I'm hoping to a post a series of interviews with Baptist ministers over the next few weeks. Here's the first with John Rackley.
John was the minister of Manvers Street Baptist Church in Bath until his retirement earlier this year. Having originally trained for ministry at Regent's Park College, Oxford, he ministered in churches in Cardiff, Great Missenden and Leicester before moving to Bath in 1991. He was President of the Baptist Union in 2003-2004. He is a member of the Baptist Union's Retreat Group and the author of Seeking Faith, Finding God (BRF, 2007). He has recently started blogging here.
What’s the most important lesson you learned about ministry that you didn’t know at the beginning?
Discover how to ‘read’ the map of the congregation’s myths, story, preferences, fears and relationship with God and know your own map too.
What led you into ministry?
A need to tell the story of Jesus.
What keeps you going?
The moments when you encounter the ‘new’ whether it is a stranger or in the life of someone you know well. The Holy Spirit is always where there is a growing edge in a person’s life.
What one thing should ministers do more of and what one thing should they do less of?
More confrontation of conflict, less fire-fighting.
Has there been one book or theological voice that shaped your ministry?
That is impossible. I have to do it this way:
The 1960s The Cross and the Switchblade David Wilkerson
Come out the wilderness Bruce Kenrick
The 1970s The Go-between God John V Taylor
Soul Friend by Kenneth Leech
The 1980s The Open Church by Jürgen Moltmann
Celebration of Discipline by Richard Foster
The 1990s Jesus the new vision by Marcus Borg
Community and Growth by Jean Vanier
The 2000s When all you've ever wanted isn't enough by Harold Kushner
Justice and only Justice by Naim Ateek
The 2010s Surprised by Hope NT Wright (so far)
What does being Baptist minister mean to you?
Over the first couple decades of my ministry it was a given. It was the tradition into which I had been born and nurtured me. Latterly following increasing involvement (both negative and positive) with the ecumenical movement and the way in which the free-church/non-conformist identity has been eroded in our society; to be a Baptist has meant being non-conformist which involves, dissent, being a problem for clergy-centred churches, an emphasis on the Church meeting and a licence to roam theologically and spiritually.
Mentioning the Church Meeting, what role does a minister play in relation to the Church Meeting?
I used to let deacons chair their meeting but regularly chaired the Members’ Meeting with occasional deacon deputies. My role was to be
1. the memory of the meeting in addition to the minutes;
2. encourage adequate reporting by members and
3.bring forward new initiatives of my own.
In a long ministry 3. increasingly took second place to 2.
Note I tried to break the habit of calling it the CHURCH meeting in an attempt to emphasise the responsibility of members.
Part of the life of Manvers Street Baptist Church is the Open House, which seeks to provide a place of welcome for the city centre. It runs a cafe and hosts a number of different organisations amongst other things. How did it begin and how did this change you and the church?
It was in the planning when I arrived at the church. It was what ‘called’ me to the church. The church wanted to use an empty space beside their premises which would serve the community and assist the outreach of the church. They had developed a partnership relationship with a Night Shelter organisation and we started a youth advice centre with the local authority. These two use three levels of the building. Both are now independent entities. On the other level we built a coffee shop and lounge which is run by the church throughout the week by volunteers. This has two aims: to offer hospitality and promote concerns of social justice and humanitarian care.
We named the entire premises of the church buildings the Open House Centre whilst calling the ‘church’ the sanctuary.
In the early years it provided me with a base from which to engage with city centre agencies and meet the people who live there.
It confirmed my view that ‘church’ cannot be defined by either Sunday gatherings or membership and that the common understanding of ‘church’ amongst Baptists does not suit the city centre well. (See my forthcoming article for the BMF Journal)
I think it gave a majority of the church members and congregation a focus for their commitment to the church with opportunities to serve, raise money, run events, and offer ministries of prayer, listening and faith sharing.
Change for me: far more involved with issues of apologetics, justice-making and noticing the marginal and introduced me to the spirituality of space.
Change for the church: more difficult to say. I think the more people got involved the more they were changed profoundly. But I think a significant minority have either resisted change or not noticed it.
Change for the experience of the church; a regular number of visitors coming to Sunday worship, some baptisms but probably not as many as was originally wished. There was a too simplistic hope that just to make premises more convenient and relevant would make disciples.
What are the virtues/values of the Open House?
I take that to mean all the enterprises that go on there; thus they include sacrifice, service, fun, hospitality, community and trust.
