21st Century Congregations

   Pondering Some of the Realities of Lay Leadership  and Part time Clergy

September 2016 -- The Rev. Canon Pamela Mott
With significant conversations with and editing by Sam Coughlin, 
St. John’s Williamstown

We must try to understand the meaning of the age in which we are called to bear witness. We must accept the fact that this is an age in which the cloth is unraveling. It is therefore no good trying to patch. We must, rather, set up the loom on which coming generations may   weave new cloth according to the pattern God provides.

     Mother Mary Clare, Superior Sisters of the Love of God      Oxford, England

I am a cradle Episcopalian - we are fewer and farther between.  When I ask that question of a congregation or a vestry, often only one or two hands go up!  Yet, though I am a cradle Episcopalian, I recognize that I do not live in the cradle.  This is not the church I was born into (the church boom of the 50s), nor is it the church I was trained to serve (I graduated from seminary in 1985, a lifetime ago), nor is it the church I was ordained into (I could not even have considered ordination in the church I was born into - that ability did not happen until I was in college).  Things change -- an understatement, to be sure. We long for a time that perhaps did not even exist, while missing the work that God is doing here and now that looks different from the way it used to look. In the words of one of my favorite poems, “The Bright Field,” by R. S. Thomas: Life is not hurrying on to a receding future, nor hankering after an imagined past. It is the turning aside like Moses to the miracle of the lit bush…

Many of the changes the church is undergoing are positive and suggest a deepening spiritual awareness: increased attention to the needs of our neighborhoods and the partnerships we can forge for the good of our communities, increased attention to justice and the church’s ability to speak up based on our Biblical and faithful heritage, a movement toward deepening our sense of respecting the dignity of all human beings.  But many of the changes in the church are perceived as negatives: decline in attendance at worship, decline in people willing to give lots of time to the church organization, decline in stewardship leading to the inability to support both a building and full time clergy leadership. The question, however, is whether these changes are necessarily all negative, or whether they are calling us to find fresh, and perhaps more fulfilling, ways to be the People of God.  

Focus for the moment on one of these problems -- the reality that many of our parishes can afford only part time clergy leadership.  When budgets get tight, and one of the two largest “fixed” budget items, clergy and building, has to be reduced, the assumption is often that the only step is to move to part time clergy, or, if the clergy person is already part time, to make him/her even more part time.  After all, there’s nothing more you can do about the building, especially if you have already gotten down to heating the sanctuary only on Sundays and keeping the place closed for the rest of the week, right? Unfortunately, however, statistics tell us that the move to part time clergy can be a choice for decline.    

As reported in New Facts on Episcopal Church Growth and Decline:  

Of the approximately 13% of Episcopal congregations that only use supply priests, a deacon   or a worship leader, 79% experienced decline in worship attendance. Decline was also widespread among churches with a solo part-time priest. These churches included congregations that shared a full time priest (but who was part-time in each of the congregations they served). Decline was less likely in the “normative” church with a solo, full time, paid priest. The growth/decline profile of these churches was not as positive as churches with multiple priests, but it was much better than churches with a part-time priest or supply priests. Although it is increasingly difficult for smaller churches to support a solo full-time priest, a part-time priest or supply priest is likely to lead to further decline.  

There are additional challenges for parishes looking for part-time clergy as well.  Many clergy people can’t afford to work part time.  Young clergy, recently graduated from seminaries, most likely have considerable debt to repay.  Twenty years later, a clergy person has a family, maybe a child headed for college.  You get the picture.  Parishes occasionally want to balance their budget by reducing clergy salary without having careful conversations about shifting expectations.  Often, I have found, vestries want to pay half time, but expect full time work -- mostly because conversations have not been had about what full time parish clergy work includes.  The perception among many in the parish is: well, we have someone on Sunday mornings so we are all set! Parishes who are making this difficult decision are often the parishes that most need a full time, focused leader to change the trend.   

The decision to move to part time clergy, therefore, can be problem fraught.  But if part time clergy is all a parish can afford, what then are they to do?    

One response to this problem seems clear. Over and over the parish leaders with whom I have gathered have said, “Lay people need to step up and take on leadership.” Parishes with part time clergy cannot rely on clergy to do things that properly belong with parishioners anyway, like developing and rotating leadership.  Of course, lay leadership is a constant refrain even in larger parishes with full time clergy – even more than one!  The spiritually alive leadership of the whole people of god is needed.  Leadership – lay and clergy – needs to be asking these questions: how are we the People of God, with individual vocations nourished by our collective calling to be bearers of the Good News in the world? How do we re-think spiritual and administrative leadership in the church?  How do we shift the clergy-centric focus that has been around for a long time?  Perhaps congregations with part-time clergy will lead the way in this.  Perhaps these questions will lead to a recovery of all of our vocations.  

There are a variety of ways in which the participation of everyone is increasingly crucial, not just to keep parish membership numbers up, but to give us new energy and direction as Christ’s hands and feet in the world.  

