Priest-in-Charge? Rector? What's in a title?

Elizabeth Kaeton's playing trendspotter. She's thinking about who's got what title in The Episcopal Church, and what some of the critical distinctions between them might be - and, so long as we're on the subject, from where (or whom) those distinctions arise.

There seem to be a lot of clergy "in transition" these days.

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What I'm hearing is that there are far fewer positions of rector available. More and more, the positions come with the title "Priest-in-charge".

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I'm concerned about the seeming plethora of otherwise healthy congregations going through an interim period, through the rigorous self-study, profile writing and clergy search process, only to call not a full-time rector but a full time "Priest in charge".

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The issue really has to do with a transfer of power. Rectors, canonically, have lots of power. Vicars and Priests-in-charge don't. That's because Vicars and Priests-in-charge are not the rector of the church. The bishop is.

Vicars and Priests-in-charge do not have "temporalities of the parish" - including life tenure.

As has been pointed out to me, the more Vicars and Priests-in-charge, the more power is invested in the bishop's office.

Does she have your attention yet?

This Café blogger/former priest-in-charge (now rector) knows that what's on the business card, while entirely irrelevant to some, can certainly have the capacity to tinge ministerial life in critical ways. Though ethereal sounding, the loss of "temporalities" is real enough; and the headaches that can arise in an environment of rent-to-own authority can be more than one feels is worth bargaining for.

Comments (9)

Here's one I've just heard (which displays my ignorance I suppose): "Rector, Time Certain".

Presumably "time certain" means for a fixed term, not a tenured position.

I'd be interested if there are thoughts on rector time certain v. rector v. priest in charge.

Thanks, Torey, for bringing this discussion to a wider audience. I'm honored to have it here.

Since posting this on my blog, I've had an outpouring of stories from clergy and laity from all around the church. Some are posted in the comment section. Most were written to me privately. Two people actually telephoned me and poured out their stories for over an hour. I've even had the dubious distinction of having my blog post reproduced - intact - on David Virtue's web page. And, none other than +David Anderson of the AAC has written to agree with me - for other, obvious reasons.

I've read enough to know that there is more to this story than a title. It has to do with power.

Now, more than my left eyebrow is raised. So is my blood pressure.

I have seen the use of priest in charge used more and more - I fear it is a way for bishops and sometimes congregations to circumvent canons intended to protect clergy. I have seen bishops move people for no apparent reason - uprooting their families or even separating them so he can fill "slots." Only a few wealthy parishes can keep their rectors.

My husband moved to his present parish as "Rector, Time Certain." The parish did not wish to go through an 18-month period of looking for a new rector, so they worked with our bishop to fill the slot.

Bishop Curry suggested a name (my husband's was the first he gave them), they interviewed him, and offered him the job. Had they not liked him, the Bishop would have continued to give them one name at a time until they found a priest they thought was a good fit.

The "Time Certain" part was that my husband was guaranteed a job for two years. At the end of that time, both he and the Vestry would evaluate the relationship and either of them could decide not to renew. In that case, he would have had another year to find a new position.

In his case, that wasn't necessary. Both he and the Vestry decided they were a good match, and he was moved to the position of Rector.

I don't know if "Rector, Time Certain" is a good thing in all cases--but, in this one, it allowed our parish to get a priest quickly and has turned out to be a good thing for all parties.

Paige Baker

The old way is one that is expensive - perhaps this is the future. My work has been as an interim so I am always in this situation of being appointed. But I have to leave after my year or 2.

This piece by Elizabeth Kaeton is excellent! The old way of doing things is dying, for various reasons, including that most parishes no longer can afford rectors. But a priest-in-charge appointed by a Bishop only further distances the people from ministry. In team ministry, some have said the priest, in-charge or rector, should let the members of the congregation do the ministry, while the priest takes care of the sacrament business. That shouldn't cost as much and the model of church is more egalitarian. But it still leaves priests in charge of liturgy, which is supposed to be the work of the people.


"rector, time certain," sounds good because interim periods of 18 months and longer can be real messes. But that would only seem to work for congregations who can afford rectors.

In the long run I don't see why the people themselves cannot choose someone from the congregation to conduct simple services, ultimately including communion. Sending in outsiders to a congregation has the disadvantage that it takes a while for the priest to get to know the congregation.


Gary Paul Gilbert

I think its merely indicative. The growing amount priests in charge are indicative of the growing amount of smaller parishes that require the oversight of the Diocese. Instead of giving all these churches priests in charge I think they need to be yoked or partnered with a healthy church, as opposed to running them through the diocese.

In the long run I don't see why the people themselves cannot choose someone from the congregation to conduct simple services, ultimately including communion.

Because we are Episcopalians and Anglicans. Despite what the Jensenites get up to down in Sydney, lay presidency is not part of our tradition.

For some (many?) of us, the Eucharist would not be the Eucharist without a priest. Everything else can be done by laity, but that one is a deal-breaker for the catholics among us.

You don't have to agree with the theology behind that belief, but by proposing lay presidency, you are calling for a completely different church than the one we have. For those of us who cannot go to Rome or the Orthodox for other theological reasons, such a proposal would essentially leave us spiritually homeless.

Paige Baker

I am with Paige, there are distinct roles in the church and in liturgy.

However maybe what needs to be looked at is how we train and prepare people for priestly ministry. Is it reasonable to expect someone to pursue 3+ years of full time graduate studies and then expect them to work for low salaries that they can barely survive on, or to expect small parishes to afford a reasonable salary? I am not suggesting that we get rid of the requirement for an MDiv, but maybe we need more flexible ways of training and forming people for priestly ministry that would be suited to the needs and resources of smaller parishes.

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