Small and Rural Churches
Resources and Support for Small Churches
While we talk about listening a lot in the church, we don’t always do it. But that’s exactly what Episcopal Church Foundation (ECF) did this summer in an effort to learn more about the challenges facing part-time clergy leaders in small Episcopal congregations. ECF issued an open invitation to part-time leaders from churches that average fewer than 60 worshippers each Sunday, and on two summer afternoons, its program staff listened as 40+ leaders from churches across the country discussed their challenges, and the support and resources they need.
The team at ECF learned a great deal from the online discussions. “More than anything, I think we learned the value of spending time listening to these leaders,” says Miguel Escobar, ECF’s Managing Program Director. As participants described their struggles with time and unrealistic expectations—their own and their congregation’s—he found it “telling that most couldn’t name resources that took the realities of part-time clergy into account effectively.”
What ECF learned
First and no surprise, these part-time clergy leaders are every bit as committed to their congregations as their full-time colleagues. “We’re a sweet little church, but we’re the best kept secret in town,” one participant said wistfully. “That’s not the right place to be.” Another spoke compellingly of efforts to help her congregation see their transition to part-time clergy “as an adventure,” an opportunity to discover new ways to live faithfully. Throughout the discussions, it was clear that these leaders are working hard and bringing their experience, their gifts and their faith to strengthen their communities.
It was also clear that they are frustrated. Practical resources for everything from bulletin production to stewardship programs don’t always work in their context. They’re too expensive or they call for technical skills that may not be available. “The out-of-the-box programs I’ve seen,” said one participant, “take more time to adapt to our setting than to start from scratch.” Even standard resources, like the hymnal, may not work when a congregation lacks skilled musicians.
Their dioceses, with few exceptions, are not providing support or resources that work for these small churches either. “I go to a stewardship presentation,” said one leader, “and what they’re talking about is going to take months and a committee of six people. My stewardship committee is me and a couple that spends half their time in Florida.”
Resources that fit the context
Like all parish clergy, part-time clergy leaders are time-challenged—only more so. Often the only employee, they’re juggling building and grounds issues, mail and voicemail, volunteers, liturgies...and the list goes on. At the same time, they’re trying to avoid the trap of full-time work for part-time pay.
Most resources are designed with larger churches in mind. These focus group participants are asking for tools that that fit their congregations. Stewardship training packaged for a small congregation. Simple, singable music that can help a small group of non-musicians make a joyful noise unto the Lord.
Communications is a primary challenge for these clergy. They talked about the multiple modes of communication used by their congregations—email, websites, social media, and the more venerable print and telephone, even word of mouth—forcing them to use a variety communication channels to stay in touch. One said, “That eats up a lot of time. When am I going to write my sermon?” In rural areas, where broadband and WiFi are spotty, it’s even more difficult to keep members and the community at large informed.
The pressure to use social media to attract new members and stay current puts extra pressure on these leaders. One wrote, “I’ve heard of churches growing through social media, but I haven't gotten that to work for us. I tried Twitter and got four subscribers, which included my mom in Indiana, God bless her! I gave up.”
It was not surprising, however, that money surfaced as a major issue. One participant, concerned about her church’s anxiety about finances, said she “doubts there’s such a thing as too much information about stewardship.” These leaders are looking for stewardship materials that work for their small churches and tools that can help them talk about money and its relation to faith.
The big issue, as these leaders look ahead, is vision and planning. It is work that can help their congregations see past their current anxieties and struggles to discern God’s call and a hopeful future. ECF President Donald Romanik talked with the first focus group about ways the organization might work with small congregations, from a day-long diocesan workshop to a simple phone consultation and online resources that fit their situation.
Creative clergy and tuned in dioceses are making progress
Despite their challenges, these online conversations provided ample evidence of participants’ creative efforts and progress. One held a joint acolyte training at his church with the large church in which he had served previously. He feels these events can help forge links between churches. Another organized an Appreciation Day to honor the 55 people who serve her small church every month in roles from vestry to altar guild and lector. She added that she’s rewarding them with a little time off by simplifying services for the summer months.
Some dioceses are paying attention to the unique challenges facing small churches and part-time clergy leaders. In the Diocese of Maryland, Assistant Bishop Chilton Knudsen leads the Small Church Movement, sponsoring quarterly gatherings to help small churches understand that they’re not alone, that they can share ideas and resources, and advocate for the support they need from the church. In Utah, where about half the congregations are led by part-time clergy, Bishop Scott Hayashi has brought in consultants to help small churches develop lay volunteer systems to carry out their life and mission.
One leader added this hopeful grace note to the two online sessions. Her church’s first part-time clergy leader, she remembers the anxiety and sorrow that greeted her arrival. “In the last two-and-a-half years,” she said, “the congregation has come to appreciate that there is extra money to refurbish the rectory where our unpaid associate lives, contribute to mission, maintain the church and make important repairs.” Improving Christian formation is their project for the coming year.
ECF’s summer exercise in listening is sure to bear fruit in the months and years ahead. In keeping with its mission to help congregations respond to the changing needs of the Episcopal Church in the 21st century, we can expect to see new resources and opportunities that support the growing number of congregations transitioning to part-time clergy. “These leaders deserve all the help they can get,” says Escobar, “as they show us what it means to be small and vital Episcopal congregations.”
Susan Elliott is a writer and editor, working with the Episcopal Church Foundation, Forward Movement, Renewal/Works, and parishes and other organizations in the Episcopal Church. She is the writer of ECF’s 2015 Vestry Resource Guide, and collaborates with Jay Sidebotham on “Slow Down. Quiet. It’s Advent,” published annually by Forward Movement.
- Equal Partners by Donald Romanik, Vestry Papers, July 2013
- Make it Personal and Confronting Clergy-Congregational Conflict by Donald Romanik, ECF Vital Practices Blog Post, November 15, 2011 and August 15, 2014
- Church Pension Group guides for clergy and adminsitrators for Special Circumstances in which clergy may earn years of Credited Service while not actively working in the diaconate or priesthood
- Church Pension Fund plans major revisions for greater flexibility in a changing Episcopal Church by Mary Frances Schjonberg, Episcopal News Service, May 30, 2017
- Church Pension Group Research and Publications page, includes annual Church Compensation Reports and other studies
- Statistical Data on Episcopal Congregations, free reports about your congregation’s finances, membership, average Sunday attendance, and a twelve point study of demographics around your church
- Overview of Church Size Theory, overview of church size theory that can be used by lay leaders or clergy to explain how church size effects the culture of a congregation