First, lay spiritual leadership is needed in the warp and weft of the parish community.  How do you care for those in your parish?  I am not just talking about pastoral care “programs.”  I am talking about the kind of listening that clergy people tend to be tuned to: there’s the follow-up to what happens on Sunday…the pastoral concern made known during the quick handshake at the door, the realization at coffee hour that a conflict is brewing over the color of the new carpet, a new ministry opportunity that arose in casual conversation over homemade coffee cake.  Left untended, these things add to the factors that lead a church to a place of stagnation, and, often, decline.  I wonder what it would look like for an entire parish to be tuned to these things and, rather than seek to get “my way” in a difference of opinion, seek to listen carefully and prayerfully?  Clergy are often the “grout” that holds various dynamics together, but it need not be just the clergy person; it can be, and perhaps should be, the work of the faithful Christian community as a whole.  I was impressed by a member of a vestry who spoke up at a meeting with another vestry – they were contemplating merging.  The gist of what she said was this: “Just merging will not solve our problems; we need to get at the issues that brought us to the decline in our parishes and address them.”  Hard stuff, but it was the essential and important question.  

Second, spiritual leadership is also needed in the context of the larger community.  Full time clergy are encouraged by our bishop to spend a large percentage of their time developing relationships and partnerships in the town or city in which they serve.  Part time clergy often live in another town, or are bi-vocational, and so it is difficult for them to lead the way in this.  But this is not solely the work of clergy – or even primarily the work of the clergy.  Our worship services, scripture reading, and baptismal covenant – all lead us out into the world.  Think about what new relationship or partnership you can explore today because God is there already.  How do you bring your faithful self to that exploration?  

Third, lay leadership is vital in the context of parish administration, now more than ever before.  This leadership needs to rotate and deepen constantly. From a report on a survey in New Facts on Episcopal Church Growth and Decline:  

Moving from clergy leadership to lay leadership, the survey asked, do “the same people tend to serve in volunteer leadership roles year after year, or does your congregation rotate volunteer service among a larger number of people?"… If the same people tend to serve, the congregation is likely to be declining.  Where there is some rotation, but among a limited number of people, decline is less dominant and growth more likely.  Where there is a lot of rotation among lay leaders, growth is much more likely.  Lack of rotation in the vestry, wardens and other leadership positions tends to overwork the leaders to the point where the church is mostly about committee work, and it leads to an insular, closed community that is difficult for newcomers to really join.  

Fourth, change may require asking some hard questions and challenging some assumptions.  Why, for example, when making the difficult budgetary decision between the building and supporting clergy – even part time – does the building always win?  There are places in this country and in the world where miles must be traversed to get to church; that, however, is not usually the case in New England.  Can your leadership ask the questions about the stewardship of resources (money, time, space, personnel) that might lead to a partnership with a neighboring parish that would free up money, energy and time to walk into the mission of God’s church rather than into the survival of this building?  We are an incarnational people, to be sure, and sacred space is important; but perhaps we need to shift our vision to see sacred space all around us, broaden our vision beyond preservation to exploration.  Abram was called to leave what he knew and go to the place that God would show him. Moses moved into the wilderness and then into the new challenge of the Promised Land.  Jesus was driven into the wilderness straight out of his Baptism before he began his public ministry. Perhaps God is calling us, too, to places beyond what we know now.  

The apparent decline of the church as we once knew it is serious stuff, and while the statistics are not encouraging, what IS encouraging is that these statistics assume a trend and give us a reality to face.  In other words, if things keep going the way they have, then the trend is, ultimately, dire. As one author puts it: “If we stay on the road we are on, we will surely get where we are going.” BUT trends can be changed – not necessarily by more clergy, or more money – but by faithful communities willing to explore their own spiritual lives and tend to the lives of their church, local and global communities. (For a couple of approaches to this see: RenewalWorks , which is subsidized by the Diocese and Holy Currencies, by Eric Law).   

Change is hard, but the call to new spiritual action can also be invigorating. I felt called into ministry as a life of worship, pastoral care, service, prayer, and formation.  I have, instead, had to be a change agent – a role I did not take on enthusiastically.  I have had to guide the construction of new building, deal with legal issues over the ownership of land, and find ways to ameliorate conflict within a system.  I have had to shift my gaze from finding God somewhere out there -- in past successes, or in the new program, the new worship service, the next formation approach -- to finding God in the midst of the dilemmas and challenges here, now…the mystery and challenge of the lit bush years before the arrival in the promised land.   

Perhaps the current realities and dilemmas that we – lay and clergy alike -- find discouraging will instead rouse us all to love, inspire us to courage, and move us to be more intentionally and visibly people of the Christ in the world.    

The Rev. Pamela J. Mott
Canon to the Ordinary
The Episcopal DIocese of Western Massachusetts
37 Chestnut Street
Springfield, MA 01103
(413) 737 - 4786