Thursday 12 January 2012

Why I am no longer a Minister in Secular Employment

This is an edited version of a talk I gave to Churches Together in Earley and East Reading on the 13th October 2011. It is also incorporates material from a farewell editorial I wrote for the journal Ministers-at-Work which can be found here.

First a brief word about who I am. I am Mike Rayner, Director of the British Heart Foundation Health Promotion Research Group at the University of Oxford and have been so for over 15 years. I am also an ordained priest in the Church of England and Assistant Curate at St Matthew’s Church, Oxford. I have been a member of the congregation of St Matthew's for over 30 years but the Assistant Curate for only four. I’ll be telling you more about myself over the course of this talk.

In this talk I will suggest that all Christians have a ministry where they work. And we all work – whether we think it or not – and whether we are paid to do so or not. So in that sense we are all ministers at work. But I also want to suggest that some people should be recognised by the Church as having a special ministry where they work – even if that work is not paid by the Church. They should be ordained in other words.

Then having convinced you of that I want to go one step further and suggest that ministry is something we can do when we are not working - for the Church or anyone else. I want to suggest that all of us are 'called' - to have a vocation - to be ministers in all of our lives – both working and non-working. I want to suggest that this should be called Whole Life Ministry - WLM for short. I will also suggest some people should be ordained to be WLMs and I will also try and explain my reasons for this.

But before I really get going I want to talk briefly about four descriptions (used in the Church of England) for ministers who have a ministry, at least in part, outside of the parish in which they live. These terms are Non-Stipendiary Minister (NSM), Self-Supporting Minister (SSM), Minister in Secular Employment (MSE) and Worker Priest.

So first we have that absolutely horrible description ‘Non-Stipendiary Ministry’. This is a horrible term because who want to be defined by what they are not. It implies that non-stipendiary ministers are somehow deficient relative to stipendiary minsters: that they don’t have a stipend and are therefore second class.

Slightly preferable to my mind is ‘Self-Supporting Ministry’: which is coming to replace the term Non-Stipendiary Ministry. But even this term isn’t particularly helpful. What on earth is self-supporting? I am not self-supported and I wonder how many people are. I am supported by the University of Oxford who pay my salary. Self-Supporting Ministry also implies that that person’s ministry is done in their unpaid time – as voluntary work presumably. But I for one see my ministry as being done just as much during the time I am paid to work as in the rest of my time.

The description of my ministry that I have preferred until recently is ‘Ministry in Secular Employment’. I am currently on the ‘management’ committee of an organisation called CHRISM – Christians in Secular Ministry. In fact, until recently, I have been the Editor of its Journal called Minsters-at-Work.

CHRISM - according to its website is the - national association ‘for all Christians who see their secular employment as their primary Christian ministry and for those who support that vision. CHRISM has around 200 members, an Annual Meeting, a journal, tries to set up local branches, etc. Its members are therefore generally NSM/SSMs who see themselves as MSEs. Most members are ordained but not all by any means.

Now I have increasing come to dislike this term MSE. This is primarily because I do not see my employment as secular. To me it is sacred. I have always thought of myself as having a vocation to the work I do. Whether I have always responded in the way God would have had me respond in response to his call I cannot be sure but I hope that I have tried to listen to what he was calling me to do. So a brief description of that aspect of my calling: to paid employment.

I’m not going to run through my cv but at the moment I work full time for the University of Oxford in the Department of Public Health. I am the director of a research group there. The funding for my salary comes from the British Heart Foundation and the research we carry out is into issues such as food labelling, food advertising to children, food taxes, etc.

We aim to do research which has an impact on Government policy – in that we are quite unusual for a university-based research group – but we have had some success in this regard. For example some people credit us with inventing traffic-light labelling for foods and we played a part in writing the current legislation around the tv advertising of junk foods to children. In all of this I see a sacred dimension.

My job for me is part of my ministry. What I do day-to-day – manage staff, write papers, apply for grants, go to meetings etc – I try to do for the glory of God, to help build the Kingdom of God, or however you like to put it. To this extent I am still a Minister Who is Employed by a Not-Overtly-Religious Organisation - the University of Oxford!

