Reality can be a tough job
In 1989, researcher Philip Hughes said, “There is a lingering image of the clergy as people who are not entirely ‘with it’. They are nice people, always very polite, gentle, and well intentioned, but terribly naïve”.
Since the 1960s, there has been a range of studies on the state of clergy in Australia. Some of the titles give us a clue as to the message that is to be shared: The Plight of the Australian Clergy (Blaikie), Conflict and Decline (Dempsey), and At Cross Purposes (Pryor). These titles suggest that the situation of the clergy is characterised by stress and conflict. They imply that the clergy are confused about their roles, in conflict with the lay people in the congregations and bridled by their churches.
Other people who have written on clergy in Australia have described role confusion and role contraction. Bruce Wilson in his book, Can God Survive in Australia? titles one chapter ‘The Vanishing Role of the Clergy’. He notes that before the industrial revolution, the clergy had many public roles as officers of law and order, social workers, teachers and even politicians. The clergy were key figures in the community. Most of these public roles have been handed over to other people in the community.
A study in Queensland described the picture as “…altogether consistent with a professional group facing a changing world in which their own roles and standing are uncertain, and which appears to demand a redefinition of the very bases of their claim to legitimacy”. That was in 1972!
Have things improved or worsened since then?
I am certainly aware that the stress that many ministers feel has increased. Added to the things mentioned above many clergy now face a reality that ordination for life does not necessarily guarantee a vocation for life. There is a shrinking number of placements available.
Sometimes the skills that are now needed in ministry are not the ones that were taught in college, and our leaders are left floundering.
Does this sound bleak? I do not mean it to be. I rather want to name a reality that I see and help us all realise that ministry in the Uniting Church at this time is tough work!
People, take some time to encourage your minister.
Ministers, remember your calling. Our task remains to lead people into communion with God, into relationships with others and into ministry and mission in the world. Let us all be true to the faith in a God who is not just God of the church, but of the whole world.