By Mark Clavier
Come, labor on.
Who dares stand idle on the harvest plain
while all around us waves the golden grain?
And to each servant does the Master say,
“Go work today.”
In my first two essays in this series on revitalizing ministry in Wales, I argued that the crisis faced by the Church in Wales (and the Church of England) is not primarily one of structure or even finance. These are both symptoms of a deeper problem: a malaise that arises from the Church having lost too much of its underlying ecology of faith for ministries to thrive. To put this another way, I believe we spend too much time trying to save the Church rather than inspiring people with the faith on which it depends. We’re like farmers arguing about how to repair the barn while neglecting the increasingly barren fields. Take away baptisms, weddings, and funerals, and in many places we’re practically moribund.
Some have questioned my Laodicean diagnosis. To them, I reply with one-word: giving. The need for much structural reform would disappear if regular worshippers committed financially to their churches. Congregational offerings here in the UK usually fall short of what’s needed to keep the show on the road without parochial fees and endless fundraising. We simply don’t inspire churchgoers sufficiently for many to give money at any significant level. Instead, we require them to be diocesan fundraisers, expending their limited energy on gaining donations from other people.
In many places now, the parochial system has largely collapsed beyond Sunday worship and the occasional offices. Only faint signs of a fruitful ecology remain in these ministry deserts, and there are now far too few laborers to restore vitality. In these areas, the parochial system is like a farm where only a kitchen garden remains cultivated while all the fields have gone to seed. In such desolation, spreading the few remaining laborers out over all the fields is useless. The farm can now only be reclaimed field by field. And so, we need structural reform.
A little personal background before I address that reform.
I was raised and began my ministry in one of the Continuing Anglican Churches in the United States that split from The Episcopal Church in the early 1970s. Most of our congregations lacked church buildings, full-time clergy, or financial assets. My earliest memories of church are of prayer book communion in a living room surrounded by a few worshippers.
Faced with swim-or-sink situations, these congregations were kept afloat by the dedication of their congregations and a collective sense of purpose. Against all odds, many grew significantly over the following two decades, eventually achieving sufficient financial health to build churches and provide for full-time clergy.
While I have moved on both geographically and theologically from those days, I continue to appreciate what they taught me about mission. Having worked alongside laborers singing in the fields as they work, I know what’s missing when I see only a few struggling on dry and barren land. Here in Wales, we need to find our song again.
Essential to the growth of the churches I served were:
- A core of laypeople in each congregation with a strong sense of shared Christian mission, willing to provide meaningful financial support;
- Close cooperation and mutual support among clergy, who are confident in their faith and dynamic in their ministries;
- Strong congregational fellowship that includes effective formation and education of both children and adults in the faith;
- A shared sense among clergy of being valued members of a diocesan family based on a strong connection with the bishop.
In some ways, our situation here in Wales is much less daunting than the one faced in the States. Our congregations already have established and often beautiful places of worship, are located in close proximity to each other, and minister to a population with some continued attachment to Anglicanism (try being traditional Anglicans in a land dominated by Southern Baptists!). On the other hand, there’s generally less commitment to congregational life, considerably lower giving, far more bureaucracy, higher maintenance costs, and less capacity for local decision-making. Collectively, these encourage a ministerial inertia that feels endlessly busy. We’re like farmhands whose relentless work produces few crops.
My early experience in the ministry taught me that no structural changes will succeed unless they’re underpinned by the cultural changes I wrote about in my previous essay. Any structural reform needs therefore to begin with devolving power to local churches and theologically preparing clergy and lay ministers for establishing and nurturing vibrant congregational life. We need as thorough-going a revolution in the care of our ecologies of faith as the world is now attempting in the care of our global ecologies.
Let’s begin with the ecology of faith that I described in my last essay. There, I argued that just as farms need rich soil, so too do our churches need rich ecologies of faith to thrive. If lively faith produces good works, then we must have an ecology that nourishes and grows the faith that God gives. The beauty of Anglicanism is its capacity through common life and prayer to sustain a corporate faith that inspires individual devotion. Allow the soil of congregational life to become impoverished and it will produce only stunted and malnourished crops. Our problems of confidence, purpose, vocation, and finance begin there.
Since the ecology of faith is vital for any sustained renewal in the church, its restoration (rather than financial need) must be the reason of our restructuring. We should unite ministries with the aim of regenerating corporate faith and commitment in our local areas. If the intention is merely to find more economical ways of doing the same things that original led to ecological collapse, then restructuring will fail. It will merely be a messy and traumatic step towards the same destination as before.
