By G. Jeffrey MacDonald

In Bethel, Vermont, Christ Church cannot afford a full-time priest. But its buildings — an in-town church and parish hall, plus a historic church for summer use a few miles away in the countryside — are in good shape. So is the congregation’s record of giving thousands a year to the local food pantry and supporting other missions.

Christ Church’s priest, the Rev. Shelie Richardson, is a volunteer who works as a full-time insurance agent. That has freed much-needed cash for buildings and benevolence.

“It’s money we just wouldn’t have available if we were trying to pay for a salary, a reasonable retirement, and all the things that go along with being an employer,” said Nancy Wuttke, Christ Church’s senior warden.

In turning to volunteer clergy, Christ Church ranks among scores of Episcopal congregations exploring what becomes possible when the priest is not paid a penny. Such arrangements can have drawbacks and need careful structure, diocesan officials say. But they also open the door to new vitality, an invigorated laity, and what many regard as a heartening shift in congregational dynamics.

“This is a small but mighty congregation,” said the Rev. Beth Hilgartner, diocesan companion to Christ Church, which has an average Sunday attendance of about 20. “In some ways, they’re more vital than when they had a paid priest. … I like to ask, what does this church mean to you? In a vital congregation, the answers will be all about the community that gathers or about the ministry they’re doing in the world.”

Because unpaid clerics are seldom identified as such, their status often is unnoticed, but they are in every diocese of the Episcopal Church. Thirteen percent of all working Episcopal clergy are uncompensated, according to church statistics. The practice of using unpaid priests stretches across dioceses from Northern Michigan, where 91 percent of working clergy are unpaid, to Nevada (61 percent), Northern California (46 percent), and Northwestern Pennsylvania (43 percent).

The faithful usually turn to volunteer clergy for financial reasons. Episcopal congregations saw average Sunday attendance drop 26 percent from 2005 to 2015, and yearly pledging has not kept pace with inflation. In a cross-denominational survey, the Hartford Institute for Religion Research found median church budgets shrank from $150,000 in 2010 to $125,000 in 2015. Reliance on part-time clergy jumped in the same period from 29 to 38 percent. The vast majority of volunteer clergy serve part time, according to data from the National Congregations Study.

But having a volunteer priest does not require settling for reduced leadership or ministry.

Take, for instance, St. Matthew’s Church in Henderson, Texas. In 2007, when the last full-time priest stepped down, the congregation counted 65 active participants. Morale was low and funds were too scant to call a successor.

Now after 10 years with the Rev. Patsy Barham as volunteer priest-in-charge, St. Matthew’s has swelled to 100 active congregants. The number of pledging units has nearly doubled from 10 to 19. The entire campus has been renovated, including an expanded playground and new flooring in the sanctuary. A capital campaign was unnecessary to fund improvements because the church budget can now afford both regular maintenance and upgrades, Barham said.

“Patsy’s church has blossomed under her part-time leadership much more so than when they had full-time clergy,” said Mary MacGregor, former canon for congregational vitality in the Diocese of Texas.

Volunteer pastorates vary widely in their structure and what they entail. Some congregations find ways to provide the ample tending and priestly care they need. Others thrive on the freedom and flexibility that come with the territory.

At St. Matthew’s, Barham dedicates 40 to 50 hours a week to the ministry. She’s a retired teacher and can afford to do unpaid ministry, she said, because her husband works, her children are grown, and rural east Texas is relatively affordable. She spends more than 20 hours preparing each week’s sermon, she said. The rest of the time goes into Sunday morning, administrative duties, and pastoral care such as hospital visitation, which can involve long drives.

Barham finds that being unpaid makes a big difference in how members perceive and respond to her. She teaches that everyone has a ministry. No one is excused, in her view, because excuses — such as I’m too old, I’m too young, or I’ve done my turn — have no basis in Scripture. That point sinks in because she models it.

“They have a photograph that somebody took of me, and underneath it says, ‘It’s hard to say no to her,’” Barham said. “It’s all part of identity. They picked up on the fact that nobody is paying me anything. Nobody is reimbursing me for anything. … If I can do this and give of myself in the way I am as a model to them, then it’s hard for them to use excuses.”

Barham also finds parishioners hold her work in high regard precisely because she is unpaid. One vestry member served for a year before he studied the budget during one meeting and gasped when he saw no line item for clergy pay. He said nothing until the meeting was over.

“As we were all leaving in the parking lot, he extended his hand, and when I extended mine, well, he kissed the back of my hand,” she recalled. “He said, ‘I had no idea that we did not reimburse you for your time and giving. I have a new respect for you.’ That’s all we’ve ever said about that.”

