What exactly is the legal status of Methodist Ministers in the UK: are we employed, self-employed or something else entirely?
The answer is that we are something else entirely – ‘office holders’. Or to be more precise, sometimes we are a bit like employees, sometimes we are a bit like the self-employed and sometimes we are neither. Coincidentally, my two major periods of ’employment’ have actually been ‘office holding’ – firstly as a Registrar of Births, Deaths and Marriages and latterly as a Minister of Religion. However, it’s a fairly obscure status – there wasn’t even a box for ‘office holder’ in the recent census, forcing Ministers of Religion to decide, for the purposes of the census, whether they ticked the employed or self-employed box – or drew their own ‘office holder’ box.
The legal significance of Ministers of Religion being office holders rather than employees is that we do not fall under employment legislation. We do not have a contract of employment and are not governed by the European Working Time Directive (which unless we voluntarily opt out would limit our weekly working hours to 48, haha.) And if things Go Horribly Wrong, we are unable to bring a case before an Employment Tribunal.
However, the status of Ministers as non-employees has recently been challenged in courts of law. In March a former Methodist Minister, Haley Moore, who resigned from the ministry but is suing on the grounds of constructive dismissal, won a judgement at the Employment Appeal Tribunal that she was an employee and therefore had the right to have her case heard by an Employment Tribunal. There was, however, sufficient uncertainty for the Methodist Church to be granted leave to appeal to the Court of Appeal. In a press statement released today the Methodist Church has stated that it does indeed intend to appeal, quoting Revd Kenneth Howcroft, Assistant Secretary of the Methodist Conference:
“The Methodist Church is treating this matter with great seriousness as something that would affect all our ministers. We are pursuing this appeal having taken good legal advice. In doing so we are defending the understanding and rules of the Church about these matters agreed by the Conference. These are long-standing, and the Court of Appeal held as long ago as 1984 that Methodist ministers are not employees. A minister’s role is one which is traditionally based on the ethos and laws of the Church rather than on a secular ethos. Our ministers have legal rights of redress under Church procedures. The Methodist Church cares for all who serve it, whether lay or ordained, paid or volunteer, and we want to ensure that we treat everyone fairly and properly.”
Clarification is indeed required, though it is unfortunate that in doing so the Methodist Church is having to pick up what is undoubtedly a considerable bill for legal expenses. Meanwhile, it is clear from discussions in the blogosphere and internet discussion groups that ministers are divided on the matter of whether it is a good or bad thing to be considered employees.
As I understand it, the issue is not that Methodist ministers become employees through entering into full Connexion. Rather it is when ministers are stationed into a specific appointment, which involves signing a letter of agreement that resembles a job description, being subject to annual appraisal and undergoing a form of supervision. By increasingly treating ministers as employees, the Methodist Church might be considered to have (inadvertently) granted the legal status of employee, as a briefing by the Evangelical Alliance points out:
Reports that as a result of this ruling employment rights have now been given to all clergy, paving the way for any church to be sued for unfair dismissal, are inaccurate. Nevertheless, churches will in future need to exercise great caution in case they inadvertently create a contract of service with corresponding rights and obligations. It will now probably be advisable for churches to obtain expert legal advice to ensure that ministers are in fact office-holders given an increasingly litigious culture which is also impacting churches. Unless it is clearly agreed otherwise by all parties, if a church treats a minister as though they are an employee, a tribunal is likely to rule in future that there is an implicit employment relationship between the church and its minister. Factors likely to lead to such a conclusion, as in the Moore case, include the stipulation of terms of service, arrangements suggesting the payment of a ‘salary’ rather than a ‘stipend’, the provision of accommodation, regulations about working time, and the existence of ministerial supervision and appraisal.
In other words, the Methodist Church really needs to decide whether it wants its ministers to be office holders or employees. At the moment it looks as if the Methodist Church wants to pick and choose, but the Employment Appeal Tribunal is effectively saying “if it walks like a duck, and talks like a duck…” For myself, I can’t see why it necessarily a bad thing for ministers to be considered employees. What is it we are afraid of?