Structural reform should, therefore, only proceed alongside a renewed vision of Christian ministry and mission. But that vision will force us to face the hard reality that our dioceses in Wales now encompass precious few churches with good, rich ecologies: congregations where clergy and laity demonstrate their shared commitment to the faith not just through worship and prayer but also study, fellowship, effective pastoral care, children and youth ministry, and outreach, and where there’s also congregational growth. These churches have sufficient energy, enthusiasm, and sense of their corporate Christian identity to inspire others. And they are now rare.
Note that ecological health doesn’t necessarily translate into financially security. One of the most encouraging churches I’ve encountered in the UK was a congregation of twenty or so in a tiny village. Its congregation was absolutely dedicated to the fundamentals of mission and ministry. Conversely, I’ve known churches with little congregational life that are financially secure only because they’ve effectively become venues for concerts and weddings. Measuring these financially will give the wrong impression of health: diocesan accountants will usually value the wealth of the second over the widow’s mite of the first.
Dioceses should celebrate and actively support their churches that still sustain good ecologies, whatever their churchmanship, size, or income. None can be taken for granted. If we lose them, we’re lost. As far as is practical, therefore, attempts to unite them with too great a constellation of struggling churches should be avoided lest their bountifulness is undermined. A sure sign of a healthy ecology of faith is an eagerness to be in meaningful fellowship with other churches. This can be the basis for their anchoring other churches, perhaps in some variation of the much-invoked minster model.
Everywhere else is now mission territory. In these places, many churches have retained enough residual fertility to be worth reclaiming. But they probably have too few workers and too little support to do more than sustain a modicum of health. Here, almost all energy is expended in simply surviving, and there’s no chance on their own of improving their ecology. Their people need appreciation, inspiration, and encouragement to work together.
The only practical way of doing this strategically in Wales is through ministry areas. Only by sharing ministry will they have sufficient numbers to nourish healthy ecologies. By strategic, I mean that ministry areas should aim to promote faith and fellowship both within and between churches in a way that supports their overall ecology of faith. It probably also means focusing resources on the healthier churches, encouraging their ecologies in the hope that their improving vitality can benefit others, like the renewed biodiversity in one field encouraging fresh growth in another.
To restore ecologies of faith, ministry areas should be created and led convivially and responsibly. The American agrarian writer, Wendell Berry, describes conviviality as living and working in a way that leads to the healing and wholeness of both the land and communities. This requires humility and a knowledge that comes from loving a place over time. You must know your fields well to husband them well. I borrow his term because I think it provides a good principle for grouping churches together: the creation of ministry areas isn’t a task for wonks poring over maps, charts, and spreadsheets. It needs to be done locally and organically in ways that account for shared histories, regional identities, and the lie of the land. It must also take constant account of the welfare of its people.
It must also be done responsibly. Among our mission areas are churches that now have sadly declined too much to be saved. Trying to rebuild them only drains time and attention from fields where life is still possible. Thus, we must regretfully withdraw from many of them as we focus our labor responsibly. As this will include abandoning ancient churches, we should retreat with heads bowed in shame: we’ve left death where we inherited long and venerable life. We must not sing songs of joy while working in our good fields without also sharing in the lamentations of those elsewhere.
None of this can reasonably happen without the estate managers knowing their workers and fields personally. Clergy, of course, are called to share in the work of the fields as they care for their fellow laborers. But bishops and senior staff are similarly called to be out in the fields, ensuring that everyone is working together, working well, and working towards a common goal. Like competent farmers, they won’t do this by relying on data, policies, and theories devised in boardrooms by people who couldn’t care less about sustainable fertility. They do it by knowing their fields intimately and by drawing all the laborers together into a single, extended household — what St. Paul calls the “household of faith.”
It wasn’t my intention when I began this series to rely so heavily on the metaphor of farming. The writing of them, you might say, has convinced me of its worth. Perhaps, we really need to begin with a conversion of our governing metaphor: the Church is much more like a farm than a corporation or business. If we want guidance from the secular world, perhaps regenerative farming offers more wisdom than big business; perhaps husbandry is a better goal than leadership. Farming and husbandry certainly resonate more powerfully with Scripture and Christ’s parables than our current management-speak. We must become more like bountiful farms than business enterprises.
Wealth is in the soil, farmers supposedly say. Our spiritual wealth is in our ecology of faith. Let’s get to work as God’s field workers, restoring and regenerating that ecology, and see what happens as God rains grace upon it. The fields can again be plentiful, and our work can be rewarding. We’ve only to claim our high calling and get out into God’s fields:
Come, labor on.
Claim the high calling angels cannot share;
to young and old the gospel gladness bear.
Redeem the time; its hours too swiftly fly.
The night draws nigh.
Come, labor on.
No time for rest, till glows the western sky,
till the long shadows o’er our pathway lie,
and a glad sound comes with the setting sun,
“Servants, well done!”
The Rev. Canon Dr. Mark Clavier is the residentiary canon of Brecon Cathedral in mid-Wales.