There is no place for godly incompetents in ministry

Competency has become one of the latest buzz words. It has been defined as “the ability to do something successfully or efficiently”. According to Philip Liebman, the CEO of ALPs Leadership, competency is in short supply. “Outstanding leaders are rare, mediocrity is the norm and incompetent leaders can be spotted everywhere. From CEOs to elected officials, from scout leaders and schoolteachers, to priests and even top military leaders, we don’t have to search hard to find people incompetent in their given roles.“ Indeed, in a recent conversation with some Anglican ministerial students I was concerned that so many of them thought their ‘sending vicars’ were incompetent. Sadly there appear to be many godly but incompetent ministers around.

Godliness is not sufficient. Competence too is vital. Competency, of course, is not the same as being gifted. Gifts need to be nurtured, honed and trained. That is why theological colleges exist! Being competent seems to me to demand an attitude of mind: a desire to excel and a willingness to work hard.

In this regard Derek Tidball, a former Principal of the London School of Theology, wrote:

God is no more honoured by our bumbling amateurism than he is honoured by a shallow professionalism. He is worthy of servants who reach high standards, who display competence and produce quality work, not slapdash work, as they serve him.

Ministers need to be competent in the practice of ministry. In that regard every mainline denomination has drawn up lists of expected competencies for ministry, and in the light of those expectations have accordingly developed their programmes for ministerial training. In 2014 the Bishops of the Church of England approved a twenty-two parge document entitled Formation Criteria for Ordained Ministry, which underlies the training Anglican ordinands receive.

In 2012 the former Ministry Executive of the Baptist Union of Great Britain in collaboration with Principals of Baptist Colleges produced a relatively short list of ‘core ministerial competencies’ they wish to see developed in ministerial candidates during their period of formation.

  1. The ability to understand, interpret and indwell the Christian faith for the contemporary context, especially its Scriptures, so that both personally and corporately the church is able to embody the core values of the Baptist Union.
  2. The ability to communicate clearly in public and private settings, including small groups, written material and preaching.
  3. The ability to offer servant leadership of the congregation/mission initiative in such a way that the ministry of the whole church is developed, establishing good relationships with others both within the church and beyond, especially in the areas of conflict resolution and the management of change and emphasising the need for good team working skills.
  4. The ability to offer high levels of informed and compassionate pastoral care and support to individuals, and in particular to know the limits of what might be achieved and when to refer to others.
  5. The ability to lead a church or organization in its mission, both participating in that mission personally, and enabling others to do so, with the particular ability to lead people to Christ.
  6. The ability to develop and maintain a spirituality that will sustain a life-long ministry, together with an ability to continue to develop personal growth and life-long learning.
  7. The ability to manage self, workload and the strengthening of significant other relationships in order to maintain a balance of ministry and life.
  8. The ability to lead others in public worship and to administer the sacraments.
  9. The ability to use basic IT resources and media effectively.
  10. The ability to welcome, affirm and include others in the life of the church in order to lead a just and inclusive church, in particular to promote racial justice and to be aware of issues of gender-balance.
  11. The ability to manage child-protection and vulnerable-adult policies, establishing good practice in these areas and promoting policies that counter domestic violence.
  12. The ability to exercise ministry in a multi-cultural and multi-faith environment and to understand ministry in an ecumenical context.

In 2020 this list of competencies was republished with no major changes (with the exception perhaps from the very first competence where the ability to ‘interpret… especially the Scriptures’ has to my mind been downgraded to being able to ‘communicate the beliefs, practices, story and Scriptures’) – apart from the addition of two further competencies: the first related to ‘the ability to understand Baptist history, principles and practices’ (hopefully this also includes the wider story of the church!); and ‘the ability to work within the governance requirements of charities’.

When the 2012 list first came out, I found it strange that along with foundational competences, were also the ability to use basic IT resources and the ability to manage safeguarding policies. To my mind the tasks involved are not of the essence of ministry – nor is the 2020 addition of working within governance requirements of charities. It is not that these are unimportant in church life. In this past year of Covid we have, for instance, discovered how important IT is, not least when it comes to using Facebook, YouTube and Zoom. But all these tasks could easily be delegated to church members who may well have professional skills in these areas.

Competency is vital. Incompetent ministers, however godly they may be, have no place in ministry, On the other hand, competent but ungodly ministers would be even worse! As Rick Warren wrote in one of his blogs:

You really need both character and skills to be a good leader. If you have character without competence what you have is sincere ineffectiveness. But far worse is when you have competence without character. If you have competence without character you become a menace – a menace to a church, a menace to a small group, and a menace to society.

Competence and character are both necessary – along, of course, with the third ‘c’, the charisma of leadership. As a generalisation, competence tends to focus on maintaining the ‘status quo’. Leadership, by contrast, is focussed on seizing the new opportunities for Christ and his church. With perhaps as many as 20% of former churchgoers not returning, what is required is a new creative spirit of engaging in mission, which only leadership can ‘make happen’.

One comment

  1. I still remember the advice given by a bishop when I was serving in a senior role in the church.

    He basically said that there were four groups of clergy:

    Competent and hard-working: praise and affirm them as much as you can
    Competent and lazy: speak them to them firmly, warmly and regularly
    Incompetent and lazy: park them – they are harmless – until you have time to deal with them
    Incompetent and hard-working: be very afraid…

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