But before I explain more about how I see my current ministry and this thing I want to call Whole Life Ministry I want to deal with that fourth term ‘Worker Priest’. This term isn’t generally used in this country. I quite like it but most others don’t. It’s not considered appropriate for a variety of reasons. Firstly some (many?) of us - like me – who feel we have a ministry at work are not exactly workers but managers. ‘Manager Priest’ would be a better description for me rather than ‘Worker Priest’.

A second reason for avoiding the term – not a particularly good reason – is that the term ‘Worker Priest’ is associated with an initiative of the Roman Catholic Church in France, in the 1940s, to pay priests to be based as workers in factories and such like rather than in parishes. However many of these worker priests then got involved with the Trades Unions and were quickly called back to parishes by the Pope who effectively suppressed the movement in the 1950s. So ‘Worker Priest’ is distinctly non-Anglican and has a ‘pinkish tinge’ to boot.

Thirdly of course – whereas NSM, SSM, MSE can be applied to someone who is not ordained and if ordained either a deacon or a priest – the description Worker Priest can only reasonably be applied to someone who is ordained to the priesthood.

I am not going to apologise for spending so much time on words because words are important as John clearly thinks when he begins his gospel with the words ‘In the beginning was the word’. But now I want to try and explain more about how I currently see my ministry. I’ll start by explaining why I am ordained.

Now it is relatively easy to see why someone who has a ministry in the parish in which they live – whether they be stipendiary or non-stipendiary (or self-supporting) should be ordained. But why should some who sees their secular employment as their primary Christian ministry, as CHRISM members and I used to do, be ordained? This is always a difficult question. I guess my answer is: why not?

My own history here might be useful. Whilst I always felt I was called to the work I was doing I also from my late teens felt a calling to the priesthood which I tried to explain to various people at various times. Eventually in my late forties I found some people who thought I had such a vocation too and one of them – a bishop – ordained me (over four years ago now).

I have never, or hardly ever, seen my calling to be a paid employee of the Church of England and also I have never, or hardly ever, felt a calling to be in charge of a parish church. But does an ordained priest remain a priest does when he/she goes off to work for a Not-Overtly-Religious Organisation? Yes of course they do. But do they have a priestly role when they are working for that organisation. This is more difficult. I personally don’t have (much of) a sacramental ministry at work. For example I have never baptised a work-colleague’s baby nor have I celebrated the Eucharist at work. The first has never presented itself as an opportunity. I have never particularly felt the need for the second but I wouldn’t rule either out. I think my priestly ministry at work is primarily through blessing – but I would be hard pushed to explain this adequately.

But back to my ministry at work as opposed to my priesthood at work. One thing to say about this is that some like me see their actual work as their ministry. Others see their work as merely the vehicle for their ministry: the work place as just another possible setting for their ministry.

For people who see merely their work place as a setting for their ministry then various options are open. But here there is, perhaps, a temptation to replicate the things that you might conventionally see or do as ministry where you live in the place where you work. Classically people for example have sought to find and meet together with other Christians at work. Workplace Christian Unions are one expression of this. Taking this further Workplace Alpha courses have been run apparently successfully in some places. I’ve experimented with this sort of thing by, for example, running a series of meditation sessions at my work-place. I wouldn’t recommend this. It didn’t really work for me and the sessions were quite a lot of work for little – in my view –reward (though I am not sure all those who attended would agree.)

Of course preaching the gospel doesn’t need words as St Francis reminds us. Workplace ministry is as much about being as talking. And for me it is not just about whether or not you steal the odd paper-clips from your employer. I confess I do. It’s clearly much more than that. For one it’s much more about how I interact with my boss, those who work for me, my work-colleagues, my competitors at other universities, the civil servants and politicians I lobby, etc. etc. Actually everyone who works has these types of relationships.

At St Matthew’s we – at one point – set up a ‘Faith-at-work’ group – which attracted a lot of people for a while. And this is something I would recommend trying out, if you have a big enough congregation, and a few people who are prepared to set up such a group. One of the successful things our faith at work group did was spend a morning discussing relationships at work and how we could bring our faith to bear on sorting these out.

But for me – as I said earlier - it also matters what I do at work, not just how I do it. This is the famous question addressed by Luther who claimed that there is nothing un-Christian about being a hang-man if you hang people to the glory of God. In CHRISM meetings we argue quite a lot about whether some or indeed any jobs are incompatible with being a minister (ordained or otherwise). Prostitution at least seems to be ruled out by most people, hanging people, not by all.

