With an aging congregation and facing costly building repairs, Holy Trinity Church in Southbridge, Massachusetts, tried twice in the past 15 years to reduce its clergy position from full time to part time. But only once did the effort lead to a renewed church.
The first attempt flopped because Holy Trinity did not think through what part-time ministry would involve, said former senior warden Tamsin Lucey. After nine months of searching in vain for a part-timer, parishioners ended up calling a full-timer. That decision would mean tapping endowment funds by $160,000 for the next eight years to cover the compensation package.
Holy Trinity learned from its experience. Before the Rev. Richard Signore came on board as part-time rector in 2014, he and the congregation adopted clear job descriptions detailing their respective responsibilities. Routine visitation would be the domain of the laity, as would Communion for the homebound. Because everyone knew what part-time ministry would mean, laypeople were confident to make the pastorate part-time and to lead new outreach at the same time.
“Sharing God’s word and doing God’s ministry looks different now,” Lucey said. “If it was going to be viable and sustainable, then it had to be mutual.”
Holy Trinity ranks among thousands of cash-strapped mainline congregations that have had to adjust in recent years to life after full-time clergy. In the Episcopal Church, 48 percent of congregations have no full-time paid clergy, up from 43 percent five years earlier. If trends continue, most of the Episcopal Church’s 6,500 congregations will soon be led by priests who work in secular jobs, stay home with children, or have retired.
When congregations are not intentional about the transition to part-time ministry, they often fall into an insular chaplaincy model, say officials in several mainline denominations. Clergy become so busy with members’ needs (mostly worship leadership and pastoral care) that they have no time for outreach, and decline continues.
“Suddenly it’s not the priest that does all the pastoral care. It’s the congregation,” said the Rev. Canon Pamela Mott, canon to the ordinary in the Diocese of Western Massachusetts. “But if they’ve all got less time these days, and the congregation isn’t organized in a way that you can find your place in doing that, then that is a recipe for decline in a parish.”
As more churches choose part-time ministers, diocesan leaders are beginning to see how some find vitality in the model. Much depends on having a vision and realigning assets to see it through.
“The mental shift is crucial,” said the Rt. Rev. Dorsey McConnell, Bishop of Pittsburgh, where 76 percent of congregations have no full-time clergy. The shift involves “a reorientation away from the sanctuary being the main thing to mission in the world being the main thing.”
Vital congregations with part-time clergy tell a common story. They take stock of what they have, strategically reallocate assets to pursue a clear mission, and trust God to deliver the growth.
Consider Tuttle Road United Methodist Church in Cumberland, Maine. In 1995, the congregation expanded its facility and renovated its worship space, but average Sunday attendance (ASA) declined over time and Tuttle Road struggled to pay its building costs. By 2013, ASA had dwindled to 30, and the church knew it could no longer afford a full-time pastor.
In deciding to call a part-time pastor, Tuttle Road reconsidered everything from the structure of the pastorate to the congregation’s responsibilities. A scattered array of mission projects, accumulated across 20 years, landed on the chopping block.
“We decided to give them up so that we could take a fresh look at what are the passions of the congregation that’s there now,” said the Rev. Linda Brewster, who works as a full-time nurse practitioner. “There was a little bit of [backlash] from a few of the older folks in the congregation, saying, We have a responsibility to these ministries and we shouldn’t be giving them up. But the reality was that they weren’t participating in those ministries.”
To avoid the chaplaincy trap, Tuttle Road took steps to give more time and resources for new forms of outreach and evangelism. The congregation stopped expecting its pastor to attend committee meetings and to preach every Sunday. Once a month, a layperson plans and leads worship, including preaching.
Such adjustments give Pastor Brewster time to pilot various community initiatives, see what works, and discontinue those that lose steam. She has pioneered a mother’s group for the region, a pub theology discussion group, and a recruitment drive that invites neighbors to join medical mission trips she leads to Guatemala.
