Children gathered for the first half of the service at St. Columba’s Church, Kent, Washington.
By G. Jeffrey MacDonald
St. Columba’s Church in Kent, a suburb of Seattle, bears myriad marks of a vital congregation. New ministries shelter homeless men inside and feed the hungry from new vegetable gardens outside. At 79, average Sunday attendance (ASA) is up 44 percent since 2014.
The only thing missing at St. Columba’s, according to a few older members, is a full-time priest. To hold down costs, the church shifted in 2014 to a part-time model when it called the Rev. Canon Alissabeth Newton, the Diocese of Olympia’s canon for congregational development, to serve as vicar of the parish 30 hours a week.
But the part-time pastorate is turning out to be a blessing, and not just for St. Columba’s bottom line. The priest’s limited hours mean more responsibilities fall to the laity, who are motivated to discover how much they can do.
“The congregation has been revitalized,” said Bob Ewing, a founding member of St. Columba’s in 1959. It struggled under a prior full-time priest who “wanted to run the show and stepped on a lot of toes,” Ewing said. But a part-timer’s focus on empowering laity is bearing fruit.
As a church experiencing life after full-time clergy, St. Columba’s has plenty of company. From 2010 to 2015, the percentage of American congregations led by a part-time cleric jumped from 29 to 38, according to a Faith Communities Today (FACT) survey from the Hartford Institute for Religion Research. As far back as 2012, 38 percent of mainline Protestant congregations had no paid full-time clergy according to the latest National Congregations Survey from Duke Divinity School. That number is likely higher today, researchers say.
Shifting to part-time clergy helps congregations slash budgets when their ranks thin out and revenues drop. But denominational officials often urge the faithful to cut elsewhere before reducing the pastoral footprint. Because so much programming, visitation, and worship have been clergy-dependent, they fear a smaller pastorate will equate to less ministry and a hastened decline.
“Those congregations that are choosing part-time ministry are choosing a slow and steady decline towards death,” said the Rev. Sara Anderson, associate to the bishop for the New England Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. She said vital congregations need a pastor who leads outreach and community engagement, but a part-time pastor does not have time for those duties.
“For a part-time pastor, really about the only thing they can do is lead Sunday morning worship and visit the sick,” Anderson said.
But congregations are challenging that assumption along with notions that they will not be attractive, will not have much to offer, or will not be a “real church” if they go part time. As more congregations make the move, some are finding it does not have to mean decline. It can lead instead to new focus and strategic redeployment of assets, including clergy and volunteer time.
In the United Methodist Church, 20 percent of the church’s 32,000 congregations have part-time clergy, but nearly all the ones that close (95 percent in 2014) are led by full-time pastors. Those with part-time pastors appear to be relatively resilient with reduced overhead, a lean staffing model, and expanded responsibilities for laity.
Some that have shifted to part-time clergy are doing more than survive. They are vital as measured by increased mission outreach, growing worship attendance, or increased member engagement:
- Since St. John’s Lutheran Church in Lakewood, Washington, switched to part-time clergy five years ago, ASA has jumped 100 percent, from 25 to 50. The church has boosted mission giving from zero to seven percent and has increased the pastorate from less than half time to 60-percent time.
- Tuttle Road United Methodist Church in Cumberland, Maine, has seen ASA double from 30 to 60 since it made the part-time switch two years ago. New members have come to know the Rev. Linda Brewster through many outreach activities, which she has time to do in part because a layperson leads worship and preaches once a month.
- In Carlsbad, New Mexico, First Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) has seen attendance jump from 35 to 45 in the past year. During that time, the church sold its building and now worships in a synagogue. Formerly inactive members have joined a new worship committee, which has revamped sermon time to be interactive, with congregants responding to questions from Pastor David Roberts.
Not all congregations find vitality in the part-time model; some continue to decline. But consultants say it is crucial for churches to learn from successful examples if mainline Protestantism is going to save thousands of its congregations that can no longer afford full-time paid ministry.
Nowhere is the trend toward part time more visible than in the Episcopal Church, in which 48 percent of congregations have no paid full-time priest. That number is up from 43 percent in 2012, according to the church’s national statistics, and 10 points higher than that the average among mainline Protestant denominations.
