November 19, 2021

A Future for the Church

I had some serious thoughts about the future of the church this afternoon, after reading about a diocese deciding to close a parish that was only able to support a half-time priest shared with another congregation. I get a sense that many in diocesan leadership are still hoping for the future church to take the same shape as the church of the past: that each parish would have a full-time priest, and be able to fund its own operation and maintain its facility, perhaps supported by some endowment funds but largely from the contributions of its own active membership. 

I don't want to sound too pessimistic, but I'm not sure that this is a reasonable expectation for the future of the church except in a few cases. I'm old enough to recall that the "norm" for the church was just that: a full-time rector, and in many cases one or more full-time paid curates, except in the smallest parishes. It should come as no surprise that many of those salaried curates have been replaced by non-stipendiary associates, often retired clergy; and not a few "rectors" are actually less-than-full-time, and retain the title without the old meaning.
I think the truth is that the church of the 50s died in the 60s, or at least fell seriously ill, and we are seeing the long-term results, not just in the small churches, but in all others apart from those heavily-endowed, or fortunate enough to subsist in urban centers where a ministry or cultural outreach supports the program, or in the few parts of the country where church-going is still considered a social duty; and I don't know how long any of these are  going to last. As someone opined recently, "they're not coming back." Once people discover they can do without the church, they do without the church — or at least the model of the church as "full-time priest and congregation."
It may be that the church of the future in much of the US will be the small parish with a part-time or chaplaincy-model (regular supply) priest and a cadre of lay leaders who carry out most of the responsibility of maintaining the church property and ministry in their community. If the church has the financial resources to do that (pay its bills, including whatever assessment is required, support a cleric at a level less than the old "rector", maintain its property and engage in meaningful ministry of some sort) I would strongly suggest that diocesan authorities should allow it to continue to exist and function at that level; not in the hope that it will bounce back to what it may have been in the 1950s but as a recognition that this may well be the future of the church for the next generation or two, if not longer. 
Taking the option of closing such a church down, selling off the property or otherwise alienating it robs not only the possible future for growth, but the present, immediate and actual future of a continued presence and ministry at a smaller, but still meaningful, scale. 
Part of my concern is that the current metrics for judging the "success" of the church revolve around both the meaning of metrics and of success. I'm also thinking about the mismatch between a focus on the cleric and her salary (and housing and pension) as the normative deal-breaker as opposed to the liveliness of the ministry of the laity — not just in worship attendance (which seems relatively passive) but in what they do in their weekday lives: which supposedly is the mission of the church. In short, are we supporting a model of the church that is still largely clerical and "within the walls" at the expense of possible new models?
Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG


WSJM said...

A wise and perceptive essay, Tobias. I grieve at the news of "a diocese deciding to close a parish that was only able to support a half-time priest shared with another congregation." That's actually a fairly common structure in the Diocese of Iowa and elsewhere in the midwest. I'm an Old Guy, now retired, and was, I think, the last full-time rector in my last three parishes (all of which continue to be small but healthy with part-time priests-in-charge). A parish that can't flourish with a half-time priest desperately needs to learn about, and commit itself to, shared ministry. You conclude: "In short, are we supporting a model of the church that is still largely clerical and 'within the walls' at the expense of possible new models?" If so, our future is bleak.

The Rev. Canon William S. J. Moorhead
Priest Associate, Trinity Episcopal Church, Iowa City, IA 52240

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG said...

Thank you, W., for these thoughts. I received a similar note of affirmation from another Iowan, also now "retired" — Bishop Epting. It would seem that "Dixit Iowa" is called for... :-)

Blessings to you... T.