The Clergy Shortage and Congregational Survival

The Clergy Shortage and Congregational Survival March 4, 2024

Recently a parish in Henderson, Kentucky, announced that it was looking for a Rector and candidly admitted that they had no applicants.  People weighed in and offered advice: consult your bishop; don’t use the language – “hire”; change your profile; move to another state – yours isn’t safe; call a Lutheran pastor.  I doubt that any of this advice was helpful, and some of it was obtuse.

Their post, sadly, was a public acknowledgment of dynamics that parishes are already experiencing, and it was a foretaste of what faces not just Episcopal parishes but mainline churches in general.  Just as seminaries were built on demographic patterns which sustained an unsustainable model during the second half of the 20th century and the first decade or so of the 21st, mainline denominations built churches based upon the same patterns.

Not all of the changes that have changed the church’s fortunes were foreseeable in the fifties and sixties.  Some of the changes were not easy to predict, even in the seventies and eighties.  But in the nineties the converging trends were obvious.

The problem was, few leaders wanted to make the hard decisions involved in making adjustments.  So, just as seminary administrators road into the storm without making adjustments, denominational leaders also allowed things to drift.  And when the downturn in seminary enrollments, clergy supply, average Sunday attendance, and membership roles became hard to deny, denominational leaders did the same thing that seminary leaders did – they played word games.  I once heard one bishop declare, “We aren’t dying, we are molting.”

Only recently did seminaries and church leaders in my own denomination really begin to talk to one another, and -to their credit – one seminary has begun offering to fully subsidize the costs associated with getting a Master of Divinity.  But for the most part things remain the same: Denominational leaders continue to insist on the same levels of financial support for unwieldy church bureaucracies.  Conventions come and go without serious conversation about the mission and ministry of the church.  And this year, as in years past, my own denomination will be focused on electing a Presiding Bishop; Prayer Book revision; and the usual cache of resolutions that suggest the world is waiting for the Episcopal Church to declare itself on matters domestic and foreign.

None of this is remotely valuable to the church in Henderson, Kentucky, or – for that matter – most parishes.  We will reassure a handful of our members that nothing which happens at Convention will materially alter life in our parish; and we will continue to build for the future of our congregation’s efforts in its own community.

But how do individual churches do this in the face of national demographics that have and still are changing?  There are no easy answers and the terrible truth is that there are hundreds of churches across mainline Protestantism that have already passed the point of no return.

But for those churches that can build for the future, here are some thoughts:

1.  Remain prayerful and continue to nurture your tradition’s approach to worship.  There is no point in trying to preserve a congregation that has lost its bearings spiritually and liturgically.  If people have found their way to you, it is probably because you worship in a particular way.  In the case of my own denomination, it is often the Prayerbook and out liturgy that it is at the heart of that appeal.

2.  Resist gimmickry.  The Gospel has been, is, and will always be relevant.  Rightly, the church that jettisons its message looks desperate.

3.  Continue to minister to the needs of your community.  As important as our connection with the apostolic tradition and the church universal might be, all church is ultimately local and the Christian life is incarnational in its expression.

4.  Plan for the future.  If you can build an endowment fund to address the maintenance of your building with bequests, then you can focus your energy on a mission-based budget.  Yes, buildings can be a burden but they are also about presence and platform for ministry.

5.  If you haven’t started, build an online presence.  If you have, don’t stop.  People no longer begin by visiting.  They begin by looking at your website and by worshipping virtually.

6.  Cultivate the next generation of leaders.  Churches that do not involve their newer members in the life of a congregation are closed to the future.  It is possible to be grateful for leaders whose gifts and graces have sustained a church; continue to draw on their wisdom; and move into the future – all at the same time.

7.  Manage your own transition, when seeking new ordained leadership.  The experience of the church in Henderson will be all too common, no matter what the variables might be, and far too many congregations are already struggling with protracted transitions.  I have great respect for my friends who are interim priests, but lengthy interim periods are church killers.  Apple transitioned from Steve Jobs to Tim Cook, without an elaborate transition.  Your congregation is not that complicated.  A church without a rector begins to plateau and then drift, and people begin to go elsewhere.

8.  In fact, it may be time for churches to navigate transitions with the existing leadership at work.  This has to be done carefully.  The existing clergy will need to take a “hands off” approach to the future.  Congregations will need to understand that changes in leadership always entail change and that a new generation of leaders will always bring new perspectives.  There is no reason to interpret such changes as a criticism of the past.  There was a time when I thought that this was a truly bad way to manage a transition. But prolonged searches will be a standard feature of clerical transitions in the future and the church needs new strategies for building leaders.

9.  The worst thing a parish can do now is follow the maxim, “Trust the process”, because the process is broken.  Whatever you do, remember that the well being of your community had been entrusted to you.  And the worst thing you can do is to act as if massive change is not already here.

Photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash

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