Vacancy: How the Uniting Church appoints Ministers
Calling a new minister to a Uniting Church congregation is a long, drawn out process. Aligning a new Minister of the Word to a Congregation can take several months or even years. It is an involved process that involves working out whether someone will be a good fit and if there is a call. Insights spoke to some of the people involved in deciding who goes were, to find out more.
Rev. Dr John Squires is Presbytery Minister (Wellbeing) at Canberra Region Presbytery. According to Rev. Dr Squires, the process of calling a minister to a new church is a distinctive and unique process that does not follow the usual process for hiring found in say, business.
“It does not normally involve an advertisement, a list of applicants, a shortlist, and an interview,” he said.
“Some of these elements may be involved, but they are part of a broader mix that is quite different.”
“The process reflects the way that the Uniting Church understands itself to be organised and governed. So filling a ministerial vacancy in a Congregation is not simply a matter for a local Congregation alone. Three of the four Councils of the Church are involved at different steps along the way—Church Council, Presbytery, and Synod. It is a process of thoughtful discernment, rather than something that involves cutthroat interviewing.”
The Church Council puts together a profile that describes the Congregation, its hopes and vision, its activities, worship, and ministry. This is done alongside the local Presbytery, usually through the Pastoral Relations Committee (PRC). This provides an outside perspective on the Congregation as well as views from those within. Presbytery members assist with this part of the process.
The Presbytery PRC receives the profile and considers it. It will request modifications if these are needed, and will eventually adopt the profile.
The Presbytery then sends the profile to the Synod’s Advisory Committee on Ministerial Placements (ACOMP), which considers vacancies across the Synod and the ministers looking for a placement. That committee undertakes a process of discernment, involving prayer and thoughtful discussion. Eventually, decisions are made about which ministers will be matched against which placements.
“[ACOMP] seeks to have the good of the whole church as the foremost element of its processes,” Rev. Dr Squires said.
“It is hard work!”
When names of ministers are matched against vacancies, the minister will enter talks with a Joint Nominating Committee (JNC). The JNC comprises up to six representatives of the Congregation, and two representatives of the Presbytery. The JNC has at least two conversations with each minister whose name they have been given.
“The hope is that through these conversations, a good match will be agreed upon,” Rev. Dr Squires said.
“If that does not eventuate, the process goes back to the stage of having more names placed against the vacancy by ACOMP.”
All of this, then, can take a long time.
As Synod Associate Secretary, Rev. Bronwyn Murphy, is quick to point out, however, there is a good reason for why this process is drawn out. She points to what can go wrong if the process is not exacting.
“Ministers hold enormous power and influence,” Rev. Murphy said.
“It may not feel that way, but it is true.”
“It has never been a competition [to appoint someone].”
“Quick may not always serve us well.”
Jenny Matthieson has had years of observing the process of appointing new ministers. As she told Insights, there are many other reasons for the length of time between a placement becoming vacant and the calling of a new Minister.
“Congregations often have high expectations of what they desire and need in a new Minister. Ministers also often have particular ideas of what they would like to see in a new placement, she said.
“It is important for the Ministers profile to match the congregation’s profile.”
In addition, there are some practical realities that further complicate the call of a new minister.
“There are not nearly as many Ministry Candidates these days as there used to be,” she recalled.
“Therefore as Ministers retire, the available pool is becoming smaller.”
“The availability of Ministers to be able to move anywhere, and have no geographical restrictions is less frequent these days. Therefore congregations outside of Sydney often have to wait longer or struggle to fill a placement.”
Rev. Dr Squires echoed these sentiments, adding that congregations often wanted, “simply to fill the hole” left by the prior minister “and not undertake any discernment process about their future needs or their possible mission in the future.”
He also pointed to an “increasing sense that ministry is not a vocation exercised in response to a call, but a professional role to be carried out in a situation that is seen more favourably by the minister.”