Saturday, May 5, 2012

"Where have all the Rectors gone?"

 Where have all the Rectors gone?  With due regard for the ‘50’s folk song, they are, “long time passing;” “long time ago.”  This was the conclusion reached by a number of clergy from three dioceses meeting in the Heartland last week.  Many of our group were bi-vocational, part-time, or non-stipendiary; many had never been a rector.  (For our friends not familiar with Episcopal terms, a “rector” is commonly understood to be full-time, fully compensated priest in charge of a self supporting congregation – a “parish.”  A congregation not able to totally fund their expenses including a full-time priest is generally called a “mission” and the term “vicar” is used in place of “rector.”

As one older priest lamented, “we used to have a lot of rectors in our diocese but now -- not so many.”  National Church statistics prove his point: collectively the three contiguous dioceses represented in our group report information on 124 congregations with 80 (65%) being too small both in membership and dollars to have a rector; they are usually termed “family size” and have average Sunday attendance (ASA) under 50.  Eleven of these congregations have an average  Sunday attendance of fewer than 10 persons and twenty-five more congregations have ASA at 20 or less.  God love the people in these tiny congregations for their loyalty and their devotion.  But no rectors here anymore!
Above “family size” are “pastoral size” congregations with an ASA between 50 and 150.  The three dioceses have 33 (27 %) churches this size with several of them being very fragile.  Some are joined with family size congregations to be served in cluster ministries, or are yoked with another congregation to cut costs.  Many are forced to provide only minimum compensation and then call older clergy to avoid having to pay for family level medical insurance.  

Not a bright picture, 92% of the congregations in these three dioceses are not able to call a rector or can only obtain the services of a rector on a minimum or reduced cost basis. We have always hoped that with the right leadership (priest and bishop) and hard work by the membership, these congregations could grow.  So what has happened under a half a dozen dedicated bishops and scores of committed clergy?  Not one of these congregations has moved up a category in the past 10 years; several have moved down.  At best our strategies are a holding action and not a posture for meaningful growth. 

One question raised during free time at the conference asked, “Why do we need three dioceses, three bishops, and three staffs to superintend these 113 out of 124 small/tiny congregations?”  Others offered: “Nothing done the last 10 years by the Diocese has worked and yet these faithful are survivors.”  “Keep the decisions about resources at the local level where the people know best how to use them.”   “One diocese would be more logical.” 

Of course, these three dioceses do have about a half-dozen “program size” (ASA 150-350) and a half-dozen resource size (ASA above 350) congregations. Some of congregations in these categories have moved down in this past decade and others will do so in the coming decade; none have moved up.  Again, do we need three dioceses to superintend these dozen places?  Obviously the current system is broken, or more kindly, outdated.  “Agreed!” many shouted.  

After all this heavy talk, we charged our glasses and toasted Rectors, past, present, and future.


  1. Thanks Gary, you have removed the tall cloak off the smallish reality. Perhaps we can look with realism and compassion at a plan or two to make our mission and ministries fit the sizes we actually have.

  2. In my previous career, we "rightsized" in the early 90s. My boss at the time had a saying I think many congregations would benefit from. He said, "We're not going to more with less, and we're not going to do less with less. We are going to do something different with the resrouces we have."

  3. Same story in my diocese. 60-something parishes, maybe 12 rectors? One issue in my ASA 60 parish is the cost of full-time clergy: between pension payments, health insurance (which cost will double under the DHP), and other 'hidden' costs, the cost of a full-time Rector is more than our pledge and plate income. Since 1985, our costs have inflated 100%: the services that cost us $60K that year cost us $120K this year. And that's zero program budget, minimum staff, etc. The economy is sapping income levels at the same time as inflation is increasing costs. A lot of us are getting squeezed, which also means more competition for the full-time positions that are still out there.

  4. Raewynne WhiteleyMay 7, 2012 at 9:40 AM

    So often I hear that we need to cut clergy to make ends meet. But it seems to me that the elephant in the room is our buildings. They are a fixed cost (I rarely hear calls for half-time insurance or half-time electricity), and are often used a relatively small percentage of the week. Many of our churches were built when travel was limited to foot or horse; nice as it is to have a church in every small community, it may not be realistic. What if we were to reaffirm that the heart of the church is people, not buildings, and put our money there. And yes, that might mean closing some buildings. Perhaps we could do what is done in many small towns in Australia - there is one church building, shared by all denominations. And on the 100% increase in costs since 1985, the CPI went up 113.2% in that time (, the average wage went up 147%(, and median household income went up 119.8% (sorry - accidentally closed the site I found that on, but it's based on US census data). So costs are actually increasing less than the average inflation and wage increases.