Success stories from Tuttle Road include Messy Grace, which brings in young unchurched families. They come on Saturdays for 10-minute worship, music, dinner, and environmental lessons in such areas as gardening and composting. When Messy Grace families started requesting baptisms, Brewster knew the revamped approach to ministry was bearing fruit.
By redeploying assets, especially staff and volunteer time, Tuttle Road has rediscovered vitality. ASA has surged 100 percent in three years, from 30 to 60. Members are engaged in worship, administration, and outreach on a level unseen in the recent past. Paving the way was the comprehensive vision that shed non-essentials and stressed evangelistic outreach.
“We initially fought going part time because we thought that would be the kiss of death,” said Tom Hall, a member of Tuttle Road and occasional lay preacher. “But I would claim that we are a more spiritual body now than we were under the full-time pastor. … It’s like building a new church. We’re not at all what we were before.”
Taking stock and reallocating assets has reconnected members with their roots. For Episcopal congregations, it harkens back to colonial and antebellum eras, when priests were in such short supply that most congregations had to share one, said E. Brooks Holifield, professor emeritus of American church history at Emory University and author of God’s Ambassadors: A History of the Christian Clergy in America.
He notes that in medieval times, clergy were not full-time professionals but worked instead as civil servants, lawyers, administrators, and monks. Not until the proliferation of wealth in the late 19th century did having a full-time cleric become a common expectation of a local flock.
As in most of Christian history, today’s congregations often cannot afford a full-time priest, but how they take stock and retool varies from one setting to the next. At St. John’s Church in Gloucester, Massachusetts, evangelism is seen as a necessity just as it is at Tuttle Road, but here the Rev. Bret Hayes is not the chief evangelist.
Instead, the rector has led a multi-week workshop on lay evangelism so that laypeople can do more of the speaking and inviting. In this shift, among others, the church is leveraging the pastorate anew to make it less about doing tasks for the congregation and more about training the rank-and-file to act in the world as capable, confident ministers.
Rethinking expectations of pastor and congregation is essential for success, observers say, and the process benefits from explicit intentionality. But revising expectations takes time and is not easy.
When Signore was a full-time priest in other congregations, he used to bring altar flowers and Communion to the homebound. People assumed a pastoral visit meant a visit from the priest. He also scheduled ushers, kept church schedules, and maintained records. But at Holy Trinity in Southbridge, members carry out all those duties, which are detailed in their job description.
Still, embracing a new division of labor or a new understanding of roles in a church can be challenging. Signore says members sometimes feel a lay visit does not count as much as a visit from a priest.
“Some of our good old shut-ins [say], Let me know when the priest is available,” Signore said, chuckling. “But the preparation work is extensive, and sometimes it’s the pastoral side of things where I wish I had more time.”
But congregations are discovering how much can be done when they refocus on mission and align assets to advance the cause. At Holy Trinity, the shift to a part-time priest prompted members to ask, Why are we here anyway? Parishioners affirmed their sense of call to serve the surrounding neighborhood, where poverty and drugs are common.
Once on a solid financial footing with a leaner staff structure, the congregation felt emboldened to take some risks for mission. Parishioners began offering free soup on a weekday in the winter. In warmer months, they canvassed the neighborhood with a Spanish-language translator, who helped explain how to become involved in community gardening. When children and their families gathered for First Communion last December, more than 100 people filled the pews, including several families from the immediate neighborhood.
“Where [part-time] ministry works the best, the leader has the ability to discern what are the strengths in the parish,” said Robin Szoke, dean of the Diocese of Central Pennsylvania’s Stevenson School for Ministry. “If you have strengths in administration, you turn it over and let the laity go with it. [Clergy] have oversight, but they do it. … You’re allowing the gifts of the people to emerge and let the Spirit pass the baton.”
This report is the second of three made possible in part by funding from the BTS Center, mission successor to Bangor Theological Seminary. Based in Maine, BTS focuses on 21st-century communities of faith and practice. The conclusions reported here are those of the reporter and the people he interviewed.
Image: Church gardening is one of the ways Tuttle Road Church brings in young, unchurched families.