Task force proposes plans to meet ministerial needs in small congregations

By Mike Patterson
Posted Jun 27, 2018

[Episcopal News Service] Although capacious churches, glorious choirs, multiple clergy and the smells and bells of Holy Day services may capture the imagination of Episcopalians, the reality is that the majority of congregations in the Episcopal Church tend toward the smaller size, with often dramatically different backdrops and ministerial needs than large churches.

In fact, according to data presented by the Task Force on Clergy Leadership Formation in Small Congregations, 69 percent of Episcopal congregations have an average Sunday attendance of less than 100, placing them in the category of “small congregation.” To take this even further, bishops surveyed by the task force reported that a “substantial minority” of their congregations number less than 20 on an average Sunday.

Recognizing these congregations’ unique needs and issues, the 78th General Convention three years ago asked for a task force to “develop a plan for quality formation for clergy in small congregations that is affordable, theologically reflective and innovative.”

In other words, the task force was charged with recommending steps to provide the “resources to help God’s mission go forward” in small congregations, the Rev. Susanna Singer said in a telephone interview. And unless more and different resources are provided, she added, the traditional model of seminary-trained clerics serving small congregations cannot be sustained.

Singer serves as chair of the task force and is also associate professor of ministry development at Church Divinity School of the Pacific in Berkeley, California.

Among the issues facing small congregations is that many are located in rural communities and often remote locales that may not appeal to clergy, especially those fresh out of seminary, she said. Since most seminaries are in cities, Singer said seminarians tend to remain in urban areas.

“The pool of people who are discerning ministries are not in rural areas,” she said. “Persuading traditionally formed clergy to move to rural areas is difficult for small congregations.”

Another headwind that small congregations confront is their inability to pay a full-time rector or compete financially with what large, urban congregations can offer. Consequently, small congregations may need to rely on clergy who serve with little or no pay or have vocations in addition to the ministry.

“The findings of the task force indicate that in the future, an increasing number of ordained ministers in the Episcopal Church will be non-stipendiary or bi-vocational,” the task force’s report concluded. “The data also shows that small congregations will depend more heavily on these clergy.”

To confront these challenges, the task force will propose a pair of resolutions to present to the General Convention next month in Austin aimed at improving clergy and licensed lay leadership formation in small congregations and to provide funding for theological education and formation for those wishing to serve small congregations through nontraditional pathways.

“To meet the need of small congregations for clergy and to avoid burdening these clergy with substantial debt, new strategies to provide funding for their theological education are needed,” the report said.

To prepare its recommendations, the task force first identified specific areas to concentrate its focus. These include what capacities and skills are considered most necessary for clergy and lay leaders in small congregations, how to financially support those seeking ordination to serve in small congregations, how to encourage more under-represented populations to serve as lay leaders and ordained ministers, and how to better share and make available formation, theological and educational resources.

The task force also conducted a survey of bishops, canons and chairs of commissions on ministry to obtain their input. Although lay members of small congregations were not specifically included in the survey, a number of those surveyed had experience in these settings. The task force considered surveying small and rural congregations but concluded it was not feasible to obtain a representative and valid sampling.

Based on its work, the task force concluded that there is “already a wealth of resources available for leadership formation” from many different cultural and theological orientations. The problem, however, is the lack of awareness of the existence of the resources, the lack of staff to access them, and a “siloing” effect that hinders the sharing of resources throughout the Episcopal Church.

“Small dioceses don’t have the kind of staffing to find the resources,” Singer said. “People only know about a narrow sliver of what’s out there.”

Another area of identified needs was “for robust discernment and formation for clergy and lay leadership so that small congregations … may be most effectively served,” the task force said.

Availability of “appropriate and culturally-sensitive vocational discernment and formation materials and strategies for clergy leaders called from ethnic minority communities” was also found to be lacking, according to the report. And “there is also a clear need for greater availability of suitable resources in Spanish.”

When the task force submitted its report for the General Convention’s Blue Book, it requested $900,000 in Resolution A022 to create a “Formation Networking Team” to serve as a referral hub for existing and specially developed resources for the discernment of clergy and lay vocations, formation and training.

The task force met the early deadline requirements for submissions to the convention’s reports but has also done “substantial work” and interviews after its initial report was submitted, Singer said.

Based on its subsequent work and interviews, the task force intends to submit a substitute resolution that combines its proposed Resolutions A022 through A026. The substitute resolution will reduce its budget request to $300,000 by relying more on part-time team members with minimal stipends “just so we have a chance” to get its funding approved, Singer said.

Another significant change planned for the substitute resolution concerns renaming the proposed Formation Networking Team name as the Theological Education Networking Team (TENT) to make it “more indicative” of its purpose and goal, she said.

The task force also submitted Resolution A027, which would direct the Executive Council to establish a committee to “develop and implement a plan to provide need-based central scholarship funding to individuals pursuing theological education to serve as priests or deacons” in small congregations in non-stipendiary positions or on a bi-vocational basis.

Singer said the task force was presented with an “enormous task” but focused its work on generating a plan that is doable and a start, not the “do all, end all. It’s very concrete and specific and will probably open the doors for other developments. It provides a stepping stone.”

