Tuesday, 8 December 2009

Rural churches need ministers, too

This morning I was chairing a meeting of our Deanery ‘Growth Task Group’, set up to look at ways of increasing Sunday church-attendance across the deanery of Saffron Walden.
As readers of this blog may recall, this is the same deanery which has just been told that whilst its contribution to diocesan central funding this year will be £640k, its provision of full-time stipendiary ministers will soon be cut from 8.7 to 7.7.
Much of our conversation therefore consisted of how patterns of ministry need to adapt to these new circumstances. Like it or not (and some clearly don’t) clergy are going to have to allow the laity a much greater role, and not just in ‘behind the scenes’ work.
It needs to be said loudly and clearly, however, that there is no reason why this should be the special prerogative of rural ministry. Sometimes one gets the impression that ‘rich’ rural areas are expected to provide finance for ‘gritty’ urban ministry, whilst surviving on a minimum of ‘professional’ ministry-input.
By contrast, my firm conviction is that rural churches need just as many ministers as do urban churches, provided one understands the dynamics of ministry.
A few years ago, I did an informal review, based on our diocesan directory, of the relationship between the sizes of urban (as distinct from rural or inner-city) parish populations, church electoral rolls and the numbers of stipendiary ministers per parish.
This suggested that there was actually a correlation between electoral roll size and parish population —but only until the parish population reached about 4,000. Below this number, a smaller parish population correlated with a smaller electoral roll. Once the electoral roll reached (on average) 110, however, an increase in parish population saw no corresponding increase in the electoral roll. Parishes of 7,000 and parishes of 17,000 still tended to have churches with electoral rolls of around 110.
Now I would immediately want to emphasise that these findings were based on very rough figures. I would note, also, that the 110 ‘average’ was somewhat bigger than the more ‘typical’ figure, due to the presence of three or four exceptionally large electoral rolls (in excess of 200). However, the survey included over 75 churches and all were from the same Episcopal Area. With the exception of the few very large roll figures, the pattern was sustained from the smallest parishes (below 2,500) to the largest (above 19,000).
The point I want to make from this is that, above quite a low ‘ceiling’ in urban areas, parish population is a very bad guide indeed to ministerial ‘need’ or ‘reach’. To put it bluntly, you do not minister to more people just because there are more people to be ministered to.
This becomes especially so when we consider the ministry in terms of word and sacrament, which is both the special calling and the special preserve of the clergy. Congregations, gathered around the ministry of word and sacrament, seem to reach a similar size irregardless of parish population, once this exceeds 4,000 in an urban area. At this point, you are reaching the typical number of people who are be ministered to by the normal Church of England patterns of ministry.
Furthermore, whilst it is not to be doubted that some clergy and congregations, with energy and imagination, will be reaching a greater number of people than are represented by the electoral roll, there are good grounds to presume that the same principle will apply and that, beyond a certain parish population, this extra ‘reach’ will not be increased by increasing the size of the parish.
Where this matters for rural ministry is that we need to clear from our minds any notion that, beyond a relatively low ceiling, ‘bigger population’ equals ‘more ministry’. Rather, beyond this ceiling, the size of a congregation that demands a certain level of ministerial input will be the same, irregardless of population size. Heavily populated urban areas and sparsely populated rural areas are thus in essentially the same boat when it comes to ministry need —what matters is not population density but congregational size.
Of course, this also means that both urban and rural areas have the same need in expanding ministry. Once the size of a congregation which can be maintained by one pattern of ministry has been reached, you either need another minister or a new pattern of ministry. But this is as true of an urban area as it is of a rural area. An urban church with a congregation of 200 would be regarded as a ‘success’, numerically speaking, whereas a rural church with a congregation of 25 might be regarded as ‘struggling’. Again, the urban congregation might be regarded as ‘deserving’ a full-time minister, whereas the rural congregation might be regarded as scarcely needing, let alone being able to afford, one.
Yet if the urban congregation is set in a parish of 8,000, it is reaching just 2.5% of the population, whereas if the rural congregation is in a parish of 450, it is reaching over 5% —twice the percentage. The urban church’s apparent ‘success’ in terms of congregation size is actually masking a failure to reach thousands of others, whereas if the ‘reach’ of the rural church were repeated in the urban area, the congregation would be over 400.
And this, not untypical, scenario indicates another reason why rural churches actually need as much ministry as urban churches, which is that in rural areas the level of church attendance is generally higher. Paradoxically, however, it sometimes seems this is taken as a reason actually to reduce staffing levels —‘If you can get the same ‘results’ with less effort, why waste the manpower?’, seems to be the outlook.
In reality, however, those people need just as much ministry as urban dwellers, and the clergy attempting to provide that ministry will reach ‘full stretch’ at the same level as their urban counterparts. The result is that opportunities for outreach, and indeed revival, are going begging in rural areas where the ministry is being run down, since the ministers are already coping with a full workload of individual needs, combined with the demands of running an excess of meetings, PCCs, services, etc.
This is not, I would emphasise, a demand to ‘privilege’ rural areas above our urban areas. Rather, it is a challenge to the view that urban ministry demands high staffing levels whilst rural ministry does not.
The apparent policy of running down rural ministry is, I believe, based on a misconception not only about rural ministry but about its urban counterpart. Big urban parishes do not provide great opportunities just because of their size. And by the same token, ‘small’ rural parishes do not need less ministry because fewer people live within their boundaries. A church is a church, whatever its setting. Ministry is ministry, whoever the people. And a limit is a limit, however many other opportunities there may be around.
There is, I believe, real potential for ‘revival’ in our rural areas, which would benefit not only those areas but the church nationally as more funding might thereby become available for other ministries. Without proper support, however, such funding as already exists will disappear as the generation of rural Christians diminishes.
John Richardson
8 December 2009
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  1. Rev. Richardson:

    As to rural parishes.

    May come to live in England in 3-4 years. Get the four children through college, pay the house off, rent the house, and move over. Perhaps Cambridge or Oxford. Currently, am retired and read quietly for a living.

    Somewhat inclined to ask what processes are necessary for transferrence of ordination credentials to C o E. Come over and give help...rural parish. But, then again, retirement is grand.

    No one would have to pay me anything either. Wouldn't take it.

    I pray and propose. God alone disposes. Time will tell. But we're making plans in that direction.

    D. Philip Veitch
    Camp Lejeune, NC

  2. Or £640k? £64k will scarcely pay for 2 full time clergy.

    I did a similar exercise on parish population vs congregation size, and used the figures to argue for more intensive church planting in urban areas, given that the smaller the population within a parish, the higher the proportion of them who were members of their local church.

    There is clearly more work in a bigger parish from the occasional offices, though this is declining with the wane of Christendom. And if the priest is called to be a leader in mission, and not just a chaplain to the faithful, then the size of the parish surely does affect the number of people you're ministering to?

    Our Deanery is a mixture of rural and urban. There are 4.5 clergy posts for the 42000 urban dwellers, and 3 (four half-time + 1 full time) for the 8000 rural dwellers. However the 22 rural churches have the same combined congregation as the 6 urban ones (roughly 500). The Diocesan formula for clergy is weighted towards congregation size, then population, with number of church buildings a low priority.

    But the key in both areas is not more clergy - as you rightly observe, there aren't more clergy available. It's finding a way of being the church which doesn't depend on the vicar, and where clergy have more of an enabling role. Dare I say it, it may even involve working together more smartly with other churches, rather than duplicating everything our ecumenical counterparts do.

  3. As always, the answer is to stop wasting money on buildings. The aim should be to amalgamate eight rural congregations of 25 into one of 200. Hard, but that is what must be done. Save the cost of seven buildings, plough the savings into the ministry, whether officially ordained or not. There is a world out there to save - damn the buildings!

  4. "There is a world out there to save - damn the buildings!"

    Hard in a church beset with altar egos and an edifice complex.

