Responsibility Without Authority

by Revd Prof Dr. Michael Fass (Senior Research Fellow, Westcott Foundation)


This article is about the way that those who do not take a Stipend from the Church can reflect on their roles and responsibilities and the way that the Church can respond to them.

It is written from an Anglican perspective but its content may be applied to other churches who engage with such individuals. It is about the local church and is not about the multiple ministries that many non-Stipended clergy have in that part of the world understood as secular.

As the Church experiences falling numbers of those who offer themselves for full time ministry, issues of engaging with those who are Ordained but who are not in receipt of payments becomes more important. For example, in the Church of England the number of non-Stipendiary clergy is increasing at c. 3,000 whilst the number of Stipendiaries is reducing to c. 8,000.  The CofE has never paid much attention to this part of its clergy workforce and has no non-Stipended individuals in any position of authority anywhere.  At a recent workshop at Westcott one Bishop was reported to have declared that the non-Stipended clergy in the CofE were: “simply too diverse to do anything about!”.

As a consequence, this group can often feel marginalised and neglected and whilst it is true that it is very diverse, ways can be found to identity and develop common ground about its purpose.

The use of the words “Non-Stipendiary” to describe the role are in themselves derogatory and a number of attempts have been made to soften them at the same time that a variety of alternative non-Stipend-taking models have been experimented with – and introduced. Some of these usages must be a complete mystery to non-Anglicans and increase the confusion around the titles which now include: Self-Supporting Ministers (SSM); Ministers n Secular Employment (MSE); Locally Ordained Minister (LOM/OLM); Collaborative ministry, Voluntary Minister and Clergy with Permission to Officiate (PTO).

These difference in nomenclature, usages and understandings of role are not a sufficient reason for failing to appreciate the part these individuals play in the life of the Church. Rather, they describe an institution that is struggling to understand the nature of ministry (and by implication of Holy Orders!) at a time of rapid change, the most significant of which is the decline in church numbers and the call to mission.

One aspect of the discourse about non-Stipends is that it is very often framed in negativity.  This comes from both those who are non-Stipends and from those who are responsible for them.

I call this the seesaw effect of the abused and the abusive. On one end are the abused who are called upon to perform all those tasks in ministry (and there are many!) that are too tedious or time-consuming to attract the attention of full-time ministers. These individuals can become dis-enfranchised, dis-interested and destructive to the life of the local church and make the lives of the full-timers miserable. At the other end of the seesaw are those who are themselves abusive.  That is, they will only do what is convenient to them and are not willing to share in the “heavy lifting” of the life of the local Parish or of the wider Church.

Of course, there are many non-Stipend ministers we know who are at neither of these extremes and enjoy fulfilling ministries but the fact that the Church has no deliberate policy about their work suggests that something is not right that needs to be addressed.

As an alternative to framing the discourse of the role of non-Stipends in such terms, I should like to examine what lies behind the role and to explore what it means to have “Responsibility without Authority” that is intended to make a contribution to a revised theory-practice paradigm for those who do not take a Stipend from the Church.

However, it is important that the direction of travel from which I come is appreciated. I was Ordained into the Scottish Episcopal Church 20 years ago after half a life-time of lay discipleship. I served as a Non-Stipended Team Priest in the Diocese of Edinburgh and as Priest in Charge at Rosslyn Chapel for 9 years throughout the Da Vinci Code phenomenon before being appointed the Bishop’s Officer for ministry development. I now hold a PTO in the Diocese of Hereford; I work in three universities teaching theology and business administration at doctoral level and I am Fellow at Westcott Foundation in Cambridge. Throughout all of this time I have continued in secular employment and have not been paid by the Church except when I was part-paid at Rosslyn. I have also acted as Chair of ICF (Industrial Christian Fellowship and Moderator of CHRISM (Christians in Secular Employment).

I have divided my thinking into four parts in order to try to introduce some clarity into issues of “Responsibility without Authority” in ministry.  These are issues of: sociality, theology, ecclesiology and the ministerial role.

Issues of Sociality

Having responsibility for something usually goes along with the authority for its implementation but this is not always so. Most non-Stipends take on responsibilities in the local Parish and beyond, but few have the commensurate authority. Responsibility is about being answerable and accountable, being trusted and having the independence to fulfil the role. Authority means having the power to get something done with the attendant knowledge and expertise to achieve it.

Freud (1856-1939) put ideas about responsibility down to early-life experience and the way that our ‘unconscious mind’ learns to accept or reject responsibility; have it forced upon us or denied to us. Marx (1818-1883) referred to responsibility as structural and a function of ‘the buffers of destiny’.  In these ways ideas about responsibility are ‘hard-wired’ into our lives in both positive and negative ways.

Likewise, ideas about authority come from issues of structure as in Weber’s (1864-1920) ideas about hierarchy and ‘the grounds for authority’ in his bureaucratic model and from models in human history in, for example, De Gaulle’s (1890-1970) mystical self-belief.

Difficulties in dealing with responsibility include issues of denial, blame and punishment

whilst authority can involve difficult issues of rigidity, rules, certitude and entitlement. Each of these meanings can affect the way that we think about these words, their meanings and how we respond to them in the tasks of ministry.

