good vicars grow churches. Well bad ones can certainly turn people off so that they vote with their feet. But there are quite a number of factors involved in church growth, not least the people there already and the history of the area. Where there have been conflicts or fall-outs these can pollute the waters for years to come. Having taken over churches where there has been trouble in the past, I know that for some those problems can hang around and take years to overcome. All of that taken into account, what makes a good vicar? Here are a few values I treasure which I think lead to good vicars (and healthy growing churches).
Welcoming and inclusive
Everyone is welcome. This is not a members only club and you don't have to fit a predefined set of criteria to walk in. So the single, families, those with mental illness and who struggle with themselves as much as everyone else, those with high disposable income can sit alongside those on benefits. We have men, women, adults and children, gay and straight along with the not sure and those who could go either way, those in secure relationships alongside those fractured or irretrievably broken. Politically left sit near to those on the right - makes the feedback on sermons on political and social issues interesting. People struggling with the psychological effects of abuse and those who have carried this out (those with convictions will be under a contract which the vicar knows about but no one else does or at least only a small tight group for safety). Broadsheet and tabloid readers (e.g. Daily Mail, Sun, Mirror, Times, Guardian, Independent and Telegraph). The bookish and those who get all their culture electronically. Some will be good at social contact, some will struggle, some will be well schooled in the art of saying the wrong thing at the wrong time too. Different nationalities and ethnic origins, permanent and temporary residents. Those who look like they have it all sorted, those with many doubts, those not sure and those with deep questions. You get the picture. A healthy church is a full mix of every different group you care to think of.
Worship is the life-blood of the church. It needs to be alive and faith-filled. It should draw us deeper into the mystery of God and stimulate the sense of the other. Well crafted liturgy will take the worshipper on a journey from where they are, into an encounter with the spiritual, give them a bit of a shake so that they are ready to go back out renewed and ready to reengage with the world. It's not entertainment, but shouldn't be mind numbingly dull either (whether the songs are accompanied by a band or hymns sung to an organ, or even karaoke style to a CD). It should include moments of praise, lament, forgiveness and restoration; it should be filled with grace and passion for God who loves us, call us and blesses us. Worship needs to remind us that we are created from purpose and everything we do is caught up in that purpose: we are loved and live in love, hope and faith.
Thoughtful and inspiring
Preaching needs to be alive - intellectually, spiritually and relate to life as it really is. Our aim is to grow as disciples of Jesus Christ. This is a different mindset from members or even volunteers. The latter is about spare time. Discipleship is a whole life commitment, touching our paid time and the time we give for free. Preaching is a complicated art: for some it will include images, for some it will be cerebral. To balance the different learning styles in 10 minutes is a tall order, but over a month a range is possible. The vicar needs to demonstrate in the pulpit that faith and brains go together, to keep critical faculties turned on and firing on all cylinders. Growing churches are places where intelligent debate is encouraged. We need nurseries of faith, where the new shoots and old ones can grow in faith.
Socially active and in touch
An amazing thing has been taking place over the last few years. Churches have been the backbone of the Foodbank movement. They have seen the hunger need and responded with generosity and commitment. In some places churches have been picking up the fallout of asylum and immigration crises, trafficked and migrant workers' rights, exploitation in many guises, set up homeless shelters, lunch clubs and drop in cafes/coffee mornings. Church halls have been centres of community, with scouts and guides, fitness and well-being groups, drama and gardeners' groups. People from our congregations staff many charities and provide valuable services, some are councillors and play an active role in civic life and cultural interests. We are called to be salt and light in community and many churches do this in stunning ways.
Caring has been a foundation of faith-filled living since it began. We care for the bereaved, we visit the sick and housebound, lifts are given and time is spent listening to things which have been said to no one else. Pastoral means relating life to the gospel and so the caring is gospel shaped. It's not just cosy, but may involve facing some hard realities about who we are and what we've done. Honesty with acceptance matters, which is why it can extend into prisons and difficult schools, communities where their is tension as well as the easier places. Important moments of life are marked: birth to death, moments of joy and sorrow. It's an emotional roller coaster being a vicar, a day can include all the emotions under the sun. They need to be personable and approachable. Not necessarily a youth worker come geriatric specialist, but an ability to relate to a wide range of people is pretty much a given requirement. It's not a job for a sociopath or someone who can't cope with people. Vicars and their churches need to reach out into communities and draw people into the church's embrace. It can involve imaginative thinking about how to do that.
Political and campaigning
Caring is admirable, but sometimes there are issues which need addressing at their root. We can feed someone, but it is also important to ask why so many are hungry. The gospel that inspires and shapes us does include clues as to what makes us healthy and collectively what contributes towards a healthy society, to the common good. This is not seeking privilege and power for its own sake, but we have a voice and a perspective which comes from the caring and the community action, from being rooted in every community in the country. Churches have been active in sponsoring fair-trade, in challenging injustice wherever it is found (and we challenge ourselves too where that is necessary) and work with others who can be ready partners in this.
It will be clear from this list that the weight of all of this would cause one person to collapse in a heap. This cannot just be the job of a 'good' vicar, but the vicar leads this church community and these are the elements which need to be nurtured and encouraged. Good Vicars do this, but above all they invite their churches to do them and churches that do grow.