Rise of the tiny church, with its no-cost clergyperson

In recent decades mainstream journalists have spilled oceans of ink — with good cause — on stories about the declining number of men entering the Catholic priesthood. Fewer and older men are trying to serve a flock that is rapidly changing in ethnic makeup, while membership totals have continued a slow rise (largely due to Latino numbers).

So what is the next subject linked to that story? The rising number of permanent, married Catholic deacons.

While all eyes have been on the Catholic front lines a major change has been unfolding in the world of mainline Protestantism, where membership numbers continue to decline while the donor base of active members is also rapidly aging. The bottom line: There is no easy, painless way to slice a shrinking pie.

This brings us to a very interesting story released recently by Religion News Service about a trend that, in many ways, is the liberal Protestant version of the rise of the married, permanent Catholic deacon. It’s an attempt to offer a positive reaction to a negative demographic (and some would argue doctrinal) wave.

So your denomination is rapidly aging, having a below-replacement number of babies, losing quite a few active members in an age of doctrinal conflict and facing the decline of some American regions that have previously been strongholds. What to do? This brings us to Mark Marmon, who will soon be ordained as a no-cost Episcopal priest for a small, and surprisingly typical, parish in Texas. Here’s some crucial summary material from this newsy piece:

A 57-year-old fly fishing guide, Marmon, whose wife is a lawyer, says he doesn’t want or need a church salary. He belongs to a growing breed of mainline Protestant clergy who serve congregations in exchange for little or no compensation.

“We’re the frontline,” Marmon said. “If it weren’t for us, these churches would just roll up and die.”

Though small evangelical congregations have long relied on unpaid pastors, mainline churches haven’t. They’ve generally paid full-time or nearly full-time salaries, said Scott Thumma, a Hartford Seminary sociologist of religion. That’s changing, however, as churches face declining numbers and look to new ministry models to make ends meet. Thumma sees more mainliners cutting back to halftime or one-quarter-time packages for clergy, who increasingly work second jobs.

For some reason, it seems that it is much easier to track this trend at the level of a humble local diocese — let’s say Wyoming, or even Texas — than it is at the lofty national level. Much of the story focuses on the work of the 9-year-old Iona School for Ministry in Houston, down in Bible Belt territory, a region in which some Episcopal dioceses are actually holding their own.

It’s clear that this is an important story, and the RNS piece is packed with provocative info. However, I think it has at least one significant hole.

Here’s a clue: Why is this story focusing on an institution in Texas, a part of North America that is far from the Episcopal dioceses that are being hit hardest by the current demographic realities? More on that in a minute.

Meanwhile, back at the national level:

Most mainliners still pay their clergy. Only 2 percent are unpaid, according to Hartford Seminary’s 2010 Faith Communities Today survey. Meanwhile, 30 percent of mainline churches have a part-time, paid pastor. The rest have full-time, paid leaders.

But denominations expect more church leaders in years ahead to earn their livings in secular jobs. The Presbyterian Church (USA), for instance, encourages new seminarians to plan for nonchurch employment so they can serve fledgling congregations that can’t afford a full-time salary plus benefits.

And at the national level in Episcopal circles?

Traditional seminaries are adjusting to make sure students can handle the new realities. Auburn Theological Seminary in New York, for instance, is developing an entrepreneurial ministry track for students who plan to do ministry but aren’t counting on church employment after graduation.

“We’re encouraging a new form of ministry where students realize they may not go into congregations in traditional buildings that can pay them full-time salaries,” said Auburn President Katharine Henderson. “So they have to know how to do ministry in entirely new ways.”

And how about clergy working in traditional buildings that no longer contain many people?

This is the angle of the story that I though deserved a few sentences worth of material. When I was full-time on the religion beat in the 1980s, I heard insiders in several oldline denominations talking about the “85 rule.” The key was that it took about 85 highly active, dedicated members to provide enough financial support for the typical parish to provide a salary-and-benefits package for a full-time mainline clergyperson. Clearly this statistical line in the sand (even if the number has changed a bit in the past decade or two) plays a role in the no-cost priest story.

So what are the recent trends at the parish level?

Obviously, liberal and conservative voices (click here for the views of conservative activist David Virtue) interpret the data in radically different ways. However, there is no way to look at the Episcopal Church’s numbers without seeing the trend at the level of the many, many tiny parishes. Here is a blast of data from 2009, care of the liberal establishment’s own information service:

* More than half (52.4 percent) of all Episcopal congregations had an average attendance of 70 or fewer persons in 2009, as compared with 50.7 percent in 2007, according to data from the church’s annual Parochial Report, which all congregations are canonically required to submit. The median Episcopal congregation had 66 persons at Sunday worship in 2009, compared to 72 in 2006 and 77 in 2003. The National Congregations Study reports that the median church in the U.S. has 75 regular participants in worship on Sunday mornings. …

* The large majority (69%) of Episcopal congregations report that more than half of their members are age 50 or older. Overall, 30 percent of Episcopal church members are age 65 or older, as compared to only 13% of the U.S. population. In the last survey, that portion stood at 27 percent.