Were these virtues imprinted on it at the beginning or have they grown through the years? To put it another way, was this intention of the Open House (by design) or was this part of the journey (by accident)?
There was a lot of discovery as we went. I think the experience drew out some of these values/virtues but hospitality and trust were there from the beginning because they were in the nature of the church community which gave birth to the Centre.
It is important to draw your attention to the fact I was describing the outcomes of all the activities and life of the Centre not just what the church did. It is a gathering of people who have very different reasons for being on the premises/using the rooms/ hiring the space/creating the environment of the place. (All these descriptions change the perspective on the use of the property).
How do you see the relationship between church and mission?
A church is mission. Whatever it may do or be because it will in some way bear the name of Christ it will communicate, contact, and demonstrate him. Whether or not that will bear any likeness to the Jesus of the gospels is another matter.
Church is mission therefore it cannot serve itself and claim the description of Christian. The word that is missing in the question is Gospel. Both church and mission serve the Gospel. They are defined by the Gospel.
So what is the gospel in one sentence?
It is a prayer: your kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven; in fact I would use the Lord’s Prayer in its liturgical form.
Do you see yourself as an evangelist?
This begs the questions, could a minister, and even a disciple, be anything other?
I responded in this way for two reasons. I resist the need to classify ministries so that a bog-standard pastoral minister can’t be an evangelist because it is a specialisation. And secondly because I don’t like the language and I think it has put off many church people so I will use it but mean something different from what it often means which is middle-aged overweight white men yelling at a claque. My word would be faith-sharing (see above).
What has been the main shape of your ministry? (e.g. pastoral carer / leader of worship / missionary / networker / fundraiser / social worker)
Preacher; pastor; initiator; spiritual director; faith sharer and event organiser.
Are some of these forced on to you? Are there some bits of ministry that are more ‘job’ than calling? I guess I’m asking how much is ministry shaped by the minister and how much of the ministry is shaped by the church or the community. While I am drawn to Eugene Peterson famous rejection of finance and administration for preaching and pastoral care, it feels impossible to realise in most churches – perhaps because we don’t trust the deacons or church meeting or cannot relinquish the power?
I agree with your last question/answer.
I think the shaping is always a dynamic, a circling, an embracing, a letting-go and a taking up.
I came to ministry to tell the story of Jesus. I am hopelessly a Jesus freak. So I can’t avoid pretending that wherever I am; I am a wanderer; I encounter who I do and seek Christ in the moment. In my first church on an estate I would literally set – aside ‘walkabout’ days when I walk the streets and see who I would meet.
I cannot therefore think of ministry in terms of job either in the particular or the total. It is a life. It is not for everyone and too many have mistaken a sincere love for the Lord for the calling of the Lord to this odd life. It is a calling to an untypical Christian life and this should not be forgotten by congregation or their ministers.
I have found that too often in church we are not that bothered about mission – has that been your experience and why is that?
Yes. There are possibly three types of church attendee: a. never thinks of mission other than works of charity and getting people to sit in church on Sunday. b. Used to be very involved to one form of mission e.g. Boys Brigade and once that was over could not transfer their energy to anything else. c. Is embarrassed by their church and doesn’t want new comers and certainly not their friends to come.
But I think there are two bottom lines:
One is that too many church goers have a love for the church but have not discovered a love for the Lord; without the latter there can be no mission; the other is that we have lost the ability to speak simply and confidently about what God has done for us in Christ.
This is very helpful analysis, my follow up question, what, if anything, do we do about it?
If I were starting again in a local church I would try to address these issues in these ways:
- Create worship which thrills people with a vision of God
- Place ‘the means of grace’ at the centre of the Church’s pattern
- Create understanding of what is happening in our society
- Teach apologetics and create worship with an apologetic mindset
- Teach and practice faith sharing
- Understand the congregation (see the answer to first question)
- Set up an initiative with myself at its heart which demonstrated good practice, good missiology, based on the apologetical imperative which had gone through a Members ‘Meeting process of discernment and affirmation and persist.i.e. seek out a growing edge.
Meanwhile I would accept people as they are and try to love them but not burden myself in the attempt. It will either happen or it will not. I would also know myself in Christ and so resist the expectations of others – although this is hard to do. And if I feel that I am losing contact with myself I would put in place opportunities to make sure this didn’t continue.
