By Mark Michael

The Rt. Rev. Mark Calder, Bishop of Bathurst in rural New South Wales, desperately needs priests, but is short of funds to pay for them. 17 of the Australian diocese’s 27 multi-church parishes are currently vacant, and the diocese still owes about $2 million Australian dollars (USD $1.55 million) to the victims of sexual abuse, the Australian Broadcasting Company (ABC) reports.

Calder, who began his ministry in Bathurst in November 2019, is making the rounds of Australia’s theological colleges this spring, urging clergy in training to consider a call to the sparsely populated region. New ministers will need to raise their own financial support, he says, and should aim to have $30,000 (USD $23,300) in hand before relocating.

He acknowledges that ministry in the region is challenging. Most parishes in the former gold mining region have at least three or four churches or preaching stations, sometimes located dozens of miles from each other. “Some people don’t think they’re cut out for it,” Calder told The Wellington Times, a local paper. “I think that’s part of the challenge of why we’re finding it hard to fill those positions.”

The heavily indebted diocese can’t offer any financial incentive to draw them in.

In 2019, the diocese joined Australia’s National Redress Scheme, which coordinates payments to the victims of child sexual abuse in community institutions across the country. The scheme’s organizers estimate that 60,000 Australians will qualify for the payments, which can range up to $150,000.

In 2016, Calder’ predecessor, Bishop Ian Palmer, reported that the diocese had paid $750,000 to settle 18 complaints of sexual abuse, most of which dated to the 1950s. The $2 million owed to the scheme represents the diocese’s estimated share of present and future claims.

The diocese is also struggling with a legacy of decades of financial mismanagement, and was forced to sell large numbers of assets, including a church-related college to settle debts of over $25 million in 2017. A further 25 church buildings have been sold over the last five years to raise additional funds. A 2011 plan to merge Bathurst with other nearby struggling dioceses failed.

In the tiny historic village of Carcoar (population 200), a community group has banded together to raise $450,000 in 90 days to purchase their 175-year-old parish church, Saint John’s, the ABC reports. McKenzie Graham, a 21-year old local who says she doesn’t practice Christianity, heads up the Save Saint Paul’s effort. “It’s very frustrating to have to buy back something that the community has built and maintained for 175 years,” she said.

The sale of property hurts,” Calder acknowledged. “It causes heartache in those communities but nothing compared to the heartache of those who have been abused by the church in the past.”

Still, the bishop remains committed to calling other workers to join him in the field. “Even though some of the towns are smaller, there’s still plenty of people that need to hear about Jesus,” he told The Wellington Times.

“I don’t accept the fact that if a town is tiny that they don’t need or shouldn’t have a minister. All of these places need ongoing ministry and especially in this context that life is hard, farming is tough. They need to know the hope that comes from knowing Jesus.”