So what’s my point? Ironically, my main point is that this very important story is even more important — when national trends are documented — than the story as written, which already contains a fine array of facts. What about trends in the crucial Northeast and Midwest dioceses? What about the national numbers on parish support for clergy?

This was a solid story about a very important subject. Still, I think that it’s one national-level hole is crucial.

About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • R. Howell

    Looking forward to reading this after you fix the wayward apostrophe in the headline.

    • tmatt

      Always glad to fix aging Baby Boomer typos.

  • Darren Blair

    There’s an angle that the article appears to have completely overlooked: how non-mainstream churches handle the subject of pay and compensation for their ministers.

    The SOP for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (most often referred to as “The Mormons”) is that local-level clergy (ministers and their immediate superiors) are all lay clergy; this goes back to the beginning of the church.* In fact, it’s pretty much a requirement that a person have a steady source of outside income before they can be considered for the ministry at that level.

    How it works in the church is that the members are supposed to learn their vocation *and* learn church theology simultaneously. In addition to their independent studies and what they learn on Sunday, high school students have seminary classes, college students have Institute (college-level theology and history classes), and individual congregations typically have leeway to implement other programs from there. Furthermore, a textbook-size work known as “The Church Handbook of Instruction” spells out in detail how a congregation is supposed to function, thereby giving the local clergy specific written instruction in how everything is supposed to operate.

    As such, it’s almost (at least from what I’ve seen) taken for granted that the leader of any given congregation has a day job on top of their church duties. For example, the minister in charge of my congregation is a dentist. Of his two assistants, one is a retired military officer (and, therefore, drawing retirement pay from the government) and the other is a teacher.

    I think the writer of this piece might therefore be surprised what would happen if he showed this article to a pool of Mormons.

    *One of the more famous sites in church history is the store that Joseph Smith owned and operated while the church was settled in Nauvoo, Illinois. Not only did it provide the Smith family with a source of income aside from his being the head of the church, the second floor of the building also served as a classroom and discussion center.

  • FW Ken

    I got tickled at the notion that the Diocese of Texas contrasts with the isolation of Wyoming. Two words: piney woods.

    Anyway, it would have been nice to see a bit of history. I went to a diocesan school 30 years ago (The Anglican School of Theology near Dallas) with a program that led to regular ordination as well as what they called “Canon 8 ordination”, or something like that. Anyway, the ordination was for a specific congregation. In fact, we had students who committed from Houston. So all of this is not new stuff.

    It is true that in those 30 years, the Episcopal Church had lost a third of its membership and the issues of small congregations and empty buildings are old-hat. Moreover, there is a whole story in the older women getting ordained and serving small congregations as a second vocation. In fact, their presiding bishop fits into that category, except for the small congregation part.

  • cvg

    I thought the article did a good job of covering all expected angles. The only question I had was the extent to which Modesitt’s parishioner-clergy confidentiality issue accurately reflects the actual differences people experience in the folds of paid vs. non-paid clergy? Since there doesn’t seem to be much research on what people generally notice when going from one to another, I wonder if an anecdote of a transition in the opposite direction would have helped (i.e. a Mormon to Catholic convert).

    I’d also note Modesitt’s comment mirrors Finke’s and Dougherty’s research on seminary vs. non-seminary trained clergy: the big difference is the extent to which social circles are fully embedded within (and hence limited by) the congregation.

  • Will

    Are you kidding, referencing a site run by David Virtue? This is a man who belongs on Right Wing Watch. He’s as homophobic as it gets. A firm believer in gay conversion therapy, he refers to homosexuals in the most insulting terms possible. Don’t be an idiot and refer to a bigot’s website.

    The Episcopal Church keeps the best records of any religious group out there and the numbers are all available online. If anybody else out there wants to write a thinly veiled attack on TEC, get your numbers from there.

    • tmatt

      Did you read the post? I gave links to left and right and QUOTED the TEC establishment.

      • Will

        You’re responding to an argument I didn’t make. My point is that certainly you can find someone other than a homophobic idiot to give the religious-right spin on the TEC’s numbers.

        And, by the way, with terms like “TEC establishment,” and “care of the liberal establishment,” how could one possibly not take your article as a serious piece of analysis?

        • tmatt

          You are claiming that the TEC — like all religious groups — does not have an establishment and that the current TEC leaders are not doctrinally liberal?

          If you glanced at the Virtue piece I referenced, instead of shouting at a straw man, you would see that I did so because it is based completely on the official TEC statistics.

          In other words, two views of the same official stats.

          • Will

            Now you’re simply being disingenuous. Simple frankness would not describe the above article.


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