  5. The downsizing that you describe has been happening across denominations now for decades. It is a bigger challenge than trying to add more rectors. Your data reflect that rectors are not making the congregations grow.
    Several books have been written addressing this issue. The latest thoughtful one I know is Robin Meyers' "The Underground Church." I recommend it.
    --humbly, John Marshall, Episcopal Bookstore, Seattle

  6. Excellent post! The challenge you have named is not limited to the Heartland! See my new Facebook group - Congregational Seasons: A Resource for Transitions. I am also launching a blog under the same name in early June. I took the liberty of linking your excellent post to the new Facebook group. Please join the new group. I have experience helping to close a struggling Episcopal parish in Reno with ASA under 50. 95% of the former members are active members of one of three other area Episcopal Church. New life is possible but congregations need to be led led by the Holy Spirit with the courage and resources to undergo transformational transitions that lead to new life in Christ.

    Joseph Duggan

  7. I am impressed with so many excellent comments on Gary's article. Re. Raewynne's observations, I have only served in congregations with old buildings from 1870's to mid 1950's structures in which in all cases, as Rector, I had to lead capital funding programs and was able to do so successfully. However, in those cases we still had the critical quantity of parishioners with the financial resources to raise the money. What is now happening more and more is the lack of parishioners to keep up on capital maintenance and improvements, so you are properly focusing us on the hard issues around moving out of or finding, where possible, multiple uses for our facilities. The latter is certainly easier for congregations to tolerate but not always possible. The selling of church buildings is now becoming problematic because, if you check real estate offerings, many church facilities are showing up at highly undervalued prices because of the problem of alternative use or tear down costs unless the location is especially good for development.
    I have watched, John from the bookstore, and noted the problem of urban and rural congregations declining, not because of rectors'presence,absence or leadership but sheer demographics. Now the problem is not just demographic; it is declining interest in institutional religious life as we have known it for hundreds of years.
    The solution of one building for multiple congregations is possible and in some cases successful in this country. Are there many successful models that have been successfully tested and found effective? If there are, please post.
    Even if we find new congregational growth models, many of the buildings we have will not reflect our changing needs, I suspect. The work ahead is daunting and requires many good minds and hearts to work together. That is why I/we have this blog and are so grateful for all participation.

  8. We haven’t begun to dig near deep enough yet to address the problem underlying the apparent accelerating decline in the church (not just our church, the phenomena impacts all churches to one degree or another.)

    The fundamental business of the church is to help its members and the broader community answer Paul Gaugin’s question, “Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going?” Liturgy, outreach, and prophetic action, important as they are, are all subsidiary to these basic questions.

    Our business model faces two challenges: 1. People aren’t asking Gaugin’s questions as much any more, and 2. Our Christian answers to Gaugin’s questions, particularly in light of modern science, are not as convincing as they once were.

    We can do all the restructuring and evangelizing we want, but until we develop a compelling theology, I don’t think we will get very far.

  9. Congratulations Gary. This is our most viral post yet with 378 hits in two days. You have hit a nerve in the church and as we and other like minded bloggers increase, my hope is that the House of Bishops, General Convention, and congregational leaders will respond. Thanks friend.

  10. I always think of William Stringfellow's story (parable?) about St. Ann's-by-the-Sea on Block Island. (from Simplicity of Faith, 1982, pp. 100 – 103)

    His story always gets me thinking about how we live and minister in our world today.

    During Stringfellow's tenure on the island, St. Ann's started to revive. Initially, people started meeting in each other's homes, reciting the daily offices, celebrating communion (when a priest visited the island), doing Bible study, and discussing the news on Block Island and in the world. Free of the encumbrances of institutional life, it attracted more and more people, in the “summer weeks it seemed appropriate to begin to have weekly services with a visiting priest at the site of the ruins of the building that had been demolished by an act of God in 1938.”

    "That may have been a fatal decision. Since then, the congregation has been canonically recognized as a mission of the Diocese of Rhode Island, the traditional polity for missions has been instituted, and, predictably, the sentiment for rebuilding has steadily increased. We do not do Bible study any more; we do not seriously consider the mission of the Church in the world, including Block Island; we seldom ask any ecumenical questions. We are into raising money, which we will likely spend to embellish the social life of Episcopalians and their kindred in the summer colony. Has anyone ever heard this story about the Church before?”

    "Anthony and I and some few others became dissenters from the prevailing attitude in St. Ann's-in-the-Sea, with its ecumenical indifference and preoccupation with property and pretense… There has been a basic surrender to the culture in which the preservation of the ecclesiastical institution and fabric for its own sake has acquired a priority that trivializes the gospel of Jesus Christ and scandalizes the apostolic precedent of the church.”

    I think Raewynne is right...

  11. rector@garygilbertson.orgMay 7, 2012 at 9:38 PM

    It is energizing to know that many of you share in being concerned for the future of the church and its ministries. Apparently hundreds of you read my article “Where have all the Rectors gone?” and many of you posted insightful comments on the blog or contacted me directly at

    To be sure, the number of rectors is in decline for a number of reasons: (1) congregations are too small in members and/dollars, (2) buildings are deteriorating, (3) excessive number of dioceses, and the list goes on as many of you emphasized.

    However the decline in the number of rectors is not caused by a shortage of clergy – rather a shortage of opportunity. Additionally it has to be admitted that the church at large has no program for preparing priests to serve large program-size and even larger resource-size congregations. It is not true that if you have a private pilot’s license you should be able to captain a 747. Enough said as my next article will focus on clergy leadership.

  12. The current state of the church is pathetic and I think this says a lot about the generation that is currently retiring from leadership in the church. That generation abandoned young vocation in the 1970's and 1980's. In almost a lock-step way the entire episcopal church decided that to be truly "authentic" one had to gain life expereince in a jungian thought that nearly left the church void of any young leadership. At the same time diocese and church have seen thier endowments and savings raided to continue to support the vapid leadership that arose after vietnam. So a challenge to the writers of this blog: What have you left the generations that follow you?

  13. Anonymous, you have it wrong at least in terms of us blog writers. We were ordained at 24 or 25 years of age, and we have all served 40 to 50+ years of ordination in parish, diocesan, not for profit, for profit, hospital, cathedral, international, military ministries to name a few. Our legacy: between us over two hundred years of work, millions of dollars raised, thousands of lives we have touched directly, hundreds of pages written and read nationally and internationally, direct ministry to at least twenty four national Anglican bodies outside the USA, hundreds of critical decisions for the welfare of the Body of Christ, dozens of awards to name of few accomplishments. Is that enough? The challenge: name your own legacy.

  14. Dear Anonymous. Here we go again, blambing those of us who served the church as faithful parish priests in the midst of the seismic shifts of our society before and after Viet Nam. Our leadership was anything but vapid. Many were heroic Christian Warriors proclaming the gospel of Jesus Christ faithfully in the midst of dramatic change. Our legacy is providing stability in the church, faithful to the Lord, witnessing to Jesus commandmet to love the neighbor as the self. This is pure gospel my friend

  15. Rector@garygilbertson.orgMay 9, 2012 at 9:48 AM

    ‘Anonymous’ says, “The current state of the church is pathetic…” The Diocese of Eau Claire proves his point. This tiny Diocese has 22 congregations with 20 of them being too small to afford a full time, fully compensated rector – or afford program and mission.
    Over half have annual budgets under $50,000 and average Sunday attendance under 25. Nevertheless, Eau Claire wants to elect a part-time bishop; they didn’t grow with a full timer. Folks, the old paradigm is broke!

    ‘Anonymous’ questions leadership in the church; so do I. How can our House of Bishops approve this election? In an earlier blog titled “Alleluia” (April 7th) bishops were challenged to not approve Episcopal elections unless the jurisdiction had an ASA of 20,000. Two of my last three rectorships had individual budgets greater then the Diocese of Eau Clair and the two of them combined a larger ASA.

    And it is not just Eau Claire; Western Kansas and North Dakota have done the same thing.

  16. I can't speak to Western Kansas, but in fairness to the Diocese of Eau Claire and the Diocese of North Dakota...

    I think one of the reasons that those two in particular are so weak might be that western Wisconsin and most of Minnesota and North Dakota are the strongest regions for the ELCA, which, as I'm sure most readers know, is the only denomination in full communion with TEC.

    As you may or may not be aware, the Diocese of Eau Claire tried to merge with the Diocese of Fond du Lac, but Fond du Lac wouldn't accept them.

