In the midst of our church’s efforts to reimagine itself, I am wondering if one important, and fairly obvious issue is being overlooked: capacity. I do a fair amount of work with dioceses around the church, and what I find, again and again, is that most parishes simply lack the financial and human resources to take on the jobs that would seem to be essential in rejuvenating themselves.
The average congregation is small, many can barely afford a full time priest, and most rely on volunteers to do jobs that are becoming increasingly complex and specialized and that require a working knowledge of technology. Volunteers with the right kinds of backgrounds for this work are not thick on the ground, and training costs money.
This isn’t an issue that presents itself in larger parishes. It’s not going to be the topic of coffee talk at the next Consortium of Endowed Episcopal Parish’s conference, but every bishop I speak to in the church knows it is a significant problem. In my own line of work, my partner and I have moved from giving workshops on “best practices” in parish and diocesan communications to collecting information in advance of our presentations so we can tailor them realistically to the capacity of the group to which we will be speaking. To some groups we talk about a comprehensive communications program, but increasingly we try to get people to focus on the one or two initiatives that they have a realistic shot at doing well.
I’m aware there are a lot of dedicated and talented volunteers out there (They are the folks who tend to show up at the presentations I am talking about), and I’ve worked with a number of organizations that trying to make it easier and more affordable for people to acquire the skills that they need. But in most places these engines are still revving and haven’t yet caught.
I think the church’s lack of capacity raises several questions:
Can the church be comfortable with a large number of parishes that muddle along in slow, but for the near term, manageable decline due to a lack of capacity? These congregations may not be growing, but unless they rely on diocesan funding, they aren’t necessarily hurting anyone, and it may be more wrenching to force change upon them than to do nothing. On the other hand, these sorts of parishes have no long-term future (unless they have an endowment they can spend down) and can’t be counted on to breath new energy into the church.
If the church can’t be comfortable with a large number of such parishes, do declining parishes need to be merged, thereby creating the possibility for a larger staff? I was on a diocesan staff during a couple of mergers and I am here to tell you this needs to be handled with great patience and skill.
Do diocesan and churchwide staff positions need to be rethought to provide more extensive training for volunteers? The Diocese of Vermont gave this some thought in shaping the job description for its next communications manager and included these lines: “Build a supportive network of parish communicators and offer training and support to volunteers and staff.” And “Experience training, supporting, and managing volunteers.”
Can the church come up with other creative ways such as Creating for a Cause, the Episcopal Service Corps affiliate in the Diocese of Milwaukee, whose interns provide creative services to non-profit organizations?
A well-funded, well-coordinated, churchwide effort either to train volunteers, or to pair congregations with willing interns or professionals willing to donate their time, might be fruitful. Of course, you still need to recruit, motivate and reward the volunteers, which is a whole ‘nother field of expertise.