— Mike Patterson is a San Antonio-based freelance writer and correspondent for the Episcopal News Service. He is a member of ENS General Convention reporting team and can be reached at rmp231@gmail.com.


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Comments (9)

  1. F William Thewalt says:

    With 69% of E congregations falling into this category, strong measures are necessary if we are to survive as the denomination we now know. It would be pretty hard to survive as a denomination that only serves densely populated, largely urban areas. In my travels around the Midwest, I see lots of prosperous looking Methodist churches in countless small towns. They must know something we do not. There seems to be a bias against non-seminary trained clergy yet the majority of our churches simply cannot, or will not be able to, afford seminary trained clergy. This bias must be overcome. The “Flyover Church” might be a step in the right direction.

  2. R H Lewis VTS1963 says:

    Have we forgotten the work done in Northern Michigan and other locations as to building local teams: a person for administration , a deacon, a priest and/or a pastoral care . There was a great deal of work done on Total Common Ministry in various places ( Nevada & Navajo Area) .Has that been taken into account ? Some Lutheran work has used the concept of the CircuitRider as in the “olden days”. I have done some similar service in the Dio. of Albany.

  3. I have served as a priest in a family/pastoral size rural congregation for 8 years. One of the biggest challenges small parishes face today is the need for technology and communication resources to meet our cultural demands for communication via a growing number of social media outlets. We also face a shortage of available volunteers to plan and lead church ministries because there is no such thing as a “stay at home mom” anymore – most people work 40-60 hours each week to make ends meet. Thus, the ‘unspoken’ expectations of clergy in small rural congregations to plan, lead, and do everything; and based upon this article, to do this without pay or as an additional “weekend job” instead of spending time resting or with their families. I do believe the church needs to find ways to educate clergy that are less expensive so they don’t come out of seminary with debt that prohibits them from serving in small rural congregations, but I’d like to see some consideration given to historical methods of training and service such as “reading for holy orders and yoked congregations” or newer methods like “online or distance learning” before taking the drastic solution of non-stipendiary and bi-vocational clergy solutions. Also, if church software companies could provide diocesan licensing options for website development and maintenance, membership database and financial management packages, and formation curriculum then small churches could access the same tools that larger churches have a available to them for running the business side of church operations.

  4. The Rev Beverly Patterson says:

    I am the Canon Missioner for the Coastal Bend in the Diocese of West Texas and a graduate from Sewanee. Something that needs to be taken into consideration when training individuals for small church ministry is the variety of non-academic functions we must be prepared to handle. I have 4 small congregations, one is closed and I assist with closure and disbursment of the church property, one was seroiusly damaged by hurricane Harvey and I meet with contractors concerning repairs, I have taught people church finances, I have been the computer technician, I have pulled out moldy carpet, done a bit of gardening on top of sermon prep, hospital visits, Bible studies, etc that is fundamental to the position. Small church clergy must be prepared to wear many hats, often at the same time. You also must be creative on very small budgets with few volunteers who have limited skills in the area you must ask them to work in.

  5. I wonder why lay members were not included in the survey. I serve two small parishes that are not yoked, but could probably share more than the priest. I could use relief for the seminary education payments I will be making until I am 90. I could use database and financial management packages, and website maintenance. I could use a prayer team!! My Methodist friends serve 2-3 parishes and make it work somehow. There has to be another way. I am willing to serve on this Task Force

  6. The Rev. George Glazier says:

    I would echo the comments above. As a retired priest I serve a small but vibrant congregation in London, Ohio. This Task Force did not interview the one group that could help direct its work – the lay people in small congregations. I know that this would be a lot of work but without it the Task Force is just spinning its wheels.

  7. You are right the laity are extremely busy these days working often long hours at their jobs. My daughter has worked for some different corporations and they encourage their employees to volunteer at a company sponsored charity. So their “personal time” is more limited by this volunteer work too. Churches do need to do more “social media” and online outreach these days. This is how people communicate to day, especially younger people. May be the old “parish secretary” role needs to change to more of a “parish coordinator” role, a person trained in such work would be easier to find and employ than a seminary trained priest. And would make it easier for small churches to share a priest.

  8. Jack Hanstein says:

    The solution will come from the laity. Surveying only clergy guarantees failure.
    Parish administrator and licensed lay leaders, supported by part time clergy is a good solution. Seminary trained clergy will demand high salaries they have large debts to pay.
    Circuit rider clergy as a resource to trained and licensed lay leaders is a good solution.
    Ask and invite lay leaders to your task force.

    1. Sarah Walker says:

      We are lucky and blessed in my small congregation to have a bi-vocational priest, who is there for all Sunday services except when on vacation. The absence of a priest and regular Sunday Eucharists leads to the death of a congregation in my opinion. The regular Sunday Eucharist is the focal point of The Episcopal Church, and without it, the church will die a slow death. “Part time,” as in two Sundays a month, priest visits just are not enough to allow the church to grow. Tell a congregation which Sunday their priest will be on vacation and you will see how few will be there on Sunday!

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