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“Where have all the Rectors gone?”

“Where have all the Rectors gone?”

I attended a clericus meeting in Arizona today. One of the topics that came up in our free ranging discussion was the changes that have happened to small to medium size churches that used to be able to employ a full time seminary trained priest. What used to be the most common model of parish ministry has become almost a rarity.

We’re not the only people asking such questions apparently. The Rev. Gary Gilbertson has a blog post reporting on a conversation he had with his peers on the same topic, and his has data!

“As one older priest lamented, ‘we used to have a lot of rectors in our diocese but now — not so many.’  National Church statistics prove his point: collectively the three contiguous dioceses represented in our group report information on 124 congregations with 80 (65%) being too small both in membership and dollars to have a rector; they are usually termed ‘family size’ and have average Sunday attendance (ASA) under 50.  Eleven of these congregations have an average  Sunday attendance of fewer than 10 persons and twenty-five more congregations have ASA at 20 or less.  God love the people in these tiny congregations for their loyalty and their devotion.  But no rectors here anymore!

Above ‘family size’ are ‘pastoral size’ congregations with an ASA between 50 and 150.  The three dioceses have 33 (27 %) churches this size with several of them being very fragile.  Some are joined with family size congregations to be served in cluster ministries, or are yoked with another congregation to cut costs.  Many are forced to provide only minimum compensation and then call older clergy to avoid having to pay for family level medical insurance.  

Not a bright picture, 92% of the congregations in these three dioceses are not able to call a rector or can only obtain the services of a rector on a minimum or reduced cost basis. We have always hoped that with the right leadership (priest and bishop) and hard work by the membership, these congregations could grow.  So what has happened under a half a dozen dedicated bishops and scores of committed clergy?  Not one of these congregations has moved up a category in the past 10 years; several have moved down.  At best our strategies are a holding action and not a posture for meaningful growth. “

It’s a tough question and there are no simple answers. Anyone have any suggestions?


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Clint Davis

The laity and diaconate need to step up and do a whole lot, and let the priests be priests. I think we’ve got a real problem, in that most people who want to identify as Episcopalians for whatever reason just don’t believe in the priesthood anymore. They’re so damn thoughtful that they forget how to let go of thought and let God in every once in a while. Priests are PRIESTS, and must be ordered to do PRIESTLY things, or else what is the point? Why are priests expected to WAIT TABLES, to SERVE like DEACONS? Order and appoint deacons for these jobs. Priests are trying so hard to be “ordinary people” that they forget they are pontiffs, bridge builders with the invisible. But that’s too “woo woo”, that’s too superstitious anymore, that’s too much clericalism for many self-professing Episcopalians. And that’s really too bad.

I’m a musician. It is also my job to be sort of pontiff, by my chanting and organ-playing and choral direction to build a bridge to the invisible, to the heavenly house not made with hands. But it falls flat without a priest similarly oriented. If I could get a priest who opened the doors every morning and said Mattins, and who opened them again every evening and said Evening Prayer, and who on feast days – every feast day – said the Holy Eucharist at a time when most people are off work, not at 12:15 in the afternoon, and who believed that it was vitally important that the daily round of services be offered regardless who shows up, because that’s what the Church does, showing the world that we care as much about the Living Bread as we do about bread for the homeless…if I could find THIS priest, then oh my goodness there would be CHURCH on Sunday, hallelujah. I’ve seen it, I’ve done it, I’ve been there and played and sung for it, and people show up and give money, and help the poor afterwards, and set up clinics and visit the sick and bring the Eucharist to shut ins, and lift up the fallen and give free classical concerts and organize mission trips and train the young in the faith and all the rest.

No one seems to believe in a priesthood anymore. No one seems to trust the power of the liturgy to do what it has been doing for millenia now. That’s why there are no rectors anymore, because we’ve let ourselves talk ourselves out of them and their importance.

Rod Gillis

With regard to locally raised up clergy as a viable option, our experience here indicates otherwise.

Our diocese has had a Non-stipendiary ministry program going back to the late nineties. The number of “non-stipes” has ballooned but parish decline continues.

Typically, non-stipes minister in parishes that also have professional life vocation clergy as a rector.

Many of these parishes have experienced conflict as part of this dynamic.

The non-stipe program appears to have simply entrenched clericalism at the expense of the ministry of the whole people of God.

The model held out the potential of putting people with special skills into specialized ministries but instead non-stipes have become very much a maintenance model ministry.

In short, non-stipes are not so much an aid to growth as they are a financial stopgap in the midst of decline.

It’s possible that we are being pruned in order that we may bear more fruit than branches in the future. YMMV.

Jan Nunley (added by ~ed.)

A Facebook User

Rather than viewing this as a problem, I choose to view this as an opportunity. Christi highlighted strong lay leadership – perhaps our model needs to change and lay leadership ought to be lifted up more emphatically. Many laypeople have gifts in ministry but perhaps have not yet had the opportunity or, sadly, been encouraged to nourish and utilize them because we have a tradition of clergy doing so much of the heavy lifting. Spreading the work out and letting laity take on more not only might be a more viable model going forward but also would give laity more investment in the church and its future.

Lesley Carter

Connie Clark

The parish I serve went to mission status five years ago after a 200+-year history of being served by supply or part-time clergy. The Diocese saw the potential for growth in our demographics and when the former, part-time Rector retired, offered significant financial support if (1) the parish would commit to growth and do a whole lot of work in the interim period to prepare for that, with Diocesan guidance, and (2) they would call a full-time Vicar after doing a (supervised) national search. They called me. We have grown steadily, after a very rocky first 18 months, which resulted in 8-10 folks leaving; these were the people who previously had basically run the place. Their departure, though initially traumatic, opened the way for real change and growth.

I was going to write that one key element of our progress so far is our extreme focus on mission, but it sounds like other struggling parishes are doing that, too, without the same results. After the departure mentioned above, the remaining lay leadership had real vision and courage to spend significant portions of the budget on creating a food pantry and supporting 50 orphans in a village in Tanzania, among other things. This commitment seems to be crucial in the growth of the parish. But I’m sure our positive demographics is a huge factor too.

Guidance from the Bishop and Diocesan staff and volunteer leaders has been absolutely key. The willingness to receive that guidance is also vital.

No easy answers, though — I’m just grateful to the countless faithful clergy and laypeople who continue to keep the lights on in small (and large) churches.

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