Self Supporting Ministry

Exciting times on the curacy front, as my training incumbent has now moved on to a new post, leaving us in a vacancy at the church.

We are blessed to have a “full time” associate minister, another training curate (who is “full time”), and several other “part-time” clergy kicking about, so in terms of both supervision and workload it’s not a insurmountable stress to have lost the vicar. Obviously it’s not ideal, but on the plus side it will be really good experience to go through a vacancy and appointment process, and I’m fascinated to see what happens both over the few months, and once the new vicar has started.

One interesting side effect, is that our SSM associate minister is going to take over my supervision. He has been ordained for 25 years, and has always seen the workplace as the main focus of where he is called to minister, and as an SSM myself this is a great opportunity to reflect together and for me to learn from him and sharpen my thinking a bit.

In case the acronyms don’t mean anything to you; SSM is “Self Supporting Minister/Ministry”, which is the current term in vogue for ordained ministers who are not paid by the church, and who therefore usually have a secular job to pay the bills. This is contrasted with both stipendiary ministry (which is typically parish based – a stipend is paid to the minister so they don’t need to earn money, and can therefore minister “full time”) and chaplaincy (where the minister either has a stipend, or is paid, to minister in a non-parish context; such as prison, hospital, airport, football club, …). In both these cases “ministry” is that person’s occupation and income; as opposed to the SSM, where it not their income, and usually not their main occupation.

There is a further distinction in SSM between those who feel their primary ministry/calling is to parish ministry, and those who feel the primary focus of their ministry is the workplace while they do their (secular) job – usually referred to as Ministers in Secular Employment, or MSE. An MSE is not paid for their ministry (unlike chaplains), and don’t usually have an official position as an ordained person in their workplace. In terms of job roles and function they are indistinguishable from the person in the next seat – i.e. paid the same amount to do the same job. Of course, it would be perfectly possible to be an SSM and also work unpaid in a voluntary position (e.g. for a charity, or being a house-wife or house-husband). The point is that you do not have any income from your ministry activities, hence you are – purely in the financial sense – “self supporting”.

So far in my curacy I have been mainly focussed on parish ministry and church life, and have not really thought too much about what it means to be an ordained minister at work. To some extent this is only right and proper – I need(ed) to “learn the ropes” of parish ministry, whether or not it ends up being my main occupation. But at the halfway point of my curacy – 2 years in, with 2 to go – it seems to fit very nicely to refocus my thoughts and reflections on the 4 days a week I spend in the office writing mapping software, and more widely what non-parish based ordained ministry looks like and means.

One of the things that has been tripping me up is that I have a high theology of baptism, and a relatively low theology of ordination and the priesthood. I have been a Christian and a minister at my work place ever since I joined 11 years ago – and I would hope that every single baptised believer sees themselves in full time ministry as Christ’s ambassador to whichever context they are called to. This incidentally is why I put quotes around “full time” and “part time” above. To that end, there is a sense in which ordination doesn’t change anything.

However in many very real sense it does change things, and it is part of ongoing reflection to try and identify and explore these. From the “better ask the vicar” office banter, to genuine questions of faith and church life, I have had conversations with colleagues as a direct result of being ordained that probably wouldn’t have occurred otherwise.

I’m also trying to develop a better theology of work as worship – that when I’m sitting at the computer writing code, or in meetings, or whatever, this is somehow good and an offering to God. It’s very easy to see that being a doctor, or a teacher, or a vicar is a godly vocation – I find it a bit harder to see this connection about writing mapping software, or being in banking, or mining, or being a pilot… I suppose I’m not willing to accept that office work is just about provision (i.e. making money), or even just about having opportunities to be good news. Both these things are good and true and important, but I think my sights are a little higher.

Anyway, what really prompted this post (500 words later!) was an article in this week’s Church Times about worker priests. The worker priest movement is slightly different from SSM, in that with worker priests there is the definite sense of being a priest in manual labour and the working class. Never-the-less many of the principles still apply. One quote in particular grabbed my eye:

“The expression of religion in daily life is not an extra, but is of the essence of Christianity. It therefore seems right that some clergy should be fully in the strains and stresses of daily life to the extent of earning their living in secular work.” (Worker Church Group Statement, 1959. As reported in Church Times 8174, 6 September 2019, p. 20.)

My thinking so far has probably three aspects:

First, there is no doubt that working in an office 4 days a week gives me a different perspective from my stipendiary colleagues in all sorts of ways. And equally, perhaps I can relate a little more readily to people in the congregation who are out at work all day? To my mind there is immense value in this, and one I am still learning to recognise.

Second, Paul in the New Testament used secular employment (tent-making) in order to fund his missionary endeavours. The SSM tradition therefore is as old as the church itself.

Third, there is also something about being – and being known as – a priest in the secular workplace. It is this aspect which perhaps most intrigues me, especially as I am not prepared to accept SSM as just being about the above two aspects.

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