But to finish I wanted to elaborate upon this idea that for all of us our ministry is surely not just done in one place or is neatly delineated from the rest our life. Over the past few years I have come to see my ministry as being in and through the whole of my life and not just or even mainly in or through my employment. And this is why I would no longer wish to call myself a Minister in Secular Employment and prefer to call myself a Whole Life Minister – not a particularly felicitous term but I can’t think of anything better.

In his important book, the ‘Stature of Waiting, W H Vanstone points out that for most of our lives we do no work: we receive rather than give, we wait. He notes that Jesus’ life can be divided into two halves: his active ministry and his passive ministry if you like where the turning point is the Garden of Gethsemane. Up to that point Jesus has been doing and acting. Rather breathlessly if you read Mark’s account. Then after the Garden of Gethsemane he is done to. Arrested, tried, tortured, killed. His passion is non-active. It is the paradigm for the waiting we must all do –particularly, but not exclusively, at the beginning at ends of our lives. Are we a lesser human being when we wait rather than do? Did Jesus not have a ministry while he was being arrested, tried, tortured, killed, done to? Of course he did. Reflecting on waiting is one reason why I think why we don’t just have a ministry while we are rushing about, at work, if you like, but also when we are just being.

Moreover I am not quite sure why I have to see my ministry as primarily in any particular activity or even non-activity. But if pressed to do so I would say that at this particular stage of my life my primary ministry is, for the moment at least, ‘in’ and through food and art! By primary I mean the aspect of my ministry I feel most passionate about.

Are food and art anything to do with my paid employment? Well the food is but the art isn’t.

As I said earlier food, or at least research into food, is what I am paid to ‘do’. And this has led to a developing interest in the connection between food and faith and giving sermons and talks and even organising a conference, on this issue. I have also begun to lead meditations around eating and making food. My latest experiment has been in running contemplative bread making sessions which seem to work quite well.

I find it interesting – but perhaps not surprising – that this ministry through food (sermons, contemplative bread making sessions) takes place not at my workplace (the University) but in churches or church halls but it clearly has a connection with my paid work.

And art? What is this about a ministry through art? Is that Ministry at Work No I am not employed as an artist. I have an amateur interest in art that’s ‘all’. I have always enjoyed going to art exhibitions but I cannot say art has been a particularly big thing in my life. Rather strangely (at least to me) I have found that I have developed an embryonic ministry ‘in’ art though a developing passion for giving ‘art sermons’. You can find further details elsewhere.

In some ways I have given up trying to define my ministry. I don’t want to be labelled. In particular I do not want to be labelled NSM/SSM or MSE. If you must, call me a WLM. Of course everyone of us has to work out for ourselves – in discussion with God - what shape our Whole Life Ministry should take but for me it has been though trying to make connections between my faith and the rest of my life – be it my paid employment, a rather undeveloped hobby, my relationships. It seems easier – more fruitful that way.

The questions remains: why does a WLM need to be ordained? The answer seems to be in reversing the question. Shouldn’t everyone who is ordained be a WLM? The answer to that question in clearly yes. There is no ‘time-off’ from ministry for anyone ordained or not. I suppose there is then the question of why anyone should or needs to be ordained at all. But that’s for another day.

I am bad at summarising but here are some take home messages. We all have a ministry. A ministry of all believers if you like. Some of us are lucky enough to be paid for it. Those who are paid by the Church have the roughest deal I feel. All of us work – at least for part of our lives - and for all of us our work is part of our ministry – an important part but not the only part. We all have to work out our ministry in fear and trembling.

Updated on the 9th June 2012

A note added on 3rd March 2018: 

This is where I originally had after the words: 'In all of this I see a sacred dimension,' the words: 'You may not believe that I have heard God aright but I think God is calling me to work towards the introduction of soft-drink taxes in this country'.  I removed these words from this 'blog' - not because I was embarrassed by them, or because I didn't believe them anymore - but because they were being used by the food industry and others e.g. here in their opposition to the sugary drinks industry tax (now to be introduced later this month).   


