Our congregation is at a crossroads and a dilemma. Our parish priest is at manditory retirement age, and will leave at the end of the year. Because we are in a basically rural area with a smaller population, the diocese has decided to not send another full-time priest. There are three congregations in our county facing this same problem. All three congregations also have the problem of an aging and declining membership. My wife and I are some of the youngest in our congregation, and we are in our 50s!
I looked at the situation and realized I have two choices here. One is do nothing, let the church decline and close when the priest leaves, and go somewhere else larger. Or, two, step up and mobilize what we have and reignite a fire where I am. I have talked with the parish priest about this, and we have developed a plan to execute the second option.
What I am going to do, via a series of meetings and simply implementing what should be done, is to reignite the vision the congregation had at the beginning, and to demonstrate to them that the church can go on without a full-time priest. This congregation has been in existence roughly 120 years. There is rich history here that should not be set aside. There is also a tradition that everything must be planned and executed by the priest-in-charge. This mindset is an obstacle that must be overcome, if for no other reason than the fact that for the foreseeable future we will not have a full-time priest again.
So here is my plan:
1. Using the church's mission statement, reinforce how it is still valid, and encourage to continue using it as a guide for the future.
2. Examining the current activities of the church. Determine which ones can be done by laity, and which ones require clergy. One thing I know for a fact is that all normal activities of a church must happen like clockwork whether there is clergy present or not. The "or not" will be the assumption that all activity planning will take into consideration. The church is basically going to be restructured from being clergy-led to lay-led. This really is not as radical as it sounds. What it really does is force the members to not be pew warmers, but to step up to the plate and lead activities. Bible studies, devotionals and the like can be led by anyone. While the officiating at the mass must be done by a priest, a priest is not needed to insure that the sanctuary and all points of the service are taken care of. By having more lay-led activities, the visiting priest will be freed from many of the details, and his/her job will be that much easier.
3. Plan new activities which can attract new members. This is where we must do some outside the box thinking, and in some cases, outside the building thinking! The community needs to know that we are here, viable, and interacting with them. Outreach into the community is vital.
4. Try to keep the communication flowing and the people engaged. This will be an on-going process that must be flexible and adaptable. I don't want this to be just me ram-rodding something down everyone else's throats. Its a team effort. I might be the cheerleader, but a cheerleader is dependent on the team!
It is my intent that through these actions our church will continue to be an active and vital congregation through the next one hundred years!
I'm so glad you have the ambition to do something about it! I've no constructive advice to offer, but it seems the points you have drawn up are the correct plan. How do you intend to go about #3? It seems that is a ubiquitous challenge among all congregations, and only exacerbated by the looming threats to your community. If youth is an issue, the following link may be a springboard for meditation: (if you've already seen this, I apologize.) http://www.azdiocese.org/dfc/newsdetail_2/1039
I'll keep your community in my prayers.
Much of point #3 that I am going to recommend to the congregation are things I have been hoping to do with this church and community for about a year. I already knew that we needed outreach, so I found some activities and areas that I have expertise in that can be reasonably executed.
Specifically, they are:
- Men's Ministry (that is open to the public). There are no viable men's ministry meetings in this area for any denomination. I have a background in leadership with Promise Keeper's type groups, and already have materials and resources. This will most likely be a once a month meeting.
- Instituting special programs for holidays and other days that are open to and advertised to the public (Christmas program, New Year's Eve Service, community Easter Sunrise service, plus educational/informative programs).
- Annual Men's and/or Women's Conferences. We actually have a conference room that will seat around 50. It is already agreed that we would love to see that facility utilized more. So my suggestion is to prime the pump a little by planning our own events so people outside of us can get an idea of what we have.
Much of this involves me more than anyone else. My background includes promotion and planning of events, so for the most part I am doing what I know how to do. Part one of this plan is to make us more visible in the community at large. Other than driving by the building, most residents do not know we are here. So the emphasis is on events to put us in the public eye. Also as part of this, I am trying to make the church more visible by having us as a presence at community events like National Day of Prayer.
The plan now is to focus more on adults than youth. Not that youth are unimportant, but because of the ages of our current members we couldn't handle it. My idea is to do activities that will draw in adults, and tweak them to gradually bring in younger ages until we again have families. Right now we are a congregation of almost all older adults.
I do want to include some more liturgy/service activities in the future, too. We have already been talking about having a more "contemporary" service (but it isn't, really...its just using guitars and more singing instead of just keyboards). I would like a contemplative prayer service too. One thing at a time, tho!
I'm back. I cheer you hoping to increase the parish's presence in the community. With so much ugly religion running amok, we need to get out there and do stuff. I hope if in your brainstorm sessions y'all come up with ways to get a presence as a service-oriented group, that you'd share those ideas as my own community really struggles with that.
It's been a while since you posted this, so I'm wondering if anything has started gellin. Keep us posted, please!
I appreciate you support, brother! The meeting hasn't happened yet, its scheduled for the first week in October.
I am planning to film and/or record the meeting, so it can be used by others in similar situations. My suspicion is that other churches are in the same boat, so we there is some "universal" application. If nothing else, it will be interesting to see what happens!
We had our meeting tonight. Most there thought it was good, and I got comments that it brought out some points that they had not considered yet. Unfortunately, there were two there that thought it was there purpose to shoot down everything. You could make that three if you include the parish priest, who, even though he is getting forced to retire, attempted to discourage laity from leading anything. People are too resistant to change. I did film it, but I don't think anything of value will come from it. I will try to edit it later, and post what can be used.
There are ways for such a congregation to go forward without a full time priest. A local priest ordained. Sharing a priest with other small congregations could be options, along with that priest or the diocese somehow providing mentoring and helping equip strong lay leadership. This will be more common than not for the future of many parishes. But mission will still happen in new and creative ways.
Hi John! I am a priest in Baltimore doing intentional redevelopment work in an urban parish. It is hard work as you already know! I am wondering where you are located and what support you are getting from the diocese? I know there are some mutual ministry teams working in your area that were initiated under Bishop Rabb's leadership. Perhaps something like that would be appropriate for your setting. Let me also add that strong lay leadership is vital for every expression of church - the challenge I find in my context is that people, especially younger ones, are very transitory. Just when they start to get involved, take on responsibilities and grow in their faith, they have to relocate for a job or school. That has the potential to leave ministry in the lurch, especially if you do not have a priest around to do follow-up and coordination. Also, from the clergy perspective, I cannot afford to work part-time and most of my colleagues are the same. Congregations are also challenged to understand that part time pay does not translate into the same amount of work in half the time. Clearly, you understand this, but I would be surprised if the rest of your congregation does. Let me know if we can be a support network for each other.
Hi Lori - I am in Cumberland, on the western edge of the state. Mutual ministry is alive and well out here - there is actually a representative here who coordinates with several other churches in the area. She is rector of two priest-less churches, as well as performing her mutual ministry duties.
As far as the church I was in, from my perspective, the outcome of all my efforts was not favorable. I cannot go into specifics publicly, but if you want to know more you can message me privately. I am hoping that the new rector will revive some things, but if not, they will continue in a slow downward spiral.
It sounds like some time has passed, but I thought I'd still pass on this resource you might find helpful- rural Anglican/Episcopal folks around the country sharing ideas and support to each other:
I know it has been a while, but I thought I would post an update on my experiences. The church I was talking about in this post officially closed in June. Due to the dwindling size (and aging population) of the congregation, combined with the expense of repairing the church building, the diocese decided to close the church and combine its members with another in the area.