America’s New Ministers: In Quiet, Revolutionary Shift, Churches Tap People In the Pews to Handle Pastoral Duties

Stephen Aldrich, a lay church member, delivers a sermon about his mission trip to North Dakota during a Sunday service at Christ Episcopal Church in Bethel, Vt. (Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff)

Stephen Aldrich, a lay church member, delivers a sermon about his mission trip to North Dakota during a Sunday service at Christ Episcopal Church in Bethel, Vt. (Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff)

In a fundamental shift in American Protestantism, hundreds of churches across the country are allowing people in the pews to handle pastoral duties, such as delivering sermons.

After a week of painting art by day and playing saxophone in a funk band by night, Katie Runde still manages to roust herself for church. One big reason: On any given Sunday, she’s either giving the sermon at Christ Episcopal Church in this central Vermont town, or she’s listening as a friend takes a turn from the pulpit.

As two dozen people gather for worship and face each other in rows of cushioned chairs, they’re looking at the corps of preachers. The keyboardist, the social justice activist, and Ms. Runde, a young artist, are just three of the 10 who take turns giving the weekly sermon. This isn’t how anyone here experienced church growing up, when a familiar priest or pastor gave a seminary-shaped message from the pulpit every week.

“If I’m in a rut, sometimes I’ll sign up for preaching, and it always helps,” says Runde. “You’re keeping the congregation in mind while you’re writing it. You have to reach out, not just turn inward.”

Christ Church is tapping the preaching talents of members of its congregation because, like thousands of churches that have had to slash costs in recent years, it has done away with full-time clergy. Christ Church has no paid staff. Its priest, the Rev. Shelie Richardson, is an insurance agent who got ordained in order to serve her home church as a part-time volunteer cleric. In addition to celebrating the Eucharist (the Lord’s Supper) regularly, Ms. Richardson preaches several times a year, but isn’t expected to bear the duty alone. That’s for the congregation to do together.

Deborah Aldrich, assisting the Rev. Shelie Richardson, the church’s part-time volunteer priest, administers sacrament during the service. (Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff)

Deborah Aldrich, assisting the Rev. Shelie Richardson, the church’s part-time volunteer priest, administers sacrament during the service. (Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff)

“It’s up to us to keep the church alive,” says Runde. “In some ways, it’s more alive because every member is active.”

What’s emerging at Christ Church is an example of a quiet but revolutionary shift under way in American mainline Protestantism. Across the country, hundreds of long-established congregations are finding new roles for laypeople as the churches undergo a fundamental change from full-time to part-time clergy.

In many cases, the members of the flock never saw themselves as shepherds. But they are now stepping up to save their churches from closure – and to take a personal risk for the Gospel. The trend is helping to redefine what it means to be a parishioner and a pastor in a Protestant movement that encompasses 36 million members in the United States.

“It’s people saying, ‘we need to take ownership of this if the church is going to continue to serve people and be a worshiping community,’ ” says Doug Dunlap, co-director of the Small Church Story Project, which collects tales of tiny Maine congregations without full-time pastors.

The implications are far-reaching. The move is not only changing how churches operate: It is altering traditional rules and practices, including who delivers what’s most valued in religious life. Laypeople now carry out ministerial duties formerly associated with clergy, from pastoral care and evangelism to distributing sacraments. What had been the full-time cleric’s realm of authority and influence is increasingly spread across an entire congregation.

The shift is also helping the faithful find meaning in new roles. Some say it is bringing worship closer to an ideal that was envisioned a half-century ago.

“Today, sheer force of necessity impels churches toward what was in the 1950s and early 1960s promulgated as the meaning of the church – that is, the active ministry of the laity,” says E. Brooks Holifield, professor emeritus of American church history at Emory University in Atlanta and author of “God’s Ambassadors: A History of the Christian Clergy in America.” “It didn’t catch on then, but it’s catching on more now.”

The trend toward using part-time clergy, who often work second jobs or serve multiple congregations, is affecting church life in every major mainline Protestant denomination in every part of the country.