  1. Mike, Thanks for posting your sermon on twitter. I really enjoyed reading it. I too am a Christian (married to an Anglican priest) who works in nutrition (less so in food) and have long believed in the ministry of all believers and the concept of whole life ministry so I really resonated with your sermon. I have two comments/questions: 1) Is it right to describe the things you are most passionate about (food and art) as your primary ministry? I might suggest that your primary ministry may be in something you do just as regularly as food and art but that you don't recognise - yet God does. Secondly I wonder if it is worth asking the question if Jesus's ministry post Gethsemane was actually passive. I just wonder if it was actually active as he wrestled (as a man)with doing his life's calling to be crucified? Sorry, I'm no theologian so I may be wrong about this - it's just a suggestion. Best wishes and thanks for sharing this. Pamela

  2. Interesting question about my 'primary' ministry. Yes what is a 'primary ministry' for goodness sake? I only used the word 'primary' because it appears on the CHRISM website.

    On reflection I am not at also that what one is passionate about is a very good indicator of what is primary or important in the context of ministry. But it is some sort of indicator surely? I used the word passionate deliberately because of 'The Passion'. I think there is a difference between talents/gifts and passions. I think we often focus too much on our talents and not enough on our passions.

    Re ‘The Passion’ of Christ and whether it was active or passive. It’s worth reading Vanstone’s book for his take on this. I find him convincing. Basically I think that Jesus did all his wresting with himself prior to (e.g. during the Temptations in the Wilderness) and at Gethsemane rather than after he had been arrested.

  3. Hi Mike,

    This is an interesting post.

    I can understand how each of us brings to any human activity, in this context our job, something of the whole of what we are. Or, from another perspective, we bring to it bits of the various parts of what we are. In this post you are expressing how you bring, as you see it, one particular bit of you, which happens to be a very big bit - a fair proportion of what you are.

    Picking up on a later point to raise, I don't see how it would not be possible that a Christian could, if that's how they viewed themselves, bring much of their 'ministry' to their role as a prostitute - a role that might benefit significantly from some of those most wholesome human characteristics that many Christians deem their sole prerogative. And yes, maybe a hangman could do that too.

    But then I see also that a predatory rapist would also bring something of who they were to their work as an office clerk, as they contemplate the suitability of candidates, while restricting the application of that essence of themselves while in the workplace for the sake of self-preservation.

    So, I don't see this angle as particularly controversial...

  4. ...But I think you have to acknowledge that you are talking about a very personal perspective. And it could be considered somewhat selfish in a way, if you are in any way pushing this personal vision on any one else in the same employment.

    I think that a part-time prostitute would receive censure from unapproving people - I dare say the more religious they the more they would censure it - if they were to attempt to make clients of their day-job colleagues in a bank. And if the rapist made his interest known it might well make many of his colleagues very uncomfortable. These cases seem obvious.

    What seems less obvious to you, perhaps because of the pre-supposed benign nature of Christianity, is that the public expression of your personal religious beliefs to the extent that this post seems to describe, might be offensive too. There are not only people who don't give one jot for Jesus and who consider Christianity to be one more delusional enterprises sustained by the momentum of the Middle Ages, but also others who also share belief in some un-evidenced deity but are just as appalled personally by the notion of Jesus being divine.

    This is the heart of secularism. It's not a specific claim to the right to denigrate or denounce your beliefs (that's already enshrined in the principle of free expression), and certainly not a demand to suppress anyone's particular beliefs. It's about not having to have it pushed in your face while you are coming together with people of potentially quite different personal beliefs and interests in order to earn a living.

    In politics it's a grave matter of personal freedom, so that any dominant belief system cannot dominate the freedoms of others. In the work place its more about having respect for others who may have no interest in or may actually detest what your personal beliefs stand for. Bear in mind that there may be even be Christians in the same workplace who don't see your ministry as in any way legitimate, and might ask who this jumped up preacher thinks he is.


  5. ...

    "Of course preaching the gospel doesn't need words as St Francis reminds us."

    I found this interesting. It may be true you don't need words - if one 'acts like a priest' - that is, it's quite possible, through body language, and simply non-explicit verbal language, to make it very clear what one's 'mission' is. So in this sense St Francis is pulling a fast one. If one really does behave without preaching then one is indistinguishable from any other 'humanist' of any religion or none - that's just being nice, and is nothing to do with one's metaphysical beliefs.

    "I find it interesting – but perhaps not surprising – that this ministry through food (sermons, contemplative bread making sessions) takes place not at my workplace (the University) but in churches or church halls but it clearly has a connection with my paid work."

