally. There is little to quibble over on this being the remit of the priest within the ordination services, and truly a primary function of the vicar of a parish. 

But this model of ministry is intensely leader focused – as is often the case in leadership training and research. A far better model of leadership is not found with the presumption of special qualities imbued in a leader but instead places the leader within a complex environment. After all if the chief executive is the pinnacle of leadership, then why are business management journals are littered with examples of chief executives who take on new roles and fail dismally at the task? Indeed, research has shown that existing chief executives who take on a new chief executive role perform worse than those promoted into the role. 

Why is this the case? Most of the answer lies in the fact that effective leadership – which is what we are asking vicars to do – does not lie solely within the leader. Rather it is a three-way relationship between leaders, members (or followers), and the environment. Leaders cannot exist without those that follow, and the make-up of followership impacts on the efficacy of the leader.  

In the church then the congregation plays an intrinsically important part of the leadership environment. Church ministry is a collaborative exercise between the vicar and other ministers, and the congregation. So, what makes for an effective and dynamic vicar cannot be separated from the leader-follower dynamic of the specific scenario. Just ask any vicar or parish what happens when the vision of the church differs between the vicar and congregation! 

The third aspect of the interrelated triangle is just as important. It’s that of the environment in which the leader-follower relationship occurs. Take highly effective teams and place them in new environments and some will fail while others flourish. Can we really say that a “Save the Parish” model would flourish in an environment where there is no concept of the parish, no public community, nor any church building to point people towards? 

Recently we commemorated the martyrdom of El Salvadorian Archbishop Oscar Romero, whose pastoral ministry highlights this tripartite leadership pattern. While Romero was a devout and socially conservative parish priest, his elevation as a bishop and then archbishop profoundly changed his ministry. This new context and new followership transformed his leadership into powerful social justice advocacy for the poor of El Salvador. Romero’s leadership was in partnership with those he led and in the environment of junta persecution. 

This is not to say that the parish is necessarily an outdated concept that should be done away with. Rather that the symbiotic relationship of leader-follower-context entails the need to change the other aspects when one aspect is altered. Indeed, many parishes which adopt a traditional parish model end up reinventing themselves along different lines, as the socio-cultural context of the parish has changed around them. Interestingly, we see can see this in the example of Service on the Sofa at St Stephen’s Gardenvale, where the change of context has naturally meant a different approach to the leader-follower dynamic in the parish. 

These churches are not seeking to remove the parish, nor to change the values of the church, nor to adopt a new fad. The intrinsic change in context has altered the dynamic of the structural relationship, meaning the parish itself must change. Indeed, the same is the case as vicars or the congregation change – after all ageing is part of our challenge – where the symbiotic relationship means each factor affects every other factor. Vicars need to work with their parishes and in their environment for contextually effective ministry. And, it is worth noting that many parishes in our diocese already do this.  

Vicars and parishes that seek solid engagement with their community, in partnership with their congregation, and in contextual engagement with their environment should be considered part and parcel of the diocese. 

All too often they are treated as merely a faddish irrelevance. 

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