What is Competency?

A minister-friend of mine has recently gone through a sticky patch. Some of his church members accused him of being ‘incompetent’. The matter was referred to denominational ‘powers that be’, and ultimately, thank God, they found in his favour. So he continues in ministry.

I do not know the details of the case. Apparently some felt that he was not a sufficiently strong leader, and that this was the root cause of why the church was in decline. Part of his defence was Acts 2.47, where Luke wrote of the early church: “day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved”. Had I been my friend, I might have questioned whether my accusers had been playing their part – or was one reason for the church’s decline their resistance to change.

However, what interests me in this case was the word ‘competency’. This is one of the latest ‘in’-words. Now that churches cannot force their ministers to retire at the age of 65, I am told that the way to get rid of them is to accuse them of ‘incompetency’.

The Ministry Department of the Baptist Union in collaboration with Principals of Baptist Colleges has produced a list of ‘core ministerial competencies’ they wish to see developed in ministerial candidates.

They include

  • The ability to study, understand, and communicate the beliefs, practices, story and Scriptures of the Christian faith, within and beyond the congregation, and to live a life of Christian discipleship and witness consistent with that understanding
  • The ability to understand Baptist history, principles and practices….
  • The ability to offer servant leadership….
  • The ability to offer high levels of informed and compassionate pastoral care and support…
  • The ability to lead a church in its mission
  • The ability to develop and maintain a spirituality that will sustain a life-long ministry…
  • The ability to manage self…
  • The ability to lead others

And so the list goes on, but as it does it becomes in my opinion somewhat banal. For instance:

  • The ability to effectively use basic IT resources and media
  • The ability to manage child-protection and vulnerable-adult policies

It is not that these are unimportant – indeed, the protection of children and vulnerable adults is absolutely vital. But I fail to understand why others cannot share such responsibilities. Certainly in my own church these abilities are delegated to others.

I much prefer the list of ‘benchmarks for ministry’ drawn up by the United Reformed Church. They define ‘a minister of Word and Sacraments’ in the URC as a person who is:

  • A faithful disciple….
  • A theologian…..
  • A worshipper and worship leader…
  • A pastor….
  • An educator….
  • A missionary and evangelist….
  • A collaborator and community builder…
  • A public figure….
  • A communicator ..

However, important as it is to define ‘competencies’ or ‘benchmarks’ of ministry, by friend was surely right in arguing that ultimately our ‘competency’ comes not from our abilities, but from God himself. In this respect some words of Paul in 2 Corinthians are apposite. At the end of 2.16 he asked: “Who is sufficient for these things?” – literally, “who is ‘competent’ for these things?”. In his defence he essentially replies “I am”. He argues that people only have to look at the church in Corinth to see how the Spirit has been at work in their hearts (3.1-2). And yet Paul is aware of his own weakness. His confidence in ministry is not in his own ability, but rather “our competence is from God” (3.5). Perhaps my minister-friend was right after all in putting the ‘blame’ for the lack of his growth on the Lord! What do you think?


  1. I have some experience of competencies. Competencies are not new and have been around for about 20 years. However the term has led to lots of confusion.

    My understanding is:
    Competence (plural competences) relates to the job/role and relates to tasks – the ‘What’ people need to do.
    Competency (plural competencies) relates to the person and are behaviours observed in effective people – the ‘How’ people do it.

    Competences are usually job specific, while competencies cover a wide range of different jobs.

    A lot of organisations build competency frameworks and where task based and behaviour based competencies are combined the result can be confusing. As appears to be the case with the BU competencies.

    Good practice in competency frameworks exists and no doubt the BU has more detailed information behind their list. Similarly the URC would need to define more closely what each of their benchmarks represents. Additionally if performance is to be measured each competency can be supported with examples of what good and poor performance looks like.

    I would doubt if anyone could be removed for being incompetent as this is far too vague and the church members would need to show how and in what way that incompetence manifests itself.

    Your friend’s response was a good one but some follow up action of reviewing what makes a good leader may have helped. The church members expectations may not have been realistic and perhaps was a cover for their not taking their own responsibilities seriously. It is of course easy to see the specks (lack of competence) in others and ignore our own planks. Your friend could introduce (bravely) some Bible based teaching on leadership and link it to the competencies required of an effective church member!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *