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.

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