“Fourteen parishes,” she told me that afternoon, noting that my jaw just about dropped. “Yes, I’m the Team Vicar of fourteen parishes.”
“Wow, that makes the two churches I serve as part of one parish, and the third as priest-in-charge kind of pale in comparison,” I responded.
My new colleague and I were enjoying lunchtime conversation in the refectory at Sarum College, just across the lawn from Salisbury Cathedral. The site of the former Salisbury & Wells Theological College, Sarum College is very much a working, albeit non-residential seminary. In fact, it’s a remarkable, vibrant center for theological formation and renewal for all orders of ministry! It’s a great place for anyone, including Episcopal priests on sabbatical like me, to spend any time, really. Simple accommodations, great staff, nice meals, a stone’s throw from one of the world’s great Cathedrals, and a dynamic, buzzing place where one can really get a sense of what life is like on the ground in the Church of England.
As you may know, FaithX is working with TryTank in a "proof-of-concept" experiment called Episcopal Pulse, the purpose of which is to keep a finger on the pulse of The Episcopal Church through weekly, rapid-response micro-surveys.
Our most recent micro-survey (#16), completed last Friday, asked this question:
In what areas of congregational life have you found hidden opportunities in the disruption caused by the pandemic?
The Episcopal Church needs to ask bigger questions.
Pastoral training has long taught us to look for the bigger questions: Is this person really upset about the color of the new carpet or does this person feel that too much is changing too quickly? Is this person really angry about last week’s sermon or is there something going on at home?
We are more effective pastors when we identify underlying issues and address them directly. The same principle applies when we take our place in the councils of the church: If we ask the bigger questions, we will get better results.
My first challenge as a new rector was a common one: How do I make this team into my team?
I would have plenty of opportunities to recruit new staff in subsequent years, but I had to begin my ministry with a team that had been assembled by someone else. My first step was to establish core values: teamwork, dedication, and excellence.
I wish I could say that my new colleagues and I discerned these principles together, but we didn’t. This was my way of letting the existing staff know the new rector’s style, of establishing baseline expectations that would apply equally to all of us, and of reshaping an existing system to achieve new outcomes.
I try to keep our parish as far away from politics as possible. But, what happens when politics choose to visit us as they did with the question of COVID-19 vaccination mandates?
As our mayor and our governor battled each other in court about what could and could not be required of churches, we had to figure it out for ourselves. Surely, we were going to encourage vaccination, but would we require it? And, if so, of whom?
A recent article in The Atlantic argues that it is harder to run a church in 2021 than it was in 2020. I couldn’t agree more. Our choices were relatively straightforward at the height of the pandemic, but they are far more complicated now. Our approach to vaccination requirements worked for us, and I offer it as a starting place for others facing similar questions.
Recently, the Rt. Reverend Shannon MacVean-Brown, Bishop of Vermont, reported that the diocese was heading toward a “financial cliff” and that budget cuts alone would not prevent the fall. In her July 21 message, MacVean-Brown also announced a new task force that will consider long-term strategies for sustaining congregations and ministries, including the possibility of greater collaboration and resource sharing with the dioceses of New Hampshire and Maine.
The Diocese of Vermont is one of the smallest in the Episcopal Church with 5,700 baptized members in 2019, 10 full-time clergy, and 45 congregations with all but three reporting an Average Sunday Attendance (ASA) of less than 100. Like the rest of the Church, Vermont has experienced membership and ASA declines from 2014 to 2019, but unlike the other New England dioceses, also had a pledge and plate income drop of 3 to 7% in those five years. And Vermont is not alone. I would wager that there are dozens of other Episcopal dioceses facing the same fate but are unable or unwilling to admit it.
The invitation was simple: “No agenda, just conversation. No pressure, just invitation.”
With these words, the rector and newcomers coordinator at Church of the Holy Communion in Memphis invited the members of St. Elisabeth’s Episcopal Church in nearby Bartlett, Tennessee to a service of Evening Prayer followed by a time of conversation. St. Elisabeth’s was about to close, and Holy Communion was not sure how best to help.
