Transition and Change
Part Time ≠ Less Than
The senior warden was blunt with me on the phone. 'We loved having you here on Sunday morning,' he said. 'And I am not the sort of person who believes in waiting around for things. We are looking for a new vicar in the fall and I just want to know how committed you are to this 'free range' thing and if I can persuade you to apply for the position.' I laughed, both in gratitude for his compliment and to buy myself a little time in answering. 'The short answer is thank you, but I am not interested,' I answered. 'The long answer is a little more complicated.'
Since the beginning of 2016 I have been a 'free range' priest, meaning that I do not serve a single congregation or institution. I am an Episcopal priest in good standing, and mostly I coach, consult and teach, inside and outside of the church and the denomination. I write and edit, work on some long-term projects, and I am available for supply and short-term pastoral back up for congregations. Part of the reason I made this transition was because of the type of transitions I was seeing in congregations, particularly small ones.
Many churches can no longer afford a full-time priest with benefits, or they struggle so much to afford one that they barely have energy for other ministry. And yet it can feel depressing to go to part-time clergy: Are we declining? Will we close? These questions can haunt. And yet, as I have seen both clergy and congregations grappling with this question, I also think the larger questions come up: What do we pay a priest for? What do we really need a priest to do? The answers usually boil down to liturgy and sacraments, spiritual guidance and formation, and pastoral presence. The rest of what a priest is usually paid for - administration, teaching, outreach, engagement in the community, even preaching - can and sometimes should be done by deacons or lay people.
When considered this way, the transition for congregations comes about when they stop thinking of themselves as a small non-profit with a priest as CEO, and start thinking of themselves as a religious community of disciples who are each engaged in ministry, some of which they pay a priest for. The analogy I always think of is athletes with a coach - most of the work is being done by the athletes, and they pay a coach to help them get better and learn new things. It is possible to think of a congregation as a group of spiritual 'athletes', growing in their relationship with Jesus, with the priest as their coach.
From here, then, each congregation, no matter its size, could figure out how much of a priest's time they really need. Some places will need full-time priestly presence, some half or quarter, and some could contract out separately for Sunday services, for pastoral care, for formation. It's possible in this way for even a very small congregation to have the services of different priests with different gifts or specialties.
And this is where I come in. As I told the senior warden, I was not interested in a vicar position. But I was interested in doing what I had been doing - Sunday liturgy as I was able, pastoral care if they had need, and being 'extra hands' during their transition and even when they got a new vicar, if that was needed and asked for. In this way, I serve many congregations, individuals, and a few dioceses, a little or a lot, depending on what they need. I am a certain kind of coach, and there are others, some of whom are interested in serving part-time in congregations, some full-time. I think that all together, we are changing the whole way the church works, which is a very exciting transition.
This is how I am learning that congregations don't have to see part-time priestly service as a less-than situation. They can see it as both the flexibility they need to be who they are, the chance to grow into their own roles as disciples, and a way to live into the future of the church.
How does your congregation deal with change? Who Moved My Cheese by Spencer Johnson is a story that reflects common behaviors when it comes to change. With your vestry, watch Who Moved My Cheese (the movie) and reflect on your responses to change: Can you read the handwriting on the wall? How would you rate your ability to anticipate change? How well do you adapt to change? Do you see change as an adventure or a threat? How prepared do you feel for things continuing to change?
Catherine A. Caimano is a free-range priest. Previously she served as canon for regional ministry for the Episcopal Diocese of North Carolina and as rector at St. John’s Episcopal Church in Wichita, Kansas, and associate rector at St. Philip's Episcopal Church in Durham, N.C. For more from Catherine, follow her on her blog.
- Born of Water, Born of Spirit: Supporting the Ministry of the Baptized in Small Congregations by Sheryl Kujawa-Holbrook& Fredrica Harris Thompsett, Alban; 2010. This book shares the findings of a study of small churches and the ways in which they used the gifts of all the members of the congregation to create vital communities, with or without the benefit of regular clergy presence.
- “Pooling Resources,” Nancy Davidge, ECF Vital Practices’ Vestry Papers, July 2014
- “Preparing for Lay Only Leadership,” Heather Barta, ECF Vital Practices’ Vestry Papers, May 2015
- “Shared Leadership,” Beckett Stokes, ECF Vital Practices’ Vestry Papers, July 2014
- “Who Moved My Cheese” Andrei Stoleriu’s video adaptation of Spencer Johnson’s book
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