One year ago, I began studying a rare but important species that many church officials wrongly believe doesn’t exist: the mainline Protestant congregation that finds vitality after doing away with the full-time pastorate.
To be sure, it wasn’t always the easiest species to find. Many congregations with shrinking attendance and budgets continue to struggle after they cut costs by replacing a full-time pastor with a part-timer.
Nevertheless, I found and visited 20 mainline congregations that are riding a different trajectory alongside their new, part-time clergy. They’ve actually increased engagement, missions, and/or members, as laity have grabbed hold of ministries that are no longer the sole province of ordained clergy.
The evidence was a joy to collect. Laypeople at Holy Trinity Episcopal Church in Southbridge, Massachusetts have rallied for the first time to meet their immigrant neighbors and introduce them to free community gardens. At New Sharon Congregational Church in New Sharon, Maine, members have no pastor but still worship weekly. In a new outreach, they also provide Christian education for nine kids through what is New Sharon’s only after-school program. Certainly, these success stories and many others can be both inspirational and instructive for the 40 percent of mainline congregations that now have no full-time clergy.
But some denominational cultures, I’ve learned, are better equipped to recognize this species—and see the promise in it—than are others. The future is arguably brightest for those that can re-imagine part-time pastorates as signs of emergent opportunities, not emblems of failure and imminent death.
I began my research with a hunch: Maybe denominations with a “high view” of clergy as mediators of God’s grace would have the hardest time accepting and enabling successful part-time pastorates. Perhaps their priests or pastors are expected to be 100-percent accessible because they have unique capacities for contributing to community life.
But my hypothesis didn’t pan out. For instance, the Episcopal Church insists that only clergy can declare a person free from sin, offer blessings in Christ’s name, and turn bread and wine into elements for Holy Communion through a ritual of consecration. Those functions are reserved for priests in a nod to their distinct status as individuals set apart through the sacrament of ordination.
However, I visited Episcopal congregations that were energized by laity stepping up to administer sacraments (using elements previously consecrated by priests), preach sermons, lead non-sacramental worship services, make pastoral home visits, and officiate at funerals. It turns out that necessity might be holding more sway than priestly ideals—especially in this time when 48 percent of Episcopal Church congregations have no full-time paid clergy, up from 43 percent in 2010.
Conversely, I wondered if United Church of Church (UCC) congregations, with their flexible worship formats and non-sacramental views of ordination, would have plenty of room for the idea of laypeople doing more in ministry. (Full disclosure: I’m a UCC pastor). Yet in practice, I’ve gathered, UCC laypeople often have proven reluctant to embrace the mantle of spiritual leadership. In dozens of Maine Conference UCC congregations that have switched to part-time clergy, vitality is missing. This is, according to Associate Conference Minister Darren Morgan, in large part because laity are unable or unwilling to provide worship leadership.
But all is not necessarily lost.
If the members of those struggling congregations could embrace their denomination’s theology, which promotes the importance of lay ministry, their churches might have futures as bright as the three dynamic faith communities I visited in Acton, Machias, and New Sharon, Maine. The key might lie in mobilizing a younger generation of lay leaders with energy for today’s challenges, including helping to plan worship and taking turns in the pulpit.
Over the past 12 months, I have realized that theology and polity don’t wholly determine which congregations will be effective in the absence of full-time clergy and which ones won’t. Rather, the faith communities that are thriving are the ones that value experimentation and tap traditions of empowering the rank-and-file. Such a rubric for success may be part of their denominational heritage, but it isn’t always.
Consider the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA). I found Lutherans to be the group most uneasy with the proliferation of part-time clergy. In one telling sign, the ELCA doesn’t even track how many of its congregations have done away with full-time clergy.
We know it’s a growing number, though, because the ELCA’s benefits provider, Portico, has identified an uptick. More than one-fifth of participating congregations now no longer sponsor even one full-time clergyperson, according to data from Portico. In some regions, the move has been dramatic. Over the past five years, the number of congregations not sponsoring full-time clergy is up 335 percent in Northwest Pennsylvania. It’s up 482 percent in South Carolina. When I sought more details, synod representatives in those affected regions did not respond.
One reason for Lutherans’ unease with the whole subject, I discovered, is the way in which many denominational leaders define a healthy congregation. In their view, a faith community must have a full-time clergyperson, otherwise it is by definition unhealthy and dying.
“Anytime one of our congregations moves from having a full-time pastor to a part-time pastor, we believe they’re beginning the process of a slow death of the congregation,” said the Rev. Sara Anderson, associate to the bishop of the New England Synod.
The problem, Anderson explained, is that part-time Lutheran pastors spend virtually all of their time ministering to members through preaching and visitation. They are essentially chaplains who lack enough time to engage surrounding communities and do the outreach that leads to church growth. That is why the Synod assumes churches with part-time pastors are inherently prone to keep declining until their doors shut for good.
But that global Lutheran assumption doesn’t always trump regional experiences. When I visited the Seattle-Tacoma area, where innovation is a pervasive cultural value, I found Lutherans experimenting and celebrating the vitality that has emerged in three congregations with part-time clergy. As strong as denominational influences can be, they don’t always carry the day, fortunately.
The scenes are full of hope.
At Salishan Lutheran Eastside Mission, an East Tacoma ELCA church that is located in a public housing project, a part-time pastor with a secular job hosts a “dance church” outreach. It brings together more than 100 teens and young adults, who are mostly youths of color, for regular street dance competitions that are seasoned with scripture readings and practical life lessons. Meanwhile, in nearby Lakewood, a traditional Lutheran church has doubled attendance from 25 to 50 over five years. Its part-time pastor strategically invites Boy Scouts, active duty military, former Mormons—just about everyone he meets—to join the faith community.
The region’s can-do culture seems to have rubbed off on the local Lutherans. In Everett, Washington, an aging Lutheran congregation that long attracted Northern European immigrants is reinventing itself. Not only is Faith Lutheran planting a new Latino congregation called Vecinos (“Neighbors”), but congregants are also sharing their part-time pastor with the new venture, which meets at Faith Lutheran Church. She came to town last year as to accept an innovative, hybrid call as mission developer for the two faith communities.
“It’s hard for them [the members of the older church] because their pastor is only available to them part-time,” said Bishop Kirby Unti of the Northwest Washington Synod of the ELCA. “The other 50 percent of the time, she’s out there building relationships with the Latino community. What will happen? We don’t know. It could be that this congregation continues to have solvency and the Latino congregation grows up right next to it. [Or it] goes out of existence and the Latino congregation thrives.”
Denominations clearly vary in how they view the growing prevalence of churches led by part-time clergy. Some have theological frameworks that accept the validity and implications of the growing use of part-time clergy—but even within those rubrics, practice is still catching up with theory. Others honestly don’t know what to do with the fast-growing trend; all of their systems of theology and ministry are built on assumptions that local churches have (and need) full-timers in every pulpit.
That said, assumptions are giving way to reality. Vital congregations are proving there can be life—and life abundant—after full-time clergy. As awareness of such faith communities grows, more denominational officials are coming to understand that successful churches with part-time clergy aren’t quite as elusive a species as they have imagined.
Editor’s Note: The research that Jeff MacDonald discusses in this post was supported in part through an Innovation Incubator Award from The BTS Center. More information about the Innovation Incubator is available here.