stewart cutler

I’ve been one for 20 years.

It began around 1989 when I completed the Boys’ Brigade’s King George IV officer cadet training and became a BB officer.

I’ve worked with young people and the adults who work with them for all of my adult life.  Most of this work has been in a church context and for most of that time I have been employed to work for a denomination.

I am a trained community worker with knowledge and skills in community building, group work, informal learning, social research and reflective practice.

I lead worship almost every Sunday in a variety of churches.

I teach ministers in training and in service and I lecture on a Youth And Community Work with Applied Theology degree.

No one has ever called me one.

In fact just the opposite.  People often ask me when I will become a proper one.  A minister.

They mean a Minister of Word and Sacrament.  A dog collar wearing, robed up preacher who is allowed to preside at Communion, conduct weddings and baptise people.

I don’t blame people for this.  That’s the only kind of ‘minister’ they know.  And that’s the problem.

That view of ministry creates a hierarchy of ministry with the Ministers of Word and Sacrament at the top and it doesn’t leave any space for the ministries that others perform.  That means that we don’t value those ministries.  In fact we don’t even talk about them in terms of ministry.

When was the last time you heard a Sunday school teacher talk about their ministry?  Or someone serving soup in a lunch club talk about their ministry?

Our understanding of ‘Ministry’ is killing the church.

Ministers (the word & sacrament kind) aren’t killing the church.  They are as much the victim of this as anyone else.

As soon as you elevate one position above others you create a hierarchy.  We ‘set ministers apart’.  Set apart from what?  Life?  Responsibility?  Other people?  Sadly, it’s the later.  We tell ministers that they are special, different, called to something by God, and then we complain when they act like it.

I think the job of ‘minister’ is important.  I think that it is good for communities to have someone who is enabled to spend their time working to build and sustain the community, to inspire and lead, to equip and enable.

But that’s not what we train ministers to do.

We train them to do our theology for us.  That’s dangerous.  Not because they aren’t good at it but because it means we, the mere mortals in the pews, don’t have to bother.

I’ve worked as a youth worker.  People employ youth workers partly for their skills but also partly so they don’t have to do youth work.  Someone else will do it on their behalf.  I heard a phone in on the radio the other day about litter.  The resounding opinion of the callers was ‘I’m not picking up someone else’s litter.  That’s someone else’s job.’  And that’s how it is with ministry.

Often Ministers fall into the trap and play along.  And complain that people leave everything to them.  Congregations fall into the trap and play along.  They leave everything to the minister and complain that they don’t get to do anything.

We have a system that de-skills people, including Ministers.  For example, training in practical theology doesn’t make you a marriage or bereavement counsellor and yet we expect ministers to do these jobs, and with no professional supervision.  The good ones know their limitations and pass people on to those who can deal with these issues but too many think their theological training means they can deal with difficult situations.

At the same time we may have people in our congregations with these skills who feel unable to offer them because pastoral care is the Minister’s job.

We have a system that means we value 1 hour a week more than the other 167.  The sad think is we actually expect very little of people in that 1 hour.  Their role is to sing, shut their eyes, listen and put money in the plate.

This just won’t do.

In an organisation like this Builders will try to maintain what is.  Boomers will hijack any power that’s going (look around a kirk session, elder’s meeting or parish council and tell me that’s not true!).

Xers and Yers on the other hand will just go off and find places that their contribution is sought and valued, where their opinion is expected and their thoughts encouraged and developed.

Church needs to start to value the spiritual gifts of everyone equally.  The Sunday school teacher’s ministry is just as, if not more important than the Minister’s.  The person who makes the soup for the lunch club’s ministry is just as, if not more important than the Minister’s.  Growing faith and feeding people.  When did they become something less?

If we are going to persist with Ministers of Word and Sacrament their role needs to be much more about being the teaching elder they are meant to be.  Their role has to be about enabling, encouraging and assisting than entertaining and imparting knowledge using big words.

Their job is about making sure people feel that their spiritual insights are valued, helping people to discover and maintain spiritual practices (more on those later) that will sustain them and give them deeper insight and they must be about growing and developing community.

That means having different set of skills in addition to some theological training.

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7 Responses to “Missing Generations (part 4)”
  1. This is all ringing the truth! I am not into the culture of blame but who are the fingers really being pointed at in this one. I think the Builders and Boomers are all too comfortable with this set up and no, its not anyone’s fault its just the way its happened. Its that comfort that prevents growth in my eyes. You try telling a member of the congregation who as been attending for 20, 30, 40 years or more that…’things are gonna change around here, yer not going to like it but its gonna happen’. O and of course that all has to come from the ‘minister’ because what right does the rest of the congregation have, right?
    I don’t know, I’m new to all this but I can see the comfort in giving the ‘minister’ the pedestal in the church but I agree in that I don’t see it as a sustainable practice.
    As I said before in my previous comments, old maps don’t lead to new roads. Life, society and faith is evolving…so does the church.

  2. One church I worked in, in the USA had the strap line: Every Member a Minister.
    They are a Presbyterian church and embedded this understanding into their organisational structure, by making each and every serving Elder the leader of a Ministry within the church.
    It was not an organizationally flat model – people held power – but the vast majority treated power as responsibility and it worked well. The Eldership had a clear sense of purpose and united vision.

    I think the weak “minister of w&s centred model” is symptomatic but not the root of the problem. The root is that we (or perhaps I ma just speaking for me here?) are not sure what Church is for.
    Vision energizes and is sustained and enabled through healthy participative structures which grow and evolve in their context.

  3. Stewart says:

    Thank you both for your comments.

    I think you’re right, Anthony. It’s not about blame, just explaining how things really are and why. You’re not entirely right about where the power lies though. In different denominations the power lies with the congregation or the kirk session. The minister is responsible for worship. So often churches get into a cycle of blame with the congregation blaming the minister and the minister blaming the congregation for resisting change.

    Interestingly, Fiona’s point about not knowing what the church is for has been made in response to this post in a few places on Facebook.

    That’s got to be problematic, but not unexpected. The church has been around long enough to have a fairly good sense of what it for but I think this lack of purpose is another symptom of the cultural context we find ourselves in.

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