Part-Time Ministry and “The Myth of the Empty Church”

Part-Time Ministry and “The Myth of the Empty Church” August 8, 2016

ID-100152061Part-time or bi-vocational ministry is becoming commonplace, and frequently it is the go-to solution used by church leaders to address the needs of an increasing number of congregations.

This pattern is only going to intensify as mainline Protestant denominations shrink. For example: 80% of all Episcopal churches are either family size congregations with an average Sunday attendance of 20 to 50 or pastoral size parishes with an average Sunday attendance of 75-140. The Very Reverend Kevin Martin, an authority on such matters, notes that both kinds of churches are in serious decline.

Denominational leaders need to ask themselves one set of questions, and clergy need to consider a second set. The answers they provide will be telling, for the churches, clergy and denominational leaders.

For denominational leaders, the questions are these:

  1. Is part-time ministry dictated by the demographics of the area (which are largely out of the leader’s control), or are they the product of choices that have been made by the congregation, its leadership, or the denomination?
  2. If the latter is at issue and a church is moving to part-time pastoral care, why are leaders opting for part-time care? Was the church planted in a poorly chosen location? Is it in a location that no longer serves the needs of the community? Is the congregation lacking in vision or connection with the community? Has the church failed to offer the community a persuasive reason for attending church (i.e., does it preach the Gospel)? Is the church welcoming? Is the church mission-minded and open to change?
  3. Is the assignment of part-time clergy a quick-fix or part of some larger vision for the future of the congregation? When churches are moved to part-time ministry, precedents are set for the congregation and for the denomination.

For clergy who are asked to take part-time responsibility for a congregation, these are the questions that they need to ask:

  1. Where is the parish going, and what is the trajectory of the ministry that you are being invited to consider? What is the church’s vision for its ministry? Are there reasons for the church to continue that rise above habit, practice, and sentimental attachment?
  2. If there is no coherent answer to those questions, ask yourself and the leadership of the parish: Does the parish want part-time leadership with a coherent set of appropriate goals, or is the church simply trying to pay their pastor part-time pay for full-time work?
  3. If there is no clear answer to the first and second set of questions, then clergy need to face the fact that the parish may not have a future. If that is the case, then ministry there may be hospice care for a dying congregation, and clergy need to ask themselves whether they have the gifts and graces for that kind of ministry.

Far too often, clergy say yes to caring for dying congregations because they don’t know how to say no, but just because they are asked doesn’t mean that ministry of this kind is their calling. More to the point, far too many clergy also struggle to help churches to survive that should have never been created in the first place.

Some years ago, sociologist, Robin Gill wrote a book on The Myth of the Empty Church in the United Kingdom, which is now in a second and significantly expanded edition. Gill points out that the thesis that church attendance is falling thanks to secularization misrepresents the truth about the life of the church in the UK. Many of the churches in the UK were never full and should not have been planted in the first place. Denominational leaders and clergy should take note of the same truth in North America where, Gill notes, the problem is even more common.

Part-time ministry might make sense in some places. But its popularity across Protestantism is also obscuring a more fundamental problem and clergy are bearing the brunt of our failure to ask the right questions.

Image by artur84, used with permission from freedigitalphotos.net

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