By G. Jeffrey MacDonald
Small Episcopal congregations have found a voice in the podcast world. And like a mustard seed, that voice is designed to grow big while heightening appreciation for what’s small.
The Small Churches Big Impact podcast debuted in December with a provocative format that lets priests challenge conventional wisdom and dispel myths about small church life. For example, 12 minutes into the first episode, two hosts took aim at an oft-repeated stereotype.
“We hear so much in the church that there’s no such thing as part-time ministry, there’s just part-time pay, and I don’t think that’s true,” said the Rev. Susie Shaefer, former part-time vicar of St. John’s Church in Clinton, Michigan. She’s now associate for transitions and local formation in the Diocese of Michigan.
Her peers on the podcast roundly agreed: the congregational work of part-time clergy really is part time. Practitioners maintain boundaries to make it fair and healthy. That needs to be understood, not dismissed.
“Part of what hopefully this podcast does is affirm people that it’s OK to call BS on the structures and the systems that tell us the untruths about the work that we do,” said the Rev. Leyla King, rector of Thankful Memorial Church in Chattanooga, Tennessee, in the introductory episode. “Because the structures and the systems are not familiar — like, intimately familiar — with the work that we do.”
The podcast is a project of the Small Churches Big Impact Collective, which began to take shape in 2018. That’s when a cohort of Episcopalians serving small churches found each other through Young Clergy Women International. Ideas first shared in an online forum evolved to spawn the podcast with support from a two-year, $10,000 grant from the College of Pastoral Leaders at Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary.
Founding members are six female Episcopal priests who, when the podcast launched, were all serving part time in congregations with no more than 65 attending on an average Sunday. Along with Shaefer and King, founders include the Rev. Rebekah Bokros Hatch, rector of St. Alban’s Church in Simsbury, Connecticut; the Rev. Allison Sandlin Liles, priest in charge of St. Stephen’s Church in Hurst, Texas; the Rev. Kit Lonergan, former rector of St. James Church in Groveland, Massachusetts, and current priest for welcome and care at Trinity Church in Boston; and the Rev. Stacy Williams-Duncan, rector of Little Fork Church in Rixeyville, Virginia.
Founders say they’re tired of being told they’re off-track because their approaches don’t mirror the work of larger congregations. They’re eager to celebrate how small churches operate differently and effectively. For example, shrinking the vestry reduces stress and fosters better working relationships than trying to function like “baby big church” with too many seats to fill.
They’re also motivated to encourage colleagues who feel lonely, devalued, or misunderstood in a church world that lionizes the large.
“It goes back to that feeling of isolation that people endemically have when they just don’t feel like they belong to the popular group,” Hatch said in a group interview with TLC on Zoom. “That’s been a real place of resonance across generations and across lay and clergy populations.”
As of mid-February, 1,500 people had downloaded at least one episode of the podcast. Some in positions of influence are listening. The Diocese of Central New York is using SCBI ideas to shape new benchmarks for measuring congregational vitality and to inform revision of its canons, said the Rev. Canon Carrie Schofieldt-Broadbent, canon for transition and church development.
“I’m taking notes from this podcast,” she said. “We’ll be relooking at assumptions that the church has held for decades about what is helpful and what is not.”
Reimagining vitality indicators is key, King says, because conventional metrics don’t account for much of the energy and health in congregations today. For instance, hers has one of the highest percentages of children per capita in the Diocese of East Tennessee. But that important barometer, among others, doesn’t stand out in the annual report, which instead emphasizes average Sunday attendance and gross giving levels.
“What we’re trying to do is open people’s eyes,” King said. “There’s all this anxiety and fear about the church dying because we’re only using this one set of metrics. It frustrates me to no end.”
Though seeking appreciation for small-church ministry is hardly new, today’s religious landscape has brought fresh urgency to the cause. In that regard, the podcast fills a timely niche, not only for the Episcopal Church but for other denominations as well.
As worship attendance shrinks, more churches are entering the small category. In the Episcopal Church, the median average Sunday attendance declined steadily year over year from 57 in 2016 to 50 in 2020, according to parochial reports. Seventy-five percent of Episcopal congregations now have fewer than 100 in worship on an average Sunday.
Most churches across America are small: 69 percent have fewer than 100 in worship, and 44 percent have fewer than 50 in worship, according to a Faith Communities Today survey of 15,000 congregations in 2019-20.
Faced with financial challenges, congregations are using the small-church playbook by turning to part-time clergy. The Church Pension Group reports that 56 percent of active, working Episcopal priests do not serve in a “traditional” model, i.e., full time in one setting. Instead, these 56 percent serve in “emerging” ministry models that can be part-time paid, non-stipendiary, or spread over multiple part-time roles in various settings.
What’s needed now, according to SCBI members, are systems and messaging that convey what’s working and what’s possible in small churches and in part-time ministry positions.
But many who feel called to part-time ministry alongside another profession have been pressured by discernment committees to give up prior careers, said Williams-Duncan, who’s known many recent seminarians through her teaching experiences.
“They were pushed to articulate their willingness to let go of their previous profession in order to demonstrate the completeness of their call to priesthood,” she said. “We need to let go of this idea that in order to be called to priesthood, you’re only called to priesthood. That’s never been part of our story.”
She noted that Episcopal priests have always had concurrent vocations as spouses and as parents. If tomorrow’s priests were encouraged to maintain credentials and keep working in other fields, they could more readily say yes to part-time ministry positions because they’d have sufficient income to make it work.
With no shortage of canards to expose and alternatives to discuss, the podcasters plan to keep adding episodes and seasons for the foreseeable future. Fans can expect over time to hear a broader range of voices, including those of men, laypeople, and congregational leaders in other denominations. What’s not likely to change is the premise that small is beautiful and has a lot to offer to the rest of the church.
“We are trying to reclaim something that I think has always been at the heart of Christianity,” Williams-Duncan said. “I’m not sure we are creating something new. But I do think we are bringing back an emphasis on something that could be transformative and life-giving to our church.”