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 RichardsonAnonymous users wishing to paste in the comments box need first to select 'preview', then close the preview box. When posting your comments please give a full name and location. Comments without this information may be deleted.
8 December 2009
8 December 2009