With this blog, I start a series on the state and fate of the “town parish.” By town parish, I mean the Episcopal congregation located in a town of less than 50,000 people and usually the only congregation in the county. For many years these congregations were the stable support of many dioceses. For example, in the Diocese of Texas, where I served on Diocesan staff for ten years, our town parishes were some of the earliest congregations planted in the missionary diocese. They were often the business and agricultural center of the area. Sometimes church leaders mistakenly refer to these as “rural parishes,” but in the greater church scene in North America, TEC has few actual rural churches. These smaller rural congregations are almost always family size, less than 50 in attendance, and are often located in farm areas at major crossroads and not necessarily in a town.
Long before larger cities congregations took over as the mainstay of congregational life in a diocese, the stable pastoral sized town congregation, often with longer-tenured clergy, provided on-going stability to dioceses. These congregations started as missions and only became a parishes when they could support the full-time services of a seminary trained clergy person. This gave the local lay leaders a clear set of goals to work toward.
The town parish would have to build a facility that would hold at least 125 people in worship. They would need adequate church school classrooms and a functional parish hall and kitchen. Since this type of congregation peaked before 1960, they often had limited off street parking. The Episcopal Church in Duncan, Oklahoma is a good example of such a parish. As you drive on the main street to it, you will pass a pastoral size Lutheran, Methodist and Presbyterian Church. This was, in other words, the mainstay of mainstream churches in such communities. By the way, the largest churches in such communities were often the ones most culturally identified with the majority of the population. This is why TEC has very few program or resource size congregations in smaller cities. Only in Virginia or South Carolina were Anglicans in such a majority.
During my lifetime, I have visited hundreds of these congregations. When I was a student at the University of North Texas, my home parish was St. Barnabas in Denton, Texas. It was this congregation and Rector that nourished my wife and I and prepared us for attending seminary. (Denton actually had two parishes, one high church and one low, but that is another story.)
Three recent dynamics have caused the town parishes of TEC to face a number of serious challenges to their future.
First is the general decline in membership. From 1965 to 2000, the Episcopal Church lost 1/3 of its membership. This combined with the migration of many people in America from smaller towns to cities set the stage for trouble. Than from 2002 to 2012, TEC lost another 1/3 of its members. This has led to some church closures, but most significantly has been the decline of many town parishes from 100 to 150 Sunday attendance down to less than 50 which is known as the family size congregation.
Second is the higher cost of clergy and utilities. In the 1960s, a parish with 60 pledging units could support the services of a full-time seminary trained clergy person, pay its bills, meet the diocesan assessment, AND have funds for some local outreach. Today, the escalating costs of benefits for clergy, not actual salaries, but especially medical insurance and housing costs combined with the cost of utilities which have grown faster than inflation means that the same congregation will need 80 to 100 pledging units or a large endowment.
Third is the growing number of Episcopal clergy who would rather serve in a city than a town. Often this is because the clergy spouse has employment needs that cannot work in a small town. I was astounded as a member of the Standing committee in Dallas at the number of aspirants that informed us that they could only serve a parish in a major metropolitan area because of their spouse’s needs. However, we can add to this the simple fact that most seminary trained clergy came from city parishes and prefer the benefits of large city life. Now, let me be clear about this. There are many benefits of a longer tenure in a small town especially for families with younger children, but this is not what most professionally trained clergy want. Speaking of tenure, the shorter tenure of clergy in parishes hasn’t helped the situation of the town parish either.
Generally speaking, how have leaders, Bishops and Dioceses, responded to the challenge of once larger town parishes with decreasing and aging congregational membership? In a word, they have responded badly. Perhaps in fairness I should say that they have responded by finding practical ways to solve the problems. This almost always means providing part-time, or bi-vocational, or retired clergy to serve such parishes. The worse solution is to allow the church to drift to supply clergy.
A few dioceses that could afford it have tried to subsidize full-time clergy in such parishes, but because of the shorter tenure of such clergy and their desire often to “get out of Dodge” and get back to a larger city, this has proven futile.
So let me close this first blog on the town parish with this observation; part-time or bi-vocational, or retired clergy may be a solution to the financial challenges of the declining and aging town parish, but these almost never provide solutions that will re-grow the congregation. Hence, many of TEC’s town parishes are stuck in a declining cycle and their lay leaders do not know how to change this. Meanwhile, their diocesan leadership seems stuck in merely trying to solve problems without looking toward long-term and strategic solutions.