At Christ Church, members take a very different approach. They rally to make sure the pastoral load is shared among many. Three more congregants are aspirants to ordination in order to give Christ Church a deep bench of priestly leadership. Ten of the 20 who attend weekly take turns preaching, which means Richardson can focus on being the celebrant at Eucharist. She needs to prepare a sermon only a few times a year.

“It’s up to us to keep the church alive,” said Katie Runde, an artist, musician, and divinity-school graduate who takes a turn preaching at Christ Church several times a year. “In some ways, it’s more alive because every member is active.”

But some who work closely with congregations urge caution. Remaining committed to church buildings while cutting back on staff positions is common practice in the Diocese of Western Massachusetts, where about half of the 56 congregations have no full-time priest, said the Rev. Canon Pamela Mott, canon to the ordinary. When churches cut back a priest’s hours, they end up with diminished means to sustain their properties, she said.

“You don’t have the leadership to keep it going, to be able to do the development work and keep the building going for a smaller and smaller group of people,” she said. “So my question is, why does the building always win?

Mott mentions an alternative path to vitality for the cash-strapped: keep the salaried priest and leave the building. She cites Grace Church in Great Barrington, which launched in 2013 after two historic congregations parted with their large buildings and high maintenance costs.

“It was the best thing that ever happened to them, most of them will tell you,” she said. The new congregation has a full-time cleric, just not a building. It rents worship space in Barrington Brewery’s reception hall and rents an office in a strip mall.

“It raises some challenges around funerals and Christmas Eve,” when the church lacks access to its usual worship space. “Some people long for a building, for a place,” she said. “But there are benefits. The brewery sets up for them, plows and shovels. If there’s a leak, they don’t have to worry about it.”

However practical a rental arrangement may be, cutting back to part-time or unpaid clergy is the more common path for cost containment. Forty-eight percent of Episcopal congregations had no full-time paid clergy in 2014, up from 43 percent five years earlier.

Sustaining a volunteer priesthood is part of that tapestry, especially in dioceses that have a tradition of it, such as Nevada.

Most Nevada clergy are paid nothing, largely because the region has a half-century heritage of Total Ministry, which refers to distributing pastoral roles across a team of congregants. Without formal training, clergy were raised up from within a local flock and authorized to serve in only one local setting. (The Episcopal Church no longer authorizes a separate class of limited-authority clergy.) The trend in Nevada is now moving from volunteer clergy to part-time paid priests with some theological training, said the Rev. Canon Catherine Gregg, canon for congregational vitality.

In general, “congregations did not grow and flourish and mature under this kind of leadership,” she said. But a few continue to make it work and even find vitality, in part by dedicating most resources to outreach rather than salaries.

Gregg cites the bilingual St. Matthew’s Church in Whitney, the East Las Vegas neighborhood with the city’s highest crime rate. The Rev. Christie Leavitt serves with two other priests and two deacons in a Total Ministry model in which all have served without pay for decades. The congregation is a model for others, in part because it offers the Eucharist in Spanish as well as English.

In Nevada, “the Total Ministry model allowed us to keep parishes because you needed that sacramental presence and you needed the outreach-into-the-world kind of presence to have a viable parish,” said Leavitt, who has served without pay at St. Matthew’s for 28 years. “We were looking for that to be the core and build other ministries around that. And that’s what’s happened.”

With no salaries to pay, St. Matthew’s takes pride in steering what resources it has into helping impoverished neighbors and welcoming worshipers who cannot afford to donate much, including recent immigrants, casino workers, and prostitutes. Giving has become a defining attribute, not only of St. Matthew’s clergy but also of the entire flock, as Gregg observed in her first visit to the congregation for a workshop in January.

“You know what I really noticed when I came here?” she asked a group of 50 who had gathered on a Friday night to brainstorm about the church’s niche and future. “Your generosity. You take time to gather stuff and make it available to your neighbors in three different rooms. It’s so beautifully displayed: food, clothes, wine glasses, silverware. There’s a spirit of generosity that says, What we have, we share. What we have, we give. That really, really struck me in my first 15 minutes of being here.”

As congregations seek ways to do more with less, some are teaming up to learn how a volunteer pastorate and vitality can go hand in hand. In Vermont, Christ Church leads two other churches — St. Luke’s in Fair Haven and St. Andrew’s in St. Johnsbury — through a diocesan program. Parishioners see the mentorship as sharing a blessing.

“It would be stifling for us to go back to having a full-time priest,” said Wuttke, senior warden of Christ Church. “If we were given some big chunk of money, we would do more repairs on old Christ Church. To think, Oh, you know what, we could afford a priest now; I just don’t think that would occur to us.”

This report is the third 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.

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