By Mike Patterson

St. Mary’s Episcopal Church in Madisonville, Kentucky, population 19,591, has been without a rector for four years.  Not that it hasn’t tried to find one, but after advertising, web postings and word of mouth, it’s had only one application before the search committee. That applicant withdrew from consideration.

The bright red double doors, pitched roof and dark brown cedar shake siding are as inviting as a welcome mat to the parish in western Kentucky.  A video on its website features parishioners sharing how much they love St. Mary’s.

What gives?

Senior Warden Jim Love, whose family has attended the church since his father moved to the community in 1962, thinks he knows the problem.

“It’s the location,” he said. Madisonville is a manufacturing hub along Interstate 69 in Kentucky’s Western Coal Fields, 155 miles southwest of Louisville and 150 miles northwest of Nashville, Tennessee.

“They’d rather be in Louisville or a bigger city, thinking that they have more things to do,” he said in an interview with TLC.  “Madisonville seems to be a place to get your feet wet and then move on to the big city.”

Church members aren’t novices at rector searches. They’ve gone through this process three or four times over 15 years. They’ve even talked to neighboring congregations about sharing a priest. No interest. “Here’s the reality kick,” Love said. “We may not find someone.”

Averaging a Sunday attendance of 40, St. Mary’s functions without its own rector through the work of a recently retired deacon, the vestry, church members and transitional and supply priests. Lately, COVID-19 has forced St. Mary’s and other churches to go virtual to protect the health and safety of congregations.

So, St. Mary’s thought, if we can run a remote service, why can’t we have a remote priest? In other words, “Is it reasonable to come up with a virtualized rector?” Love wondered.

Love is in the software business and believes that with modern technology such as Zoom, FaceTime, and cell phones “we can put a person in contact with the rector, with the community on Sunday or a prayer group.”

“I think it’s way outside the thought pattern of what churches have been,” he acknowledged. “But from my technical world, yes, relationships can be built if the parties are available and willing to learn the technology which is available to us all.”

Forced to forsake face-to-face contact during the coronavirus pandemic, St. Mary’s has adapted to the new virtual world by assigning vestry members to connect with parishioners “on a periodic basis to maintain health checks, friendships, and other needs,” he said. “Could this method of service be extended to the rector’s method of communications during this pandemic? If assets are provided to members who do not have access to a Zoom type of communication, the rector could provide face-to-to face interaction and build a relationship to communicate the message of caring.”

Other challenges facing St. Mary’s are that fewer students are graduating from seminaries and entering the ministry as well as churches in larger cities being able to offer clergy higher salaries than smaller, rural churches. “Here is the crazy idea:  Do we as a community of Episcopal churches in western Kentucky need to think outside the box and return to a ‘digital rector on a horse,’ who with technology, visits a group of surrounding parishes to serve the members?” he wondered.

A remote relationship with a rector raises several interesting questions. For example, how would Holy Communion be offered? “Since the Episcopal Church desires to have Communion in person, the closest solution would be a version of an in-person Communion,” Love said.  This might be accomplished by utilizing a supply priest, deacon or a layperson authorized to present the reserved sacraments. (See “Western Louisiana Bishop Authorizes, Then Rescinds, Virtual Consecration,” and several Covenant articles on the topic. – Ed.)

Another question is how a “virtual” rector could offer the personal and spiritual support sought by the congregation. How this would play out would be “dependent upon the individual’s willingness to create this type of relationship,” Love explained. “Our option at this point is no spiritual relationship with a rector.”

“But just as we have created long-distance relationships with our family members with FaceTime or Zoom-type video conferencing and calls, we have adapted.  Personally, I would rather have a virtual relationship with a family member versus none at all,” he said.

Love also acknowledged that “there are a number of administrative and leadership issues that would be unique to this relationship,” especially to avoid any potential concerns or conflicts between those physically present at the church and a rector who is physically absent. “Fulfilling the role of a ‘virtual rector’ will take a very unique person but we are willing to think outside the box,” he said. “If St. Mary’s is to survive the next years,” he said, “the vestry leadership will be the key to solving this problem.”

The Rt. Rev. Terry Allen White, Bishop of the Diocese of Kentucky, told TLC that St. Mary’s is a “great place to give this a try. I’m really positive about what they want to do.  This is a place with strong leadership and is willing to innovate.  They are an incredibly loveable congregation for how they care for each other and the Madisonville community.” White said the lessons learned at St. Mary’s have the potential of benefiting the greater Episcopal Church by showing the pluses of a remote relationship with a rector as well as identifying things that can’t be done remotely.

The Rev. Dr. Nathan G. Jennings is an associate professor of liturgics and Anglican studies and director of community worship at the Seminary of the Southwest in Austin, Texas. Commenting on the general concept of a remote rector, Jennings said, “It’s clearly not ideal, but is it better than nothing?” He would “hate to throw out the precedent” of a priest living within the community and being “part of the people you’re living with. The pastor of the church is part of that church and the point person in the life of that church.”

Jennings wondered “if there is a creative way to reason out a way for this parish.” He believes something good could work out for St. Mary’s as long as the rector visits them in-person pastorally, sacramentally and in a leadership capacity at special vestry meetings on some regular basis. He suggested the rector could also visit the church quarterly or at key points in the year, such as at Christmas, Easter and Holy Week.

Jennings agreed that the question over Communion was vexing. “Sacraments have to happen in person,” he said. “That’s part of our commitment to Christ coming to us in the flesh.” In addition, “it is really hard to imagine giving pastoral care through only electronic means,” Jennings said. “A pastoral relationship to a suffering Christian is sacramental in nature.” When a person is suffering a pastoral crisis they encounter Christ through a properly ordained minister which is the means by which Christ makes himself present to those who are suffering, he explained.

Providing leadership to the vestry and congregation could also be affected by a remote relationship. “The rector has a huge role in leading a vestry,” he said. “There is a difference between leading a meeting when you are meeting in person and when you are meeting on Zoom or on the phone. We read each other’s nervous system when we are with each other. Being completely absent from that could be potentially malformative.” A remote relationship also has the potential of putting a damper on the ability of a rector to develop personal relationships with the congregation, which depend on a physical presence to flourish, Jennings said.

Looking ahead, Jennings doesn’t foresee St. Mary’s portending the future for other small churches.  “I don’t think this is a trend,” he said. “This constitutes a fairly unique situation.”

“But I’m not so old-school and stodgy that we rule it out of hand,” he said. “A lot of the best moves the church has made have been done because of pastoral accommodations.  I think this is a case where we are going to be challenged.”

Mike Patterson is a free-lance writer and photographer based in San Antonio, Texas. He attends St. Michael and All Angels Episcopal Church in the rural community of Blanco, Texas.