May 7, 2014

Sharing Personnel Costs: A Multiparish Council

The congregation I serve has been working for a long time on developing collaborative relationships with other, local Episcopal churches in our community. I genuinely experience God calling me – and, frankly, the Episcopal Church and so many other established institutions – into greater partnering, sharing, and collaboration. That’s just a given these days.

There are lots of Episcopal churches here and there, and where I live there are many quite close to one another. I, for one, drive in and out of parish boundaries all the time. I honestly don’t know where one begins and the other ends. To do nothing more than broaden the ministries of The Episcopal Church in St. Mary’s County, Maryland is to simply catch up to where people already are and how they live and move.

Among three Episcopal congregations in lower St. Mary’s County, we’re all about sharing. We’ve shared Lenten programs, an outreach committee, senior ministries, and help when one or the other is hosting a local sheltering program for persons who are homeless. We’ve shared pulpit swaps, youth groups, vacation bible school, a new church plant, bible studies, fellowship events, and, new this year, a collaborative Sunrise Easter Vigil. We’re getting pretty good about sharing ministries and programs.

We haven’t, yet, shared structures. We haven’t shared money and power.

In part, that’s because no one wants to, not really at least. We’re really not interested in touching what may very well be the “third rail” of collaboration in the Episcopal Church: the parochial system. We don’t want to merge or dissolve parishes and parish boundaries (first we’d have to figure out where they are, for starters!) and we don’t want to blend everything into one mega-church. We value the local, lived experience and the unique charisms of localized Episcopal communities.

But simply sharing ministries and programs won’t necessarily grow the Episcopal Church. It may stem decline. It may be an infusion of life and vitality, but that will be short lived. Too many of us are doing and offering pretty much the same things, just with slightly different modifications and so close to one another that if we are not intentional about creating a different system we will become, potentially, rivals and competitors. Lots of leaders have an abundance of imagination and desire, but very few have the capacity within the one-parish / one-priest system to venture out and try new things and plant new vision and raise up new ministries. Also, young adults especially and the American populace in general are pretty good about figuring out when someone’s offering a ministry that will help them grow in Christ and when, instead, someone’s just trying to increase their church’s income so they don’t have to close their doors.

If we want to grow, we’ve got to change the way we function. If we want to reach new people in a new way and, on their terms, help them find and be found by Christ, we’ve got to alter our functioning and that means adjusting our business model, at least slightly. At least, this applies to the ways clergy function in this system as well as paid professional staff.

Between three local congregations in St. Mary’s County, then, we’ve put together what we’re calling a multiparish council. Each vestry has nominated three members so, together with three clergypersons, that’s a council of twelve. We are working on a charter document and will seek ratification or further clarification by the three vestries. The vestries may be asked to delegate authority, perhaps even canonical authority, and many of us envision that this new council will become the clearinghouse for those interested in mission, not merely survival, to come and cohere and create. I write this in the midst of what is an ongoing process, and we are trying to honor that important balance between total transparency and some measure of quiet reflection.

The Charter suggests that we continue to share ministries and programs. That’s a no-brainer.

The Charter also suggests that, in time, perhaps next year, we establish a new, shared institution, maybe even a newly incorporated entity that would be something like a shared checking account from which all personnel costs would be paid. Each participating congregation would pay their personnel what they’re already paying, or intending to pay, but they would make those deposits into one common financial pool. On the one hand, it’s money in / money out; no gain, no loss. On the other hand, though, it’s a formational institutional step forward, helping separate institutions share financial resources as well as human resources. This, while the clergy will still be primarily responsible to their home congregation and, to the average worshiper, things will look and feel pretty much the same.

We are trying to work gently within the present system to plant and cultivate a new, collaborative, and we think, more mission-focused system. Taking gradual, incremental steps forward, we hope, will lead to continued deepening of the relationships between three neighbor parishes. Hopefully, then, when personnel transitions might happen, and they will, it’s not a matter of money or power or structure but, rather, an opportunity to make the human system fit God’s expansive kingdom, and not the other way around.