At this time, 25% of the parishes in my diocese are without a priest, and 40% of the parishes in the diocese cannot afford a full-time priest. Nearly all of the rural parishes of my diocese fall into both of these categories. Most of the rural parishes of TEC are in the same boat, and are on the verge of collapse. Very soon we will be, for all intents and purposes, an urban church. What do we do?
It is past time for radical action, and I pose three steps we can take as a church to prevent their collapse. They are as follows:
- Create ministry teams of priest-deacons-laity to serve and manage clusters of parishes.
- Raise up at least one deacon per parish to serve on the ministry team.
- Institute deacon-led Sunday services in the absence of the priest, including Eucharist.
Imagine a diocese that identifies a three-parish cluster in the rural section of the diocese. Individually, they cannot support a priest; together they could support one priest to serve all three parishes. Of course, the priest could not reasonably serve all three parishes by herself. However, if each parish were to raise up a deacon – a non-stipendiary, trained, ordained clergy-person – then all three parishes could have a formal liturgy each Sunday: one led by the priest, the other two by the deacons, all on a rotating basis.
The deacon would be a part-time clergy person permanently on site at his or her parish to lend stability to the community, who is supervised by the priest. The laity runs and manages their facilities and any neighborhood ministry they may operate, with the involvement of the deacons.
The key to this model is raising up a deacon for each parish, preferably from the parish community itself. Raising up a deacon is quicker and far less costly than raising up a priest, and with a 50-year history of deacons in TEC, the order has an established track record of success in ministry. It also would be easier to recruit a priest to oversee a ministry team whose soul focus is the pastoral and liturgical care of the parish cluster. If the priest knew that she is not alone in her job, but has three clergy colleagues to assist her in her vocation, she would be more willing to apply for the job. The facilities management of the parish – physical plant, budgeting, finance, et al – would be the soul responsibility of the vestry.
With the 1979 Prayer Book, celebrating the Eucharist every Sunday became normative in TEC. This has made liturgy “priest-centric”, and painted us into a corner regarding our options on how we staff parishes and celebrate liturgy. Prior to 1979, we has a 192 year history of celebrating Morning Prayer Service on a Sunday, rotating with a monthly Eucharistic celebration. Re-instituting Morning Prayer Service, led by a deacon, is in keeping with our history and tradition. What’s more, inaugurating a Sunday Morning Prayer Service with Eucharist – a blend of Morning Prayer with distribution of previously consecrated elements of the Eucharist – would satisfy the standard set over the last 40 years regarding Eucharist, but allow the deacon to distribute Eucharist in the absence of a priest.
As with the ministry team model of staffing a parish, this concept is already in place in some diocese and operating successfully. Deacons conduct full Sunday services with music and sermons, and in some cases distribute Eucharist consecrated by a priest upon her last visit. However, it is not seen as normative, which is the problem. It is only seen as a stop-gap measure until the problem of a shrinking priesthood is resolved. A shortage of priests, though, is not the problem; the inability to attract a priest to a rural setting and pay them a full wage is the problem, and one that simply is not going to go away.
The radical aspect of the three step solution is to make it normative, not a temporary, stop-gap measure. All rural and small town parishes would have at least one deacon on site, under the direction of a priest. The priest would divide her time between the cluster parishes as she saw fit while the deacon would be the part-time clergy on site, lending stability and local pastoral care. The congregation would enjoy consistency, stability, and be assured of a future, while the priest would enjoy a fully compensated position as “cluster rector” without the stress of trying to run three parishes at once by herself. This model of ministry team segues nicely with the concept of the “free range priest”, as conceived and practiced by the Rev. Catherine A. Caimano (see freerangepriest.org).
This model requires a shift in the attitudes of some clergy who may be uncomfortable with the model, as it may strike them as a violation of their boundaries by deacons and laity. But, frankly, no one has come up with any other workable ideas. The alternative to doing nothing is to allow the rural parishes to die, and tell our rural brothers and sisters to commute to a new parish or go seek a new church. We cannot sacrifice them to our notions about the role of a priest in the life of the church. We need new wine skins for new wine.