Competence revisited

Competence continues to be a buzz word, so I thought I would have another go at writing on the theme.

First of all, what is competence? My two-volume Shorter Oxford Dictionary defines competency, the noun, as “power, ability, capacity” for a task; and goes on to define competent, the adjective, as “having adequate skills”. As an example of the latter, the dictionary cites  R. Warner: “He was never brilliant, but he used to be competent enough”.

Other dictionaries define competence as ‘an ability to do something well’. For instance, to be a competent cook you don’t have to reach the lofty heights of being a ‘cordon bleu’ cook, but you do have to be able to produce something a little better than what you might eat at your local ‘greasy spoon’.

Competence is not to be equated with excellence. As I discovered after writing A Call To Excellence (Hodder & Stoughton, London 1995) most ministers tend to perceive a call to excel as a threat – their concern is often just to survive in ministry. As a result, when I was chairman of Ministry Today, we adopted the aim of being “a supportive resource for all in pastoral leadership, so that they may not only survive, but also grow and develop, becoming more effective in the ministry to which Christ has called them”. Although we didn’t use the term, we were in the business of promoting competence in ministry.

Yes, there are some excellent ministers around – and there are many others who are quite competent. As Stephen Parsons, a retired minister writing within an Anglican context, has pointed out, “Most [clergy] achieve a level of competence necessary to do the job of parish priest adequately” in terms of preaching, teaching and caring (‘The Peter Principle: Incompetence and the Church’, Stephen’s Blog 10 August 2020). Competence is not to be sniffed at, but to be welcomed.

Unfortunately some churches expect their ministers to be outstanding at everything they do. In the apocryphal words of one American church:

Meet Pastor Jones, Superstar.
He can preach, counsel, evangelize, administrate, communicate and sometimes even conciliate.
He can also raise the budget.
He handles Sunday morning better than any quizmaster on weekday TV.
He is better with words than most political candidates.
As a scholar he surpasses many seminary professors.
No church function will be complete without him.
His church, of course, ‘Counts Itself Fortunate’.
Alas, not many churches can boast such talents.

That is a nonsense. I have yet to meet a minister who is a true superstar. But it is amazing what expectations a church can have. In that regard I am reminded of Stewart Henderson’s poem, Priestly Duties (1996) in which one verse reads:

What should a priest be?
All-round family person
counsellor, but not officially because
of the recent changes in legislation,
teacher, expositor, confessor,
entertainer, juggler,
good with children, and
possibly sea-lions,
empathetic towards pressure groups.

So what does it mean to be a competent minister? In previous blogs I have written about the varying competencies which are demanded of ministers by their respective denominations. However, in this blog I want to encourage ministers to take three practical steps:

First, to exercise the gifts that God has given them and so play to their God-given strengths. They need to be the person that God has made them be. This involves a degree of self-awareness, and also of self-acceptance. For although all ministers are called to lead, there is no one template for leading a church. There is no one shape to competency.

Secondly, to build around them a team of men and women with a variety of gifts and empowering them, and helping them do the things they are not good at doing, so that together they can be the church that God wants them to be. Competency involves humility: it involves accepting that we have not only strengths but also weaknesses, and that we therefore we need others to compensate for those weaknesses. Maths, for instance, was never my strongest suit, so I never sat on a church finance committee – instead I delegated finance to others.

Thirdly, through engagement in CMD (Continuing Ministerial Development) to develop further competencies which are helpful to church life. To quote Stephen Parsons again, “conflict resolution skills and psychological insight are needed in many places but few clergy are equipped in these areas”. CMD is not an option: there is always so much more to learn. I was heartened to learn that 40% of Baptist ministers have enrolled on a CMD programme but concerned for the 60% who seem to have no insight into their need to develop further competencies

I believe that every minister has a God-given duty to pursue competency. I find it significant that in the parable of the talents the incompetent steward who buried his talent was condemned by his master. As Ian Paul observed, “the master commends his servants for not just being ‘faithful’ but also being ‘good’. They had done their job well, and Jesus expect us to do the same” ‘(Should Christians be competent’, Christian Today, 28 October 2015).

Finally, competence does not rule out occasional failure. There are times when even the most competent of ministers gets things wrong. Thankfully, provided there is a willingness to acknowledge and then learn from mistakes, failure can be more creative than so-called success.


  1. Another stanza, another point of view, (which I warm to).

    The Country Clergy. R.S. Thomas

    I see them working in old rectories
    By the sun’s light, by candlelight,
    Venerable men, their black cloth
    A little dusty, a little green
    With holy mildew. And yet their skulls,
    Ripening over so many prayers,
    Toppled into the same grave
    With oafs and yokels. They left no books,
    Memorial to their lonely thought
    In grey parishes; rather they wrote
    On men’s hearts and in the minds
    Of young children sublime words
    Too soon forgotten. God in his time
    Or out of time will correct this.

  2. I cannot resist a comment (or two!) on Paul’s topic of competence in ministry. It is oh so important a topic as to warrant a whole conference or two; even just so that we retired ministers can share our experience of ministry with those starting out. In fact I did write my experiences of ministry in book form during COVID lockdown (Paul reviewed it!)
    My heart goes out to a certain Baptist minister, not a million miles from here, whom I know that folk are moaning about because members of the congregation have not returned to worship in the same numbers that were present before COVID hit. It is a clear example of the kind of thing that can always be heard about ministers of any denomination; easy blame based on culpable and uninformed gossip, even from adult Christians who should know better. Sadly I know of several Anglican situations where ministers have courageously tried to grow their congregations beyond the comfort zones that so many prefer to bask in. Paul B-M touches on the clue to the solution, when he mentions teams. Wherever I have felt we were successful in ministry it has usually been because we have worked as a team and sensed God’s will together and followed.
    It is comforting when folk want to say ‘well done’ and how helpful one’s ministry has been to them but not so easy to bear criticism. I used to split criticism into three categories a. the pure humbug. There are always folk lurking and waiting to take a pot shot, whatever you do. 2 Valid comments that highlight weaknesses you know you possess. 3 The complainant is right and I must do something about
    I could go on…and on… but let me just add something from a CMD course of over forty years ago in Guildford Diocese. The job of the incumbent in a Church of England parish is to be an effective ‘head’ of the body. we were then given 8 things to be:
    1. ‘minister’ (being prepared to turn his hand to anything)
    2. Pastor
    3. Prophet. looking at current situations
    4. Co-ordinator
    5 Steward – manager. Plans targets..does the appraisal.
    6 .Inspirer
    8. Priest.

    …and I would add ‘don’t give up’.

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