Issues of theology

One of the founding Anglican thinkers about the idea of non-Stipends in the modern era was a CofE clergyman who in his work as a missionary in China came to the conclusion that the model of being church that was based on the primary role of the priest would simply not work in that vast country with its expanding population. Roland Allen (1869-1947) experienced the way that the work of mission was frustrated by clergy who held all the power; that the churches would never be able to provide the resources needed and that it should be the people of God who ministered to themselves and to others. Allen called this the ‘overflowing abundance’ of the Gospel. His ideas were considered so dangerous that he was removed from mission activity and, back in England, was banned from preaching from his own pulpit by the Bishop of Oxford. In our own times, the experience of Father Vincent Donovan amongst the Masai was not dissimilar.  He too was recalled to Ireland and was never allowed to go into Africa again.

However, signs had emerged in the post-war era that alternative ways of mission would be needed in its chaotic aftermath and in France the Little Brothers in Christ offered an example of the worker-priest deeply engaged with secular culture whilst maintaining a life of piety.

It was Archbishop Michael Ramsey (1904-1988) who in league with his Cambridge friend Bishop Mervyn Stockwood (1913-1995) of Southwark declared that the idea of the non-Stipended minister was inclusive of ‘the inward meaning of priesthood’ and theologically authentic. In particular, Non-Stipends would be self-supporting, mission orientated and would face both church and the world – Not unlike a number of the models in the early Church.

Whilst some of these objectives were distorted by the world oil crisis of October 1973 (my training Rector, the late Revd. John Farrant, used to say that non-Stipends were then used to fill ‘gaps in the thin black line’) the original aim was not entirely lost. As the churches have continued to lose adherents since then, the challenging words of Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s (1906-1945) ‘What does God mean for people today?’ have come to be at the centre of the direction of the purpose and future of the churches.

Non-Stipends potentially now have both the responsibility – and the authority – to become the explorers of the Church; to work in those liminal places that other kinds of ministers are less likely to access and to minister in both contradiction and conciliation.

Issues of Ecclesiology

The CofE, as might have been expected, opposed such ideas and in a series of Convocations and Synods over many decades rejected non-Stipendiary ministry as being antithetical to Ordination and of the need to keep faith with Pope Gregory the Great’s (AD540-604) ideas of simony and celibacy (which maintained the separateness of the clergy) and of Justin Martyr’s (AD100-165) remark that ‘The blood of the martyrs is the life of the church’ (which made the stress and overwork of clergy to be the norm).

This compared starkly with the experience of those entering the CofE via the Southwark Ordination course who included the chief inspector of buses at London Bridge station and Jim Storey, solicitor to the TUC.

These individuals and many generations of non-Stipends who have followed in their footsteps understand their roles as contextual (don’t we all!), interpretive, recognisable and prophetic – each of which has the potential to add to the overall mission effort which is needed for our time.

Issues of role

Whilst Ordination comes from a variety of ontological motivations, ministry comes from that part of it which is about ‘doing’. Ministry is a ‘performative act’ in which something is expected of the minister in and of the social world.

All ministers share this responsibility for action and many non-Stipends (but not all) often have a double responsibility in more ways than one. In addition to their involvement in that part of God’s world known as secular, they often act as the ‘second chair’ or the ‘first follower’ in the local Parish to their full-time clergy counterpart.

This is a difficult role to play. Many non-Stipends enjoy major responsibilities in their secular role and are leaders and followers in their own right and on their own terms. Playing what they may feel is ‘second violin’ to another is not always easy for them. This is especially the case when they witness their full-time clerical leader behaving inappropriately or leading the local Parish ineffectively.

In such situations tolerance and Godly patience are needed on both sides to prevent the breakdown in relationship that is so common and which can lead to the distain that the two parties often express about the other – the “you lot are too diverse to take seriously or do anything about” attitude already identified.

This raises the question of the qualities that non-Stipends should aim to develop that will help them to own a ministry that is of both challenge and contentment within the local Parish. However, it should be recognised by their full time sisters and brothers that for many non-Stipends this will often only be a part of their lives when they are of working age and in  secular employment but that this does not mean that they are not in and of God and His mission when so engaged.

The ministry of non-Stipends is a gift to the Church and non-Stipends should not be passive about their Parish ministry but should contribute fully to the local church’s efforts (IE not to abuse it).

This raises the issue of the extent to which non-Stipends are of the Church but not in it. One of the reasons for the dis-enchantment of full-time clergy towards their non-Stipends is the way that some of them snipe at the inadequacies they observe in the practice of full-time ministry in the Church. As the Lay leadership of the Church becomes increasingly empowered through its knowledge and experience, many full-time clergy can feel threatened and correspondingly dis-empowered. Much of this lay criticism can be justified by the Church’s managing of its business but neither Church nor secular organisational practice is either wholly good or wholly bad.

There are a number of qualities that can be associated with those who have responsibility without authority and who act as first followers and second leaders. Amongst these are: the vocation of followers with responsibility; the ministry of followers without authority; the relationships of those with responsibility and the power of those without authority.