  5. Very good stuff John, which I strongly agree with (I said a bit more here). I disagree with David though - amalgamating several congregations into one larger one is exactly the sort of centralised, efficient, modern, anti-incarnational, technocratic management that we need to repudiate. That doesn't mean hanging on to the buildings, necessarily, it does mean recognising the nature of a local community. Human beings aren't just going to give up on local connections simply because the top brass tells them that it is more efficient. Nor, frankly, in a time of Peak Oil, does it make any sort of prophetic sense. (The major answer to building costs is, in any case, the setting up of 'Friends' organisations.)

  6. Lichfield diocese has for a while used a workload formula suggested by one of its archdeacons (aka 'the Liley formula') as a tool for help decide on a fair sharing of responsibilities. It gives:
    15 points for each church building. (ie Daughter churches also count as 15 pts)
    1pt for each 150 population
    1pt for each 5 usual Sunday attendees.
    5pts for each church school
    20pts for the incumbent being rural dean
    I reckon its quite helpful & fair
    Andrew Dawswell

  7. Dear Philip,
    do you realise that every rural vicar reading this blog is now salivating, and praying "please Lord, make him move here".

    And may I add that Marbury is a beautiful place on the Welsh border, perfect for retirement, but with huge opportunities for ministry...

    Stephen Walton, Marbury

  8. Following all this with interest, and have posted some further thoughts over at bradwellfaithinaction.blogspot.com

    ...oh, and Philip, may I gently commend retirement in beautiful Rawreth, south Essex - river valleys, country pubs, beach 10 miles away, and, amazingly, the bright lights of London also a mere 45 minutes away by train! Go on, you know the Lord wants you to!!!?!...

  9. Abolish Vicars?

  10. John,

    Just to echo earlier point about occasional offices. That is where parish population can have a big impact. I know there are all sorts of caveats (use retired ministers, lay readers; just say no to some of them). Here in central Lowestoft with a largely commercial/industrial parish, we have about 20 funerals a year (currently between stipendiary incumbent and stipendiary curate). Not far from us is a parish with over 200 funerals a year (they have more retired ministers and funeral-taking readers, but even so...)

    From my limited experience of ordained ministry so far, I'm not convinced of the evangelistic usefulness of occasional offices compared to other forms of outreach, so not sure that patterns of deployment should reflect that, but it's a big fly in the ointment. If occasional offices are ignored, some ministers are either going to have to say no and cause offence, or be swamped by one long round of funerals and the rest.

  11. Stephen and Paul:

    Some inquiries are out/pending to/with some friends who have lived or are living in Britain. Several men who got their D.Phils from Oxford.

    It's four years out and after four children are "finished" with university (a budget breaker).

    A Presbyterian friend is working a "Wycliffite" ministry in Scotland. He's retired, but has been working in and throughout the land, happily retired, but serving HM.

    As to rural parishes and "coming alongside" to help, it would be delightful. I might be a tad too conservative for C o E Bishops, however. I'm a 1662 BCP man and unfamiliar with the alternative service books. But rooted in the Reformation.

    I would enjoy lending a hand to Rectors. Pay me 1 GBP/year to get/retain a residency visa. And then, no money needed. Wouldn't take it. Would get my own housing as well.

    Currently, looking at finances; responses thus far indicate I could move and retire to the UK, downtown London included, and live with modest dignity and comfort.

    Thanks for the inputs.

    D. Philip Veitch
    Camp Lejeune, NC

  12. OK, Paul, will do some research on Rawreth, South Essex.

    Same for Marbury on Welsh border, Steve.

    It's 4 years out (get children done with university), but as it stands today--if residential or retirement visas not an issue and were the childen out of school, it would be 6-12 months out.

    I putz and read for a living. Working my way slowly through the 54-vol set of the Parker Society series on the English Reformers.

    The days "of hard labour" are over (former Canadian, now an American, who retained the "u" in spellings). Finally, can read leisurely.

    Perhaps Rev. Richardson will continue to address the issue of rural parishes.

    D. Philip Veitch
    Camp Lejeune, NC