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The brown envelope

For Methodist ministers on the move this month it’s a hectic time. Removal vans coordinated, and storage arranged if the timings are not very neat. Settling in and meeting (a few) new people in these strange times. Those with families and children wondering about moves to new schools. Planning for welcome services this year is no doubt complicated by ‘shall we/shan’t we have a face to face service or will it be Zoom again?’ conversations. And in this sapping heat as well.

Whether it’s the minister packing up to leave, or the new one arriving who is exploring, this can sometimes be the time when a sealed brown envelope is found in a dusty filing cabinet or at the back of a church safe. The envelope is likely to be marked strictly confidential and only to be passed on to the new minister, because what it contains is probably a story about a person or an event that ‘you need to know about’. Something in the church’s history, recent or otherwise, that has had an impact or perhaps remains unresolved. Something not talked about, but sometimes a story that everyone else seems to know about.

Thankfully, now that safeguarding practice is better embedded and more robust, such fresh discoveries are getting rarer. The church safeguarding officer and probably the District Safeguarding Officer will have some knowledge of such circumstances and appropriate actions will hopefully have been taken to ensure all are safe. But taking action and drawing a matter to a conclusion is only one part of the story, and so the brown envelope, suitably reconfigured into a confidential briefing, may well help the new minister to understand better and be sensitive to the strong feelings that safeguarding concerns can arouse. These can be matters that have caused deep personal or collective hurt or provoked a strong sense of betrayal, which can in some cases last for many years. Having such knowledge will help the new minister to understand certain behaviour and attitudes that can shape the culture of the church.

There may be work that can be done to bring about healing, so these ‘brown envelopes’ are not necessarily intended to be dormant documents to be reviewed once every five years. Nor should this imply criticism of previous ministers who may for a number of good reasons have felt unable to address painful issues or help make progress. But where there is a story that continues to echo through the years, that still shapes how the local church feels about itself, for new ministers this may be a good time not just to dust off and open the ‘envelope’, but to seek some advice about how best to deal with what’s inside.

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