There is plenty of literature about how two congregations can start journeying together, but our story is not grounded in any particular theory. We just listened to each other, and we built a model that worked for us. Other churches in other places could easily do the same.
La mayoría de las organizaciones episcopales dependen de donantes generosos en apoyo de su misión y ministerio. La mayordomía puede ser profundamente espiritual, enraizada en el deseo de reorientar nuestras vidas hacia Dios, pero también tiene su lado práctico. La Ley Asistencia y Alivio del Coronavirus y de Seguridad Económica (Coronavirus Relief and Economic Security Act, abreviada como CARES), promulgada el 27 de marzo de 2020, contiene varias disposiciones que afectan las donaciones caritativas de este año. Estimulamos a las iglesias a que hablen sobre estas oportunidades con sus feligresías.
The Episcopal News Service recently reported that the “2018 parochial reports show a 17.5 percent decline in baptized members and a 24.9 percent decline in average Sunday attendance across the church between 2008 and 2018….If the rate of decline experienced over that decade continues, The Episcopal Church will have no Sunday attendance in 30 years and no baptized members in 47 years.”
“It depicts a church that appears to be dying,” said Kristine Stache, interim president of Wartburg Seminary.
Here’s a very simple question: Why can’t a good group of great people grow their church and get awesome stuff done? The Episcopal Church has many excellent clergy and lay leaders. Plus, we have deep resources. Why is our church dying?
 Egan Millar, “Executive Council approves readmission of Cuba, selects Louisville for 2024 General Convention” The Episcopal News Service, 17 February 2020 https://www.episcopalnewsservice.org/2020/02/17/executive-council-approves-readmission-of-cuba-selects-louisville-for-2024-general-convention/
The arrival of COVID-19 will mean fewer people attending church—and probably some services cancelled altogether. Yet churches need to pay the bills whether people come on Sunday or not, and innovative ministries that adapt to the crisis (Zoom Bible studies, streaming sermons, etc.) require resources, too.
How can you pass the plate when people aren’t there to pass the plate? And how can your church safely receive payments if the virus can possibly survive for hours on printed materials (i.e. the mail)?
The answer is online giving
In our congregations as well as dioceses we oftentimes have the opportunity to hire a new staff person whether a youth director, financial officer, musician, administrator or sexton. A question for us all is whether we are using good HR (human resource) practices to hire these individuals or are we filling these positions with “Family and Friends”.
Recently at our commission meeting we compiled a list of best practices for lay positions which are below. Do consider as leaders how well we are adhering to these items.
· Form search committees for appropriate lay positions across the church
· Utilize best practices for the job search process to maximize interest from lay people
· Determine whether positions being considered for clergy can also be performed by lay
· Determine whether lay positions being considered are for Episcopalians only or can be filled by those familiar with the Episcopal church
It’s the season of congregational Annual Meetings, the time to pull out the reports, summarize the year, articulate the ways in which God is making clear God’s preferred future, and enjoy possibly one of the best potlucks of the year. Annual Meetings are an important part of congregational life, and one of the real highlights for church geeks and insiders.
But an Annual Meeting and, more to the point, the diminishing return on investment (time spent on the meeting versus the ways in which it ‘moves the needle’) points to a growing disconnect between a beautiful heritage and critical need. Our church’s representative democracy is a lovely thing, and a heritage I prefer to keep. At the same time, however, we need to admit that we’ve created a cumbersome and top-heavy institution. Simply to carry out the local parochial version of The Episcopal Church, year after year after year, requires a great deal of volunteer hours and oversight and coordination and management and communal good will. It’s been stated elsewhere, and this is no joke, that we’ve finally perfected the perfect version of an excellent 18th century institution. Only problem is it’s the 21st century.
Culture has completely shifted. I’d go so far as to say there’s a good chance that Average Sunday Attendance (ASA) for most of the last century was artificially inflated (and not just because the ushers double-counted).
People went to church because culture went to church. It was written into the laws of our cities, counties, and states. That’s why stores would close down on Sundays. That’s why so much of the whole world would stop on Sundays.
Because culture went to church, but now culture has shifted.
