Leading One Church at a Time: From Multi-church Ministers to Focal Ministers, by Bob Jackson

As clergy numbers fall, is there a better leadership model than multi-parish incumbency?

This is the question on the back cover of Bob Jackson’s 2018 Grove Booklet, Leading One Church at a Time (published in partnership with CPAS).

Bob Jackson, according to Wikipedia, ‘is an Anglican priest who has extensively researched, written and consulted on the subject of church growth’. People rate his books very highly, and this is the first of his books that I have read. (Best to start small! I also have my eyes on What Makes Churches Grow?)

Giving clergy more and more churches to look after might be driven by necessity, especially in rural areas, but it isn’t necessarily a recipe for growth. What can be done?

One approach is to put in place good practices that make it possible to lead multiple churches well. ‘Reducing administration, pooling resources and finding teams to whom ministry can be devolved are all worth doing’ (p. 5). (For examples of this kind of thing, have a look at some CPAS PCC resources for multi-parish benefices, including sessions for PCCs, and some suggestions from the Diocese of Leeds about simplifying governance.)

But the solution Jackson lands upon is to ‘find different people – “Focal Ministers” – to lead churches … people who are not stipendiary incumbents’:

I call these people Focal Ministers because they are the focal person embedded at the centre of just one church, which is the entire focus of their leadership attention.

This isn’t just an idea. Looking at statistics for churches in the Diocese of St Davids where Focal Ministers have been appointed,

The evidence suggests that this is having a dramatic effect on the fortunes of these churches (p. 6).

Who are these Focal Ministers?

They may be spare time, part time or full time, paid or unpaid, lay or ordained (p. 3).

How might it work in practice? There are various options (pp. 16-17).

  • Take 1. ‘Assume a five-church benefice. One church is taken out of the rotas and the direct leadership of the incumbent to be led by a Focal Minister’.
  • Take 2 (Or More). As above, but with two (or more) Focal Ministers. ‘The incumbent has a far better chance of a manageable and fulfilling ministry’.
  • Take Out. As above, but the church(es) in question are taken out of the benefice and placed within a different structure, perhaps ‘with an Area Leader offering mini-episcopal oversight’ to several Focal Ministers.
  • Take Over. ‘A Focal Minister is found for every one of the five churches in the benefice’. No need for an incumbent! ‘The diocese should spend money finding, training and supporting the Focal Ministers.’
  • Take a Mental Leap to a Whole New System, such as ‘Focal Ministers and Ministry Areas’.

Helpful advice is provided in terms of potential pitfalls and good practice.

What are we to make of this?

  • It certainly seems helpful to think in terms of focal ministry, especially if the incumbent can’t be at every church every week. One or more people could be given a leadership role within these churches. (I suspect churchwardens often do this kind of thing anyway in smaller churches – that has certainly been my experience when I have been a visiting minister.)
  • The strong assumption in the book is that leadership should be solo leadership: ‘the irreducible core idea is that one person leads one church’ (p. 3, cf. p. 19). I was puzzled by this: why not explore more collaborative forms of leadership?
  • The idea of entrusting the leadership of a church to someone who is not ordained strikes me as somewhat irregular. For me, being entrusted with the (spiritual) oversight of the church goes right to the heart of what it means to be ordained as a priest (presbyter, elder).

There are clearly advantages if the Focal Minister is ordained (p. 27), and this would seem to be the ideal. But then you end up with each church being led by an ordained minister, which doesn’t seem particularly novel when you think about it! Thinking of the ‘Take N’ approaches above, this would essentially be a benefice served by a stipendiary minister and one or more self-supporting ordained ministers, each of whom would take particular responsibility for one of the churches in the benefice. Perhaps one approach to ‘Focal Ministers’ would be to be much more intentional about raising up self-supporting ordained ministers?

Where can we see this kind of thing in practice?

  • Jackson mentions his work with the Diocese of St Davids (Church in Wales), where he worked with the bishop ‘to find and support local people to become unpaid Focal Ministers of one church each, freeing the paid clergy to focus on fewer churches each’ (p. 8). In that diocese, ‘multi-church benefices and deaneries are being replaced with Focal Ministers and Ministry Areas. Stipendiary clergy are becoming either Area Ministry Leaders or Focal Ministers of significant churches’ (p. 17).
  • Jackson tried in 2018 to find examples of this kind of thing in the Church of England, and discovered ‘about 30 people’ who are ‘working as Focal Ministers, either through an informal arrangement with the local incumbent or an official diocesan experiment’ (p. 9).
  • Various dioceses in the Church of England are experimenting with new structures (see two articles in Church Times). In particular, the Diocese of Sheffield is investing heavily in Focal Ministry. According to their Guide to Focal Ministry (linked from the previous page), ‘Every deanery is composed of a number of Mission Areas, each with at least one Oversight Minister. Focal Ministers work with the Oversight Minister(s) in their Mission Area.’ Ian Parkinson is an Associate Archdeacon in the Diocese of Sheffield, with a particular role for ‘coaching and mentoring of clergy as their own roles transition to those of Oversight Ministers’: see his 2021 CPAS articles on Focal Ministry and Oversight Ministry.
  • Some recent work by Bob Jackson (and others) can be seen in a report on church attendance after Covid-19. Focal Ministers are mentioned. See the Church Times article on the report, which goes into more detail about focal ministry.

These attempts to restructure Church of England ministry are obviously not uncontroversial! It will be interesting to see how things develop in different places, and which lessons can be learned and applied more widely.