In some dioceses, full-time paid clergy have become a rarity. In the Diocese of Nevada, only 13 percent of churches have full-time clergy. In Northern Michigan, none of the 24 congregations has a full-time priest. Urban dioceses see the trend less starkly than rural ones, but it is still significant. In Pittsburgh, where full-time used to be the norm, only 22 percent of congregations now have full-time clergy.
Shrinking budgets are driving the trend. A church typically cannot afford a full-time pastor unless it has at least 130 worshipers on an average weekend, according to Rick Morse, vice president of Hope Partnership for Missional Transformation, a consultancy for mainline congregations. But 80 percent of congregations now have attendance below that threshold, which means most will need to consider part time at a turning point if they have not already. Meanwhile, the median budget for U.S. congregations fell from $150,000 to $125,000 from 2010 to 2015, according to FACT.
But congregations are finding the shift can be galvanizing. Laity are laying claim to ministries they have long been authorized to do but had always delegated, whether from custom or mere accretion of duties, to a full-time priest, until they no longer had one.
Some congregations extend this thinking to sacraments. At St. Luke’s Church in Fair Haven, Vermont, where the congregation is too small to afford even a part-time priest and has called a volunteer priest-in-training, members do not wait for a visiting cleric to anoint the sick. They anoint the sick themselves, using holy oil consecrated by their bishop.
At St. Timothy’s in Henderson, Nevada, members do not expect their part-time priest-in-charge, the Rev. Carol Walton, to preside at weekday eucharistic services. Instead they receive every Tuesday and Friday through the rite of Eucharist Under Special Circumstances, over which laywoman Muriel Dufendach presides.
“Laypeople can do an awful lot of stuff in the church that priests have gradually taken over,” Dufendach said.
When Walton is able to attend on a weekday, she sits in the pews and receives with everyone else. As long as laypeople want to keep presiding, she said, she’s happy to let them.
“I’m not going to take over something that a layperson has been doing because I think that’s part of vitality: having ministry that people want to do,” Walton said.
Lay members of St. Timothy’s do plenty of ministries that are more typical of laity, such as preparing sack lunches on a Saturday morning for the city’s homeless, but they do not stop there. Some have also presided at memorial services, where they follow the prescribed rite in the Book of Common Prayer. Walton sometimes handles funeral duties herself, but she is glad to let laypeople share that ministry as well.
At St. Columba’s in Kent, Newton finds the congregation does not expect her to be a hands-on manager of every ministry. The gardens, for instance, have grown to the point that they now yield wheat for Communion bread, flowers for the altar, and 300 pounds of food for the church’s food pantry, all without any direct oversight from Newton.
“We want practitioners, not consumers,” Newton said. “We want people at St. Columba’s to learn how to be practitioners of Christian faith. That’s a hands-on activity. It involves writing things, doing things, planting things, talking to people. That’s really different from the megachurch, consumer-of-faith model where you go and consume whatever is prepared for you and go home. It’s hard to learn how to be a practitioner among 2,000 people.”
The key to making a part-time arrangement work at St. Columba’s, said Newton and her mission’s members, is lifting up laypersons’ talents and passions without fear of infringing on the priest’s domain. As a part-timer, Newton has been eager to share responsibilities that do not involve specifically priestly duties of “absolve, bless, and consecrate.” And the mission’s members, who are now accustomed to helping one another in times of loss, have welcomed the challenge.
For James Wyatt, a former Methodist pastor who attends St. Columba’s, being in a part-time priest’s congregation has meant he contributes on a big scale. He preaches when Newton needs a break, for example. He also enjoys leading a ministry to homeless men who take shelter at St. Columba’s for two months a year.
Micah Kurtz, who used to attend a Bellevue megachurch and belongs to St. Columba’s, was struck by how democratic the opportunities are in a church with a part-time priest.
“What I found was an openness to let people own things and say, Hey, why don’t we try this? It might meet your skills maybe. Give it a shot,” Kurtz said. “Making space for people to jump in and do things has really been remarkable.”
This report is the first 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.