The vocation of followers with responsibility

It is not an easy task to fulfil ministry in our time even with the full authority the Church gives to its leaders. Ministry is full of ambiguities with or without the authority that goes along with the full-time role. The vocation of the non-Stipended clergy person is also ambiguous and often complex with one foot in the secular part of God’s world and the other in the local church. In particular, non-Stipends should ask themselves of their ministry in the local Parish – and of their responsibility to its leader – of the ways in which they can challenge, shape and contribute to its life and progress compared to their being passive, acting only as an implementer of the ideas of others or as its critic. In this model, followers have onerous responsibilities to act for good with or without the authority to do so.

The ministry of followers without authority

Whilst conventional thinking may propose that responsibility is a function of authority, it does not always need to be so. Followers can take responsibility upon themselves for their actions with the assumption that what they are doing will be in the general direction of travel of which their clergy-leader would approve. The giving of service does not always need the permission of another but can be an autonomous act of love. In the secular part of God’s world, current leaders quite deliberately say to their followers: “don’t ask me, make up your own mind!”. Active followers can also provide an aspect of challenge that is critical when alternative courses of action are under consideration and are valued by leaders who will ask: ‘what do you think we should do?”

Active followers do not leave their brains at the door; should struggle with complexity in the tasks of transformation and ill often find that their leader is engaged in the same struggle and will appreciate their supportive critique.

Lastly, followers are entitled to speak to power when this is needed if, for example, the leader is going in the wrong direction.

The relationships of those with responsibility

The relationship between the non-Stipended clergy person and their (usually) full time colleague-in-leadership will be one of the critical challenges that they will face.

One way to deal with the idiosyncrasies of the full-time leader is to focus on the purpose of the local church and not on the person of its leadership.  This is not easy when personality plays such a large part in the performance of ministry and when members of the congregation start playing Chinese whispers about what the leader has or has not done. Non-Stipends need to remind themselves of the privileges of Ordination and not get trapped in differences or disputes about personality. Another way to manage relationships is to seek to act as a mentor to the other in appreciation that the tasks of ministry are hard and that the role of the ‘critical friend’ can make a real difference.

The power of followers without authority

The idea that followers who are responsible but do not have authority cannot act is one of the main barriers to thinking and acting in the non-Stipended role. Followers have many opportunities to use their followership in ways that will support their full-time colleagues at the same time as developing their own distinctive ministries. These include a commitment to the tasks of ministry (or not shirking some of its tiresome activities1) as well as speaking truth to power, setting high standards and making hard choices. Many non-Stipends have extensive networks across the local church and beyond it that can help their full-time colleagues link themselves quickly and effectively with the local community. This can extend their mission boundaries and take them into liminal places they would not otherwise be able to go. Non-Stipends should be enablers and not gate-keepers whilst appreciating that very often their networks will last longer than those of their full-time leader who will move on. This situation is both a gift and a responsibility and has little to do with authority.


One way of considering ways to fulfil the non-Stipended role is to reverse the question and ask: ‘what do leaders seek from those who follow but also lead?’

Leaders seek individuals who will be their partners in ministry and who will serve the needs of the local church. One way that this has been defined is in the words ‘the towel of service’ (appropriately in the context of the Passion story!) to describe the qualities of the good follower. These include the credibility to act in the support role developed through long experience and of the trust that comes from it; one who is demonstrably patient with others, who is consistent in their loyalty and is a co-operator.

From this analysis it is possible to identify a ministry for non-Stipends that provides both challenge and contentment, both pastoral and evangelising opportunities, that is both performative and reflective and, above all, does not permit the role to be infantilised but gives proper place to the integrity and responsibility of the follower.

‘Always be ready to make your defence when anyone challenges you to justify the hope that is in you but do so with courtesy and respect (I Peter 3.15).

(This article first appeared in ‘Ministry Today UK’ Edition No. 67, Summer 2016)




One thought on “Responsibility Without Authority

  1. I have been an NSM for 30 years, for most of that time with a General Licence, ministering in a parochial context, and yes, I hold a responsible and authoritative position in the secular world. I have often said that this gives me no authority in the church, which is good for the church and good for me, but on reading your piece I am not so sure. I do have the delegated authority of ordination, and a freehold licence to preach. I do have responsibility but it comes from below (if you will excuse the hierarchical picture), from the people who look to me for ministry, which is a different type of responsibility from a cure of souls, which comes from above. Having never had a cure, I have largely avoided the type of conflict you describe, as the person with the cure has never been obliged by his superiors to keep me on, and has been generous enough to let me share in the ministry.
    With the general shortage of “mere stipendiaries”, as Richard Hooker refers to my colleagues who have taken the bishop’s shilling, they are spread so thinly that there comes a point where the marmite is hardly noticeable. So there will be a general drift towards the Congregationalist model of both responsibility and authority coming from below, which is not ideal.
    The challenge for the C of E is to work out how to be church without being able to hold the reins through a separate, stipendiary clergy.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.