    It almost might make more sense for the seven parishes that actually have an average attendance over 40 to be merged into the ELCA, with the members of the smaller parishes encouraged to find a home in one of the many ELCA congregations that surround them.

    Same with North Dakota--the 5 parishes with an average attendance over 40 could merge with the ELCA, and the other 100-200 or so Episcopalians in the entire state could just join an ELCA congregation.

    Actually, as an ELCA member myself, I wouldn't mind seeing the Episcopal Church being dissolved completely, with all congregations allowed to either go to the Roman Catholic Church, the Southern Cone, or the ELCA.

    After leaving the Catholic Church in the past year, and visiting a number of mainline churches, there were a lot of things that I really liked about the Episcopal Church, or at least the parishes closest to my apartment. There are some traditionally Episcopal practices that I would like to see more Lutheran churches adopt. However, I perceived that the national Episcopal Church was an order of magnitude more unstable than the national ELCA. This is really saying something, since the ELCA is far from perfect itself. While this was not the deciding factor in my ultimate decision to become active in an ELCA congregation, it was definitely a factor. Another factor was being able to find a Lutheran church with essentially all of the things that I liked about the Episcopal parishes I visited.

  17. Excellent article. It made me think of Resolution #2 in the Diocese of West Missouri, calling for investigating the merging of Dioceses. It was passed but quickly forgotten. Dealing with hard reality is not a pleasant option.

  18. This is probably one of the best recent conversations on church restructure I've read. I'd like to leaven the discussion with an additional thought or two:

    Perhaps we need to consider declaring more areas within existing dioceses as mission areas once again, with circuit riders and missionary bishops?

    Second, perhaps we need to build parish as well as diocesan partnerships so that our mission trips might include Eau Claire as well as Honduras or the Heartland as well as Uganda?

    Perhaps we ought to recall that earliest communities of Christians in England gathered around monasteries and seek to build new ways of doing church around the oblates, tertiaries, and associates in the low population areas?

    Finally, perhaps we ought to get serious about what small rural communities need in terms of faith life and support and provide them the tools they need to address their realities rather than bemoaning the loss of rectorships?

  19. "Dear Anonymous. Here we go again, blambing those of us who served the church as faithful parish priests in the midst of the seismic shifts of our society before and after Viet Nam."

    Funny, you give yourself grace, but at the same time you trash on the current leaders in the church. Don't they find themselves in the midst of the same seismic shifts? (in geology people know that seismic shifts happen all the time)

    Any system benefits or fails from it's previous generations ability or lack of ability to create within the system adaptations and adjustments. Your generation of priest "rode the gravy train" of the wave of WWII builders. They left you with a vibrant and growing denomination, your generation left the church in disarray and catastrophe!

  20. Rector@garygilbertson.orgMay 22, 2012 at 9:28 AM

    We read above, “Your generation of priest rode the gravy train of the wave of WWII builders.” Actually we were ordained when Episcopal Church membership topped out at 3.6 million and spent our time trying to sound the alarm that those in power were leading us to self-destruct. Even though we lead local congregations that were growing in ASA and depth, is was not enough. So we are now under two million members and still raising issues in hopes that TEC will not end up a boutique faith group 10 years from now with under a million.

  21. Wow. This conversation makes me feel old. Dear Anonymous, I here your anger at the sad state of affairs in our church. We can lay the blame in any number of places. I'm not sure what good it does. The situation is far more complex than riding the "gravy train." I say this because, unlike many posters, I have never been a Rector. For many years I've assisted, or been a part time Interim, or supplied, or done a part time mission job along with another. At oen point I was a full time radio announcer in a cold Minnesota town, and also a half time assistant Rector. That was a bitch, let me tell you.

    But I'm willing to bet that you care, and want to see a way through this into a better day. Me too. And I think the bloggers, all those old farts, do too. I do not yet qualify as an old fart, but I did have a 29 year old student tell me I am from "another generation" the other day. That was a bummer.

    So, i invite you to vent your spleen. And I also invite you to share here what you think would make the situation better. This is a good place to think out loud.

    These days I'm a pastoral educator. I'd like for you to educate me. Not on how I screwed up the church in the last 27 years, but rather on how you see things now, and how you envision our way through this together in faith.

    Yours truly,
    A woman of "another generation"
    from the second wave after the really first wave of women, who thanked God that those who went first had taken care of all of that discrimination against women. Then I went to West Missouri in 1985.

    Whit, a priest, a healthcare chapain, and a Mom, not necessarily in that order.