I take ‘in Christ’ to be an experience of koinonia and so would seek to belong to a gathering of God’s people other than the local church which has called me.
Was being the President of the Baptist Union and visiting lots of churches and places something that encouraged you or worried you?
Both in part but my overwhelming feeling was of being welcomed into communities of struggle, longing, frustration, bewilderment, determination and faithfulness.
I’m interested in the language of ‘frustration’ and ‘bewilderment’ – is this new, or is it always there? Are we less confident as churches or perhaps less confident of the UK as place that welcomes Christian presence?
I think the generation that brought me up in the church 50s/early60s would not recognise those two words.
Frustration was often expressed by church leaders and ministers. Bewilderment related to the attitude of society to the Church. Unless people had an ultra Calvinist approach to the society there did seem to be genuine puzzlement that what the church believed was being so rejected. It could be very self-regarding like ‘we’re making our premises available/running this toddler group; the least they could do is come to church i.e. Sunday mornings.
But I think whilst there was the Daily Mail ‘informed’attitude that sees terrorist Muslims on every corner there was a genuine concern that it was different out there now and we can’t be heard and won’t be heard.
The ground as it were was conceded. So less confidence that the UK as a place that welcomes Christian presence created a general lack of confidence in what we believe.
But I think that when the Gospel is at work there is resistance and controversy and for too long in this country it has been taken for granted that to be English is to the Christian. We live in a Genesis 3 world.
Can you tell a story of where something didn’t work or that you failed?
We attempted to open a ‘meet John Rackley; he’s a minister and will talk to you about anything you want about God’ in a local cafe (after hours). We tried it for two months; no one came. Not failure just ineptness and arrogance.
Failure? There is a school of faith that declares that for Christians there is no such thing as either failure or success only trust and sacrifice.
I ask the question, because it seems we struggle as churches and as a Union to present a story other than one of successes.
I agree totally. I think this arises from a principle of the evangelical disposition which is a spirituality of arrival. We know. We are there. We know whom we have believed. We are more than on a journey we are at the destination. ‘He is Lord'.
As often happens we have taken over the language; in this case ‘journey etc’ but not the spiritualities that created it i.e. Franciscan, 2 Corinthians Paul, Hebrew Exile Community, Celtic, Mennonite They are about dead-ends, turning around (repentance) cross carrying and sacrifice.
I also think the context in which we tell our stories encourages the latest success approach where it is felt necessary to give God the glory (but really it is very close to giving ourselves a pat on the back).
There is also something about being human here. We only open up to people whom we trust and have a ‘covenant ‘relationship. This cannot be engineered.
What role, if any, does tradition play in ministry, in church, in mission?
Ministry, church, mission are held within tradition. It is their bed, stream, back-story, identity. There are different traditions.
If you mean traditionalism than I would say too much in each of them. Traditionalism is a holding on to what was once a good thing but can no longer be the vehicle of the Gospel. It is what you most value and are not prepared to release for the greater good and further work of God; when you have discovered that you have discovered your traditionalism. Examples: the ‘preaching’ centre church; mission that is entirely centred on children’s’ work; different types of church furnishing; inaccurate church rolls with no satisfactory review practice, certain types of doctrinal language, the Platonic background to both Pauline and Johannine theology.
I am increasingly decided that the Baptist form of church has no suitable form of mission that suits the contexts of today. So what needs to change?
Can you tease this out a little more?
The Baptists churches arose as a response to an internal church disagreement. They re-ordered themselves in way which they believed was more true to God and the relationship of the Church to the State. There was no mission beyond that. They broadly subscribed to the orthodox beliefs of Christians of that time and lived within the Christendom model.
By and large they still do.
Whatever meaning one places on the word ‘post-Christendom or post-Christian’ society (see Rowan Williams' response to David Cameron's comments about Britain as a Christian country) Baptist Churches seem to be going along with the changing scene without any mission strategy other than ‘they know where we are, we will make sure they know by doing community-centred things, they will come if they want to’.
But going beyond such a jaundiced view let’s assume that a congregation wants each person and the ‘peoples’ of their local community to know the Gospel (i.e. know and live the Lord’s Prayer) now what?
I think the congregation will know one of the problems their type of church gives to people. It is the notion of membership or the ‘gatheredness’ of a local Baptist church. So what to do?
I go with the analysis that the current scene requires of churches two types of gathering: The ‘occasion’ (Carol Services) and the ‘Supporters Trusts’ ie. ‘called to a purpose’; explained terms of belonging; different levels of meeting; annual review.
