Licenced locally, operating more globally: lessons from dual-screen ministry
I recently found myself describing my ministry as a little like having two screens on one’s desk and needing to keep an eye on both at once (with multiple windows open on each). It is an occupational hazard of bi-vocational ministry. In my case being a grassroots theological-educator on one hand, and being wired up as a serial church leader on the other. Serial is not an accidental auto-correct of local. Despite having left full-time local church ministry over two decades ago I have ended up involved in the leadership of every congregation we have been part of as a family since. In Kampala, then Cape Town, and now in Bath as an NSM (non-stipendiary minister).
Counter-intuitively that current local involvement only deepened through the course of the pandemic, despite services going online for a significant period (I had the luxury of having very little to do with them apart from recording the odd sermon). But greater rather than fewer needs emerged in people’s lives. And activity increased dramatically from Easter with more in-person services both indoors and outdoors, coupled with the need to rebuild teams and renew the life of a morning congregation, which is my focus. (It will come as no surprise that we are studying Nehemiah’s inspirational memoirs as a platform for this – although at times it feels as though the introspection of Jeremiah might still be more appropriate.)
At the same time turning more to instant messaging, video-calls and online collaboration as only deepened links in the region, despite my longest gap in international travel for decades. New opportunities have arisen and old efforts have been transformed. With increasing smart-phone ownership there is a constant flow of greetings and reports of local work, some of which have led to new projects. Those include one that would not have emerged in the ‘old-world’: triggered by a call from an American theologian in Germany; it received funding from an Australian based in the UK; it came under the oversight of a missionary bishop in Malaysia; and the reconnaissance stage was completed through a Kenyan trainer travelling across borders within East Africa.
Empathy with the majority of church leaders
While it might effectively communicate occasional feelings of being torn, the image of dual-screen ministry is perhaps not the most helpful. There are positive implications of this dual commitment. After all, all of us, full-time ministers included, face multiple commitments. My analogy is only one way of looking at those tensions, and my two main spheres sit nicely side by side, with a clear overlap in terms of values – it is more of a wide-screen approach.
The focus of my grassroots training commitments through BUILD* is on the majority of church leaders in the majority of the worldwide church (those who care for, lead and teach local congregations in global-South contexts, as I’ve said repeatedly). That majority of church leaders are not the vicars or bishops and others who oversee parishes and dioceses, but those who live life in the sub-parish or their local congregation’s community, and who lead and preach and pray in their spare-time or, at most, in their capacity as part-time church leaders.
So I empathise. Not with their being unpaid or poorly-paid, as they invariably are (we are too spoilt in the West for that and the pandemic has only reinforced the divide). I empathise with their switching between roles, and above all with the reality that there is no such thing as a part-time or spare-time church leader anyway. The nature of any pastor’s work in any mode means that is a fiction. Any true concern for a church penetrates its way into all the nooks and crannies of life like mycelia, however that life is configured.
This means that at a distance and across cultural divides I find myself connecting more rather than less with the BUILD target group. And at the same time, I find myself sympathising at this end with the army of members of the so-called ‘laity’ who help lead and facilitate church alongside their lives of family and work and volunteering and many other forms of service. I find myself constantly challenged by the question of how we can make it easier for them to serve effectively, and without the assumptions that often seem to be brought to the table by those who are the exception: the full-time workers who because of their roles set the unspoken rules.
A recovering church
The need to answer that question is acute at this point in the life of the church in the UK. How many of us are discovering that the earth-shattering jolt to the system – the pandemic – has not been the CPR to the church that many might have hoped for? Instead many are rethinking their commitments and are now resistant to the idea of any ‘normal’ let alone a new one, and that, for example, the old imagery of rotas is now too akin to ruts. I certainly don’t know the answers – we have tried rebranding rotas as teams with a life of their own and there are possibly promising signs.
What can we learn by looking South, to the growing Church of God in other parts of the world? In many places apocalyptic jolts are the norm. Some have gently shared that they have felt closer to us at times over the past twenty months than ever before as they have watched us wrestle with a significant public-health crisis ourselves – and they have prayed, and prayed, and prayed for us.
And that is certainly the first priority: for us to rely on God’s presence rather than our own plans and projects. Perhaps I was harsh on Nehemiah. Behind what can seem to be a rather triumphalist approach to rebuilding the walls of Jerusalem lies a deep faith in the power of God. Yes, Nehemiah is a strategist and we will need our best thinking to not just recover but grow in the new world, but that recovery and growth will ultimately turn on our faith a very great God.
One of the most encouraging things I have heard in recent weeks is of an apparent new level of spiritual hunger amongst new and returning university students, the kind of hunger we need in our churches as we realise how utterly broken we are and how truly God can restore.