    Not only interesting, but essential, if you are to avoid breaking the respectfulness towards others that don't see things your way. If I worked with you I could choose not to take up your notice board offers to attend such out-of-work events, just as I'd not attend a knitting club (and I choose the latter specifically so I could say there's nothing wrong with knitting clubs, they're just not for me, and the same applies to your events).

    But I'd be pretty annoyed if I had to put up with incessant preaching, no matter how well disguised it was, with or without words, while trying to play my part in the job by virtue of the skills I bring to it, not by virtue of my metaphysical beliefs. Well, I make that point as a general one, but as you've probably figured from our discussions elsewhere it wouldn't play out like that. I'd be far more likely to argue the toss with you on the metaphysics and neither of us would get done the work we are actually paid to do. But one way or another you wouldn't get away with imposing your belief in your own calling (your belief in your belief) without some resistance. At the very least I'd expect to be allowed to bring my specifically atheistic opinions to the table.

    So, as Director of your group you hold significant power over others that you direct or manage. Have you considered what their take is on your ministry? Are they aware of it? How explicit is it? What if they personally don't like it, but as you're the boss they are stuck with it? When does one man's mission become another's oppression.

    I'm not disputing the well meaning of your intentions, and I'm not suggesting you have anything but the best at heart for your colleagues and your employer. But, is it as simple as that? Is well-meaning good enough? Are you missing the point of secularism?

  6. Ron

    Re your first comment. All I said was that ‘Prostitution at least seems to be ruled out by most people’ as a suitable profession for an ordained priest in the Church of England. I didn’t say that I thought it was! In a related sort of way I think smoking (a lot) is incompatible with being a public health researcher and that being overweight is not (at least in my case).

    Re your second comment and your contention that ‘that the public expression of [my] personal religious beliefs to the extent that this post seems to describe, might be offensive too’. I guess they might: you will have to ask my work colleagues. I think you probably over estimate the extent to which people are ‘offended’ by expressions of religious belief. Oh come off it: is anyone bar Richard Dawkins ‘appalled personally by the notion of Jesus being divine’? Oh yes Paul suggests they might be (I Corinthians 1: 23).

    Re your third comment and your questions in the paragraph ‘So, as Director of your group you hold significant power over others that you direct or manage. Have you considered what their take is on your ministry? Are they aware of it? How explicit is it? What if they personally don't like it, but as you're the boss they are stuck with it? When does one man's mission become another's oppression?’ Of course I realise that my role as ‘boss’ makes it less rather than more likely that those I ‘boss’ will challenge my beliefs. (They all, I think, know I am a Christian priest and I am sure that most of them, if they read this post, wouldn’t find it particularly surprising.) They may (but I hope they wouldn’t and quite frankly it seems to me unlikely that they would) say that I show favouritism to the Christians amongst them. Again you’ll have to ask them to be certain.

    But your questions remind me that we do – when we are interviewing people for positions within my research group - ask candidates questions to see what their values are. As a research group one of our aims is to carry out research which has an impact on public health policy and practice (see our website). I.e. we aim to do research that would help improve public health and not just describe the health of the public and how it might be improved. If people do not subscribe to the belief that research is not merely about description but should be done with a view to impact (in our case on mortality and morbidity from cardioavascular disease) then they are unlikely to get the job.

    I think it is fairly obvious that the values of the boss of an organisation have a big effect on how that organisation operates. Now you may argue that my belief that public health researchers should not just aim to reveal truths but to improve health is ‘just being nice’ and/or could be derived from any old ‘metaphysical beliefs’ but I do not think so. I think it comes from a Christian ethical system which places more value on love than truth for the sake of it.

    I am sure we would discuss this over lunch, if you worked for me, I would not insist that you agree with me about the origins of the aims of the research group but I would insist that your work contributed to the aims. I do not just want just highly skilled researchers in my research group but those who subscribe to my values. Is this really oppressive?

    Oh and I am rather hoping that some of my work colleagues might be wondering ‘who this jumped up preacher thinks he is’ but I fear that they won’t be.

  7. Hi Mike,

    OK to pretty much all of that. In particular, if the organisation, the employer, has a specific agenda, such as health promotion, then if the employees are aware of it then they signed up to it, and therefore no problem.