This Thanksgiving I visited my young cousin who was hosting his first dinner. Just before leaving he said to me, “I now really appreciate all the dinners you’ve hosted over the years. I did not realize what happened behind the scenes as I always arrive in time to eat and then leave after an evening of fun. It’s a lot of work!”
For many years at our church, five large containers of bread and pastries are donated weekly by a local restaurant to our Feeding Outreach Ministry. A new vestry member was surprised on discovering that behind the scenes each week someone had to pick up the containers and bread, and others had to sort and bag the bread and clean the containers, in addition to completing an annual application. We laughed and asked if she thought the “Bread Fairy” did all the work.
When was the last time a delegation of 5 or more people from your church attended an event that addressed an area of vital importance to your congregation? These important areas may include: 1) Evangelism 2) Stewardship 3) Formation 4) Anti-racism 5) Vestry Leadership Development 6) Church Planting/ Replanting 7) Outreach or 8) Communication.
These events may have been sponsored by the Diocese, the Episcopal Church or a national Episcopal organization. These entities have invested much time and effort to be a resource in the areas listed above and others not mentioned. Additionally the National organizations have dedicated their whole ministry to deep expertise in these areas. Examples of these organizations are Forma, Episcopal Church Foundation, and Church Pension Group.
In addition to my church work, I serve as President of the Parent Teacher Organization (PTO) at my daughter’s Montessori school. It’s a way I can help give back to a great school. Also, the President of the PTO has far fewer responsibilities than Rector of a congregation, and I love simple, straightforward jobs.
As it turns out, the PTO was re-started a few years ago with a strategic aim. Like many small, private Montessori schools, our school was started by a visionary Montessori educator who wanted, herself, to start a school. She and her husband literally built it out of nothing. And in recent years they began to sense it was time to retire, which meant: time to sell the school. I knew this all along, and I knew as well that re-starting the PTO was envisioned as a helpful contribution to this overall transition. Kickstart a PTO so parents and teachers and the school community have a sense that there’s a place they can go when they have questions. Transitions are difficult enough for everyone.
The priest’s prayer was unusual: “Please God, don’t let anyone code during the Christmas services.”
A year ago on Christmas Eve, our pianist was a few bars into “Away in a Manger” when he slumped over. No pulse. No respiration. Thankfully the AED—automated external defibrillator—was in the narthex, and people were trained how to use it. The congregation stayed calm and collected as parishioners strapped the AED onto Dale and the electric charge brought Dale’s heart back to life. The children were ushered into the choir room, the font was moved so EMT’s could bring in the stretcher, and people prayed in the pews.
Today, Dale is a healthy, vibrant octogenarian, tickling the ivories at churches across northern Kentucky and southern Ohio.
The church bulletin is arguably one of the most important documents in our congregations. Given our bibles, hymnals and Book of Common Prayer (BCP) that may sound a bit heretical. However the amount of resources that goes into producing it does give our church bulletins very high priority. The original purpose of the bulletin was to provide the order of service including references to the BCP, hymns and readings of the day. We have evolved much beyond the basics.
Bulletin content is the largest issue for us to wrestle with. Bulletins may contain some of all of the following: fundraising and social activities, meetings of church and community organizations, lists of illnesses, birthdays, anniversaries and deaths, special donations, community, diocesan and national announcements, stewardship messages as well as information on a particular saint day, others have information on voting, job posts and apartment rental. So our bulletins, have become newspapers, newsletters and journals all rolled into one. Whew!
As summer approaches and throughout the year, one of the major issues that church leaders face is how to find a clergy person to fill in for Sunday services if the priest is unavailable. This issue is more pervasive for congregations in transition but is equally stressful for congregations with full-time clergy when it is time for vacation, sabbatical or the clergy is ill. The stakes are even higher if the need for clergy is on a high Holy Day such as Easter or Christmas. One of the most important activity for anyone with this responsibility is to plan in advance especially with the current clergy avoiding the last minute panic.
April is financial literacy month and to help your congregation, we offer five resources to help get you started with the basics. Please share this digest with your parish leadership and extend an invitation to subscribe to ECF Vital Practices to receive Vestry Papers and the monthly digest.