In others words people do sign up for a commitment if it is clear what it will cost and what it is for e.g. rescuing a football club; building a scout hut, joining the Iona Community (who offer three levels of commitment to the same Rule- member, associate and friend).
So in contradiction to what I am apparently saying I think our notion of ‘Membership’ is an effective mission-feature if we would make it more demanding and at the same time easier to step back from.
I think Moltmann’s The Open Church spells it out for me. In my language: at the centre is the means of grace to which everyone is in some sort of relationship and around that centre there are a series concentric rings which have no boundary and provide people with a place to strand and belong with others. ’Membership’ expressed in terms I have is just one of those rings.
The minister moves through them as does Christ!!!
Where are you most incompetent as a minister?
When people tell me that they want to see but won’t tell me what it is about – this can completely unnerve me and deskills me in the subsequent conversation. In recent times I refuse to be treated like that and ask for an indication of what they were concerned about.
My prayer life.
Forgetting to say: that’s a good idea but let’s give it some thought and see what others think.
Not checking that people are doing what they said they would do.
Are you hopeful for the future of Baptist ministry and/or the Baptist Union? Why or why not?
Although I have been drawn into discussions about these two futures recently it is not a question that comes naturally to me. Where does the future start and end? I listen to the prognostications and observe individuals and groups seeking to anticipate the various paradigm shifts that are meant to be upon us. But I cannot say which will endure.
So I cannot be hopeful about what I cannot see but I do see signs of hope:
Preparation for bi-vocational ministry;
Smaller more community-like churches;
I also see signs of decline:
The Union becoming a federation of independent associations to the neglect of the churches and the ministers.
Too many ministers becoming community workers to the neglect of other expressions of Gospel ministry.
Is the pressure to become community workers a loss of a (non-conformist) priestly presence? To put it another way, we’ve lost sight of what it means to be a minister of word and sacrament, or perhaps, it is recognition that as ministers we’ve been too ‘church-focused’?
I think the latter is often given as the reason. Ministers feel that as the church hasn’t the people who can do this they must but they must be wary. What is their motivation really? Is it avoiding the dullness of ministry? Is it avoiding the discomfort of being set-aside to do what is often and hurtfully disparaged within the church, which is the Word & Sacrament style of ministry?
Your comment on the ‘priestly presence’ of the congregation is important. The ‘priesthood of every believer’ needs re-affirmation. But not in the individualistic way in which it is has been used in recent times. Nor with ‘ministry’ used as a substitute for ‘priesthood’; this gives the functional view of ministry too much precedence. Our first mothers and fathers knew exactly what they were doing when they called on this priesthood to define the gifting and calling of the local congregation. It was an act of defiance to the priest in whose parish they met – dissident, radical and obstreperous.
Questions of finance (not surprisingly) have to be in the mix of so much of ministry, church and mission – what have you learned, if anything, from how to deal with the issue of scarcity?
- have clear reasons for the request for the money
- be prepared to cut back on what has not created a disciple in the past five years
- do not become oppressed by the apparent success of what is happening along the road
- support/nurture the Treasurer
The Anglican priest Sam Wells says he writes his obituary every couple of years. If you could write your own what would it say?
He’s obviously read ‘God of Surprises’. I think it is an exercise of self-indulgence. One should neither know your obituary; nor write it; it won’t be accurate anyway. It is not for us to have the last word or not even a long-distance penultimate one about ourselves. Death creates a focus which we cannot anticipate. The reflection in John 15-16 suggests that even Jesus needed to be absent before the disciples really could receive a true perspective on what was going on.
What Sam Wells was suggesting I think is that we need to consider our faith journey in the light of our mortality; that is important and correct.
Have you found that worship transforms people?
Yes; but not necessarily in the big occasions or by the standout sermon. There is a transformation that can arise when it is the pastor who preaches. They are known and trusted and they know for whom they preach. The Spirit works at a level too for words but through words travels deep into the spirit of another person. I think also thoughtful choice of visiting ministers can bring in that transformation because their ‘new voice’ speaks to a situation that is ready for them.
The temptation of much ministry both inside and outside the church is to be “nice” – is this something that troubles you? Have you been able to resist it?
It does not trouble me sufficiently and no, I have not been able to resist it.
Is social media a blessing or a curse?
Thank you John.