From 2010 to 2015, the number of churches led by part-time clergy jumped from 29 percent to 38 percent, according to a Faith Communities Today (FACT) survey from the Hartford Institute for Religion Research. Thirty-eight percent of mainline congregations had no full-time paid clergy in 2012, according to the latest National Congregations Study from Duke Divinity School.

Using part-time clergy has, in fact, become the dominant practice in some regions. Some 70 percent of the United Methodist congregations in New England, for example, rely on part-time ministers – up from 55 percent just five years ago. In northern Michigan, none of the Episcopal Church’s 24 congregations has a full-time priest. The same goes for two-thirds of Episcopal churches in New Hampshire and Pittsburgh. Among congregations of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) in South Carolina and greater Kansas City, more than 80 percent rely on part-time pastors.

Financial pressure is the main force behind the change. Between 2010 and 2015, the median number of people attending churches in the US dropped from 105 to 80, according to FACT. Median budgets shrank from $150,000 to $125,000 as young adults shunned going to church and older members died off.

To afford a full-time pastor, a congregation generally needs at least 130 attendees on an average weekend, according to Rick Morse, vice president of Hope Partnership for Missional Transformation, a consultancy for mainline congregations. But 80 percent of American congregations now have attendance below that threshold. That means thousands of churches that haven’t yet switched to part-time clergy are likely to give it serious consideration next time they have pulpit turnover, says Mr. Morse.

Deacon Terry Minihan and her mother-in-law, Joy Gilkey visit Alva Collins, who is homebound, to give Communion, sing hymns, and pray in Shapleigh, Maine. The visit by the two women, on a bracing winter day, typifies how church members have stepped up to help with religious duties in many rural churches. (Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff)

Deacon Terry Minihan and her mother-in-law, Joy Gilkey visit Alva Collins, who is homebound, to give Communion, sing hymns, and pray in Shapleigh, Maine. The visit by the two women, on a bracing winter day, typifies how church members have stepped up to help with religious duties in many rural churches. (Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff)

The financial pressures are great enough that the Christian ministry as a profession may be disappearing. It’s giving way to older models of church leadership that date to a preindustrial era.

“The Industrial Revolution really produced the professional guild that we call clergy, and that’s actually the thing that’s breaking apart,” says Cameron Trimble, chief executive officer of the Center for Progressive Renewal, an Atlanta-based nonprofit that does consulting for mainline churches. “The industry of paid clergy, and all the institutions that produce these paid clergy, are collapsing under their own weight because the financial model is so broadly broken.”

When budgets shrink, churches sometimes find new revenue by selling buildings and relocating to rented space, which lets them keep a full-time pastor on the payroll. But when the congregation won’t part with real estate, the paid pastorate often scales back to three-quarter, half-time, or even quarter part-time work.

Deacon Terry Minihan (r.) and her mother-in-law, Joy Gilkey (l.), from Acton Congregational Church, visit Alva Collins, who is homebound, to give Communion, sing hymns, and pray in Shapleigh, Maine. (Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff)

Deacon Terry Minihan (r.) and her mother-in-law, Joy Gilkey (l.), from Acton Congregational Church, visit Alva Collins, who is homebound, to give Communion, sing hymns, and pray in Shapleigh, Maine. (Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff)

If laypeople don’t then step in to fill the void, by helping with such things as leading prayers and delivering sermons, churches often continue to decline and eventually close, according to Darren Morgan, associate minister of the Maine Conference of the United Church of Christ, an organization of 156 congregations, 68 percent of which now have part-time pastors. Indeed, if more congregants don’t get involved as spiritual leaders, thousands of America’s oldest churches could be shuttered in the future.

Yet when churchgoers do embrace pastoral duties, their churches often experience new vitality, adding ministries, boosting engagement, and sometimes drawing more people.

“In order to be successful, the laity have to be willing and able to do this,” says Mr. Morgan.

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SOURCE: The Christian Science Monitor
G. Jeffrey MacDonald

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