September 10, 2021

Just What Are We Doing Here?

Early this summer, the Church of England’s Vision and Strategy group released a plan addressing the continuing decline in church attendance in England and proposing a path forward for growth and vibrancy. The plan calls for the planting of an ambitious number of churches - 10,000 by 2030 to be exact - that would be predominantly lay-led. The release of this plan hit a very tender spot when it targeted educated, ordained leaders and beloved ancient church buildings as “limiting factors” that are holding back the growth of the church. Following the release of this plan, a social media maelstrom ensued, wounded clergy people cried out in pain, and a movement called “Save the Parish” began to defend parochial structures and fend off the “emergence of a church … not want(ed) or need(ed)” (The Rev. Marcus Walker, Spectator Magazine 8 July 2021). An ocean away, I watched it all unfold on my laptop, feeling ripples of resonance in the diocese that I serve in The Episcopal Church.

The Diocese of Central Pennsylvania is like many other dioceses in The Episcopal Church. When I came to serve here as bishop in 2015, I joined a diocese of 13,000 members and 64 churches across 24 counties. Today we are a diocese of 9,600 members, 62 parishes and 1 mission. It takes me the better part of a day to drive north to south or east to west in the diocese; cornfields, blue mountains, and swift running creeks keep me company outside the window of my car as I make my way. The buildings in our diocese range from small, one room chapels to massive stone buildings with wide gothic arches and giant naves that are filled with rows and rows of pews. Filtered specks of colored light from stained-glass windows dance on the worn wooden floors of our churches; sitting quietly you can hear the echo of generations of prayer in these holy places. Some of our congregations are generously populated - our top four parishes have between 375 - 650 members on the rolls - but most of them are smaller - parishes that range between 6-100 members. Our clergy are mostly part time (83% of our parishes employ a clergy person half-time or less) and more than one-third of our parishes employ pensioned (retired) clergy. We are a faithful bunch: farmers, tradespeople, college professors, retired folk, artists, politicians, activists. We have some children, but not too many; recurring themes in Vestry meetings are the need to replace aging leadership with “younger people,” and how to “get the kids to come back to church.”

The disconnect between the faithfulness of our congregants and the ability to halt or turn around the decline is wearying - for everyone. There is no magic bean or silver bullet. We have instituted a multi-year project to re-structure ourselves called “Shaped by Faith” and, now, at the end of its second year, we are making some important changes, but there is more than merging or yoking or finding non-profit partners in an ultimate solution. I believe that the ultimate solution is found by answering the question, “Just What Are We Called to be Doing Here?” and then finding a way to make that happen.

Just What Do I Think We Are Called to be Doing Here?

I think that we are called to be a people who proclaim a relationship with a powerful God who has loved us from before time. We are called to gather in community to read God’s word, to pray and worship, to study and learn. We are nourished by the sacraments and find our strength in community. Empowered by the Holy Spirit, we reach out serving others and acting as agents of Christ’s reconciling love in the world. We are a people who care about our neighbors and we have service at the core of our mission. Here’s the punch: most of that - What I Think We Are Called to be Doing Here - can be done without ordained leadership. Our catechism tells us that lay people are the first ministers of the church - followed by deacons, priests, and bishops - (BCP pg. 855). Our Episcopal polity honors the role of laypeople in parishes but too often we ask lay people to take on critical leadership roles with little training or inadequate formation. So much of what we are called to do can be done by our laity - but they need and deserve proper formation and support.

The Constitution and Canons of The Episcopal Church provide for seven lay licensed ministries in our church to perform the functions of our common life: preaching, teaching (catechist), the leading of worship, assisting in the administration of communion, evangelizing, caring for people pastorally, and visiting the homebound with communion. The Stevenson School of the Diocese of Central Pennsylvania has been working for the past two years to build a curriculum that equips lay members of our church for skilled, informed ministry that is grounded in our Baptismal Covenant. Lay preachers in our diocese draw from their experience to offer meaningful sermons that connect Holy Scripture to our local context. Trained lay pastors care for the homebound and aged, and well-formed catechists conduct Bible Studies and offer paths for personal growth in faith. Our parishes are well served by lay ministers who lead us in the rhythm of the daily offices, and evangelists move into the community inviting others to a life transformed. We are developing online peer cohorts for lay licensed ministers to meet monthly for continuing formation and support. The Commission on Ministry in our diocese has initiated a process that companions people in their discernment for licensed lay ministry and partners with clergy and others to construct a reasonable path for formation. We are growing in strength and vitality because the mission of God is being carried out by an empowered and equipped laity.

No, we haven’t “solved the problem” of how to provide the sacraments in these lay led parishes. Like other provincial places, we are moving towards an arrangement where sacramental needs will be provided by clergy people who visit on a rotating basis. It’s not perfect, but it’s a far cry better than closing down churches because we can’t find clergy to serve quarter-time or one-eighth-time positions. The Stevenson School for Ministry also forms priests and deacons for ordained positions in our diocese and we are blessed to have several people discerning a call to serve God in that important way. But lay ministers are ministers too, lovers of God, faithful in prayer and skilled in leadership. May we be grateful for their service to a God whose mission is about love and action. That’s what we are called to do and what we are doing here: offering love and action in the name of Jesus.