    I can't remember if I'd discussed the source of our principles with you before (maybe it was with Alan Crawley), but I don't see an issue with, say, humanist principles being based on Christian ones, since ours (UK) is culturally Christian historically and it would be surprising in those values hadn't endured. But then those Christian values that are humanistic are developments of pre-Christian humanism anyway, and looking back even further are likely to be based on evolutionary (Darwinian) adaptation and its evolving (non-Darwinian) development in early human, and pre-human, groups. It's easy to separate out what is basically humanistic and so secular, and what is Christian-non-humanist (e.g. homophobia in the church).

    So I can see how Christians, Muslims, atheist humanists, and people of other world views could work for you very comfortably. On that basis it sounds specifically like a secular organisation, which is at odds with the title of your post: "Why I am no longer a Minister in Secular Employment" - You are in secular employment, and you still consider yourself to be a minister?

    I can see how you may not like the terminology (MSE), but that's just about terminology, not the fact of the matter.

    "...for all Christians who see their secular employment as their primary Christian ministry"

    That you see it that way isn't the issue that determines whether you are in secular employment or not.

    "To me it is sacred. I have always thought of myself as having a vocation to the work I do."

    Again, no problem. That's your view of yourself. What's more important is how that plays out at work. If you were, for example, to insist, as boss, on starting the day with a group prayer, then that wouldn't be particularly secular.

    On the issue of 'offence'. I don't find Christianity especially offensive. There are specific Christian behaviours I find offending against basic humanist principles: Christian homophobia, sexism, ... (granted, not applying to all Christians, but still, part of the official view). In discussions I'm not even averse to offensiveness (by or towards me), since to a great extent it is often the over sensitivity of the offended that's the fault, and that in turn is due to their mistaken view as to the special nature and righteousness of their belief system. But in political life and in employment there is an offence against personal freedom of belief that an overt non-secular bias can commit.

    The point of secular society, and secular employment, is that personally you are free to believe what you want as long as that doesn't interfere with how people work, and doesn't interfere with their personal beliefs, and doesn't coerce them into behaviours which go against those beliefs. An ideal, obviously: the wearing of religious artifacts at work; performing religious practices in work's time; and so on, are practical issues that sometimes need resolving.

    "To this extent I am still a Minister Who is Employed by a Not-Overtly-Religious Organisation!"

    Perhaps this is where I'm misunderstanding you. So, is it a religious organisation that is simply not overt about it? Is it supposed to be religious? Or, is it a secular organisation that isn't overt about its religious nature because it isn't religious? Or, is it a secular organisation that's headed by a religious person who covertly instills his religious beliefs on it by covert means? :)

  8. Not sure you want to continue on this subject, so don't feel the need to respond. Just wanted to point out examples of when it can go too far:

    1. Sorry Ron

      Happy to keep going for a while. Have been busy doing other things.

      Re. ‘That you see it that way isn't the issue that determines whether you are in secular employment or not.’. No I agree. I also agree that my employer – the University of Oxford – might clearly be regarded as ‘secular’. However I am not entirely sure how ‘secular’ it is: its colleges still have chapels and chaplains and there’s a University Church, etc. etc. but really that’s beside the point. Surely the nature of one’s employment is not entirely determined by the nature of one’s employer? My boss – the head of my department - has on occasion asked me to say grace at departmental dinners. Here is clear instance of where in work time I performed a task which I regard as sacred at the request of my employer. I confess I also regularly pray at work, in work time, but generally not at the request of my employer. I regard praying as part of my work.

      I too am dismayed (to put it mildly) at the official Christian view (as you put it) of homosexuality and and gender. I agree that some Christians have gone wrong in their interpretation of the Bible and Christian tradition and in how their interpretation should affect their working practices. Your example of the psychotherapist is a good (if that is the right word) one here. But I would argue that the psychotherapist didn’t ‘go far enough’ rather than ‘too far’ in relating (real) Christian values to their employment.

  9. I've just come across this talk, as I write a book proposal, based on my recent doctoral research: 'The priest in secular work: Participating in the missio Dei'. I wish I'd read this sooner, as much of what you say resonates for me, and for those involved in my research. I'd like to contact you directly to find out a bit more about your views. If you'd be interested, please email me at revd.jennygage(at)