August in the Salsbury household was dominated by the Olympic Games. Even whilst we were on holiday we tried to keep up with the successes of Team GB and their impressive rise up the medals table. In the end it was a very remarkable final result and testament to the hard work and commitment of the athletes and coaches that represented Great Britain in these games.
Now, as Olympic fever abates, and other news, largely suspended whilst the games were on, comes again to the fore, people are wondering what impact the successes of a few highly trained elite athletes will have on the health and well-being of the nation. Have we been inspired to get up off our backsides to try cycling, or swimming, or whatever sport takes your fancy, or even just to be more active as health officials constantly remind us to be? The jury is still out, but the probable answer is no. It seems that we are happy to watch and let others take the strain – and the praise. So then policy makers come under scrutiny. Is it right, for example, to make millions of pounds available to a relatively small group of people whilst at the same time closing community swimming pools and generally cutting funding for other public leisure facilities?
I see some parallels with this and one of the debates that is happening in the church at present. The largest part of the URCs central budget (which is just a fraction of the amount that was spent on Olympic athletes!) goes towards paying for ministry – in particular ministers who serve local churches. But we have a problem in that the number of ministers available to the whole church is declining and those we do have are being spread ever more thinly across our churches. This is partly, but not wholly a financial issue.
Ministers might be seen as akin to those elite athletes who compete at the Olympics. Money is channelled towards them and the church has high expectations of them. But at what cost? We are perhaps seen as the professional Christians of the church yet Christian discipleship is something that all Christians are called to, and ministry, in its broadest sense is a task for everyone. So does the established regime, which is now creaking at the seams, encourage participation, discipleship and growth or are people content to turn up on a Sunday and leave ministry to the ministers? If this is the case, then I do think we need to look again about how we use our resources – financial and human – to best serve the church so that it is the ministers who support congregations to live out the life of Christ in the world and not the other way around.
After all, the church exists not for the sake of the ministers that it keeps on the payroll but to bear witness to God’s love for the world and to call people to a life of Christian discipleship.