By Erin Weins St. John, Project Manager and Social Media Coordinator
As mainline churches have lost more members and revenue in the last several decades, a narrative of “church decline” dominates both media narratives about the Church and the Church’s self-image. From lay members to clergy to top denominational officials, the focus has often shifted to a frantic attempt to bolster numbers. Large and growing churches are idolized for their “success,” and the clergy in those congregations are sometimes put on a pedestal by the larger organization.
But where does that leave smaller congregations? Large numbers are enticing and exciting—and big churches have their place. But so do smaller houses of worship, with their more relational community and informal organization. These types of churches usually can’t afford to hire full-time pastors. Instead, they turn to the leadership of part-time priests, who work between 10 and 30 hours a week.
This unique vocation of part-time clergy includes a cohort of six Episcopal, female priests: Rebekah, Leyla, Allison, Kit, Susie, and Stacy. Transcending geographical boundaries, the group found each other through a network of connections—through seminary, former churches, or conferences. Longing for spiritual and emotional support, these women began meeting together bimonthly over Zoom.
Part-time clergy partake in a very unusual type of ministry. Small congregations still have many of the same demanding needs as large ones—needs for pastoral care, building maintenance, liturgical and sermon preparation, and more. But part-time rectors aren’t usually given many resources to fulfill those needs, whether because of their congregation’s financial constraints or their denomination’s disinterest. Often overlooked as less important than their full-time counterparts, part-time clergy can also receive fewer spiritual or personal support from their dioceses.
In the face of these unique challenges, the cohort supports each other by sharing successes, difficulties, questions, and resources. Vocationally, the meetings allow an outlet for communal celebration, mourning, and frustration among others who understand their experience. Spiritually, the group digs deep into pastoral practice, looking for the unexpected ways God is moving in their community. In a religious culture that increasingly assumes God is at work in big churches, it’s important to spend time cultivating an understanding of the Holy Spirit’s movement in more tight-knit settings.
It’s also crucial to note that part-time ministry often comes with a gender component, something this group acknowledges as well. Female clergy sometimes have to balance family needs along with career choices. They are also, perhaps, more often willing to take on quieter, less glamorous positions. As such, they comprise a significantly larger proportion of part-time positions.
Left with the crucial vocation of pastoring small, closely-knit congregations, without much support or recognition for their work, part-time clergy need to find their own support. The College of Pastoral Leaders at Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary (APTS) provides exactly the right venue for receiving this support. APTS recognizes that pastors need communal, contextual, life-long support in order to create high-quality ministry. Accordingly, they offer a grant to groups of pastors looking to support each other and share the fruit of that support with their communities.
The cohort applied for APTS’s grant to take their community to the next level. The year will include:
- In addition to the two in person retreats and three Zoom retreats, we will meet at a cohort via Zoom about once each month.
- Each of us is committed to determining a pattern for our meetings that remind us and hold us accountable to going deep spiritually.
- We are committed to reading the books and engaging the authors that we are identified as important.
- Each of us will participate in at least two of the podcasts each year.
- We will take seriously the concept of sabbath and build it into this plan.
Ideally, the meetings and retreats will hone nourishing spiritual practices. The meetings and books will encourage a deeper practice and understanding of part-time ministry. Retreats, interwoven with the practice of Sabbath, will create restful, stabilizing breaks. Finally, the podcast will provide a crucial outlet for telling the wider church community about their stories and the stories of their congregation. In addition, the podcast may also play a role in shifting the narrative that smaller churches are inferior and that part-time work is second-rate.
As a whole, this creative design acknowledges the shifting patterns of ministry in the Church. Rather than decrying new patterns and seeking a return to the past, this grant embraces whole-heartedly the newer pattern of small-scale ministry, welcoming its relational, communal contribution to the Church. In doing so, it also recognizes the importance of honoring part-time clergy and supporting them in doing the Spirit’s work.