Self-Supporting Ministry – a practical guide by John Lees

John Lees has written a truly practical guide to self-supporting ministry and here I am reviewing it as someone who sees himself far more clearly as a self-supporting minister after reading John’s challenging chapters. John Lees is Bishop’s Officer for Self-Supporting Ministry for the Diocese of Exeter. He has served as an SSM for fourteen years. He is a career coach well known for his books including How to Get a Job You Love and Secrets of Resilient People.

There is considerable lament in this guide for the ways in which the energies and expectations of self-supporting ministers are increasingly focused on the support that they give to local churches. Lees explores what has happened in the twenty years since the publication of Tentmaking in 1998. The authors then, Francis and Francis, focused on worker priests, MSEs (ministers in secular employment) and bridge ministry. Lees traces these preoccupations of ministry further back and leaves us with a sense that we have lost missional opportunities as energy has focused on local churches rather than ministry which is more liminal. He reminds us that self-supporting ministry is the New Testament model, with Paul being the first self-supporting minister.

Lees reports on the findings of Teresa Morgan’s research[1] (2011). Part of her summary states “few respondents [her sample of self-supporting ministers] saw themselves as having much, if any ministry outside the formal structures of the church”, (Lees, p39), yet “most SSMs spend much of the time outside formal church structures. They are, together with lay people, the natural missionaries to our society.” (p40). The case studies with which John concludes each chapter are testimony to the enormous range of contexts of ministry, but also, there is a unanimity that there is very little done to prepare or encourage SSMs and lay people for this ministry.

Lees is particularly strong when he talks about ministry in the world. His confidence in the world is borne from his ministry in the secular. He writes: “We seem to have lost some of the eagerness of past generations to find God in contemporary life, and we may have lost sight of the way Church and society learn from one another.” (p59). We have become a “frightened church”, an institution under stress, and institutions under stress “respond like human beings, becoming more self-protecting”. (p59).

I was left wondering what the influence of Tentmaking was on John Lees’s call, theology and ministry and what the effect on vocations would be if we were to support, encourage and celebrate the ministries that so many tentmakers, teachers, hairdressers, bankers and waiters have. I was left feeling affirmed in my understanding of my own ministry as being “self-supporting” (albeit with many freedoms and privileges).

And I was left with a strong sense that the most common model of ministry is that of self-supporting ministry, and the context of that ministry being secular. Just a small proportion of those self-supporting ministers are licensed. An even smaller proportion of them are ordained. They represent 29% of licensed parochial clergy in the Church of England (2016). It seems a shame if ministry training, formation and deployment is seen to be organised around stipendiary clergy – a small part of the ministry of the church of God which by and large has to be “self-supporting”.

Arguably Lees should have had a wider focus on other forms of self-supporting ministry than those who are ordained, but John writes from the heart, from his experience as a coach and a priest, and his heart has gone out to his fellow priests who are often left unsupported. There is challenge, care and common sense suggestions that merit a reading for the sake of all those who are self-supporting ministers (often unrecognised) and particularly those who are ordained self-supporting ministers.

This is adapted from a review I wrote for Parson and Parish Magazine.


[1] Self-supporting ministry in the Church of England and the Anglican churches of Wales, Scotland and Ireland: report of the national survey 2010.Oxford: Teresa Morgan.

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