1. Learning as we go
I am a Free Range Priest, serving 2 Sundays a month at a small congregation (total membership = 30). I serve un-conventionally, but that doesn’t mean I don’t worry about them!
Last month, with Holy Week and Easter approaching, I had committed to Maundy Thursday and Easter Sunday, but had other commitments for Palm Sunday and Good Friday. This was scheduled and agreed on months in advance. As the days got closer, though, I had a nagging sense of guilt.
‘I could probably be there on Palm Sunday,’ I thought to myself. I would have to rearrange some things on my calendar, but it was technically possible. Palm Sunday is so important, and they would be without me. And what about Good Friday? I didn’t really see how I could get there, but I felt like I should. This congregation deserved to have a priest on one of the most holy days of the year. I couldn’t shake the sense that I was letting them down. I thought briefly about calling to say I would be there after all.
Then I got their weekly newsletter in my email inbox, and immediately noticed they had everything taken care of! They had contracted with another priest to cover Palm Sunday, and had scheduled lay-led Stations of the Cross for Good Friday. And since I am not part of putting together the newsletter or the schedule, I hadn’t even known! This congregation is perfectly capable of taking care of themselves. It was a wonderful wake-up call for me.
2. Clergy on Contract
Even though I preach it and teach it, the ‘clergy on contract’ or ‘Free Range Priest’ model of ministry is still somewhat new, and based on a re-thinking of the assumptions of how clergy and congregations work together. The basic model is one congregation, one building, one clergy person, maybe a small part-time staff as well.
While this model still works about half the time, the other half is struggling. Congregations can’t afford clergy salary and benefits, even half-time; buildings and grounds are too much to manage; and clergy work harder than ever for less compensation. We are all trying to support a system that is simply unsustainable for many.
There is Good News, however! Paying clergy hourly, or by contract, rather than salary, allows congregations to have the ordained ministry they can afford, when and where they need it most. It also allows clergy to work in multiple places and ways without being overwhelmed or exhausted.
The hard part - initially - is that it means clergy are not always at the congregation, and it means that part-time is no more than 2 Sundays a month. Once clergy are present every Sunday, this basically amounts to full-time, because most people in the congregation spend most of their time at church on Sundays. It is simply assumed we are always there - because we appear to be! It then becomes harder to avoid doing 'everything', and slipping into full-time work for part-time pay, which is NOT sustainable for anyone.
3. Change - with benefits
Both clergy and congregations usually resist this notion - we WANT to have clergy every Sunday! And ordained ministers want to serve. This comes from a place of deep caring, and from familiarity. This is how it is done - the minister leads worship on Sunday.
If this were working, we wouldn't even be talking about change!
In order to sustain ministry into the future - and in the present! - clergy must be free to serve more than part-time. If one congregation can't support a full-time salary and benefits (and more and more frequently, they can't), then they must understand that clergy have to support themselves and their families. Even if clergy do not technically 'have to' work more than part-time, (because they are retired or supported by a spouse, for instance), serving more hours than necessary has another downside, too: it limits the growth of lay ministry.
The eye-opening experience I had before Holy Week - the one I keep learning - is that ‘2 Sundays a month’ really strengthens and supports the congregation. When I am not trying to do ‘everything’ for those I serve, I see much more clearly how they don’t need me to! They see it, too. This adds clarity to what I am there for as an ordained clergy person, and what we are all called to as disciples sharing Good News with the world.
4. Proof in Growth
I asked the congregation I serve - St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Salisbury, NC - to tell me what they think about our Free Range Priest arrangement, and they wrote me lovely testimonials about their own ministry. Nothing could convince me more that '2 Sundays a Month' is effective, supportive and sustainable than the fact that these lay ministers are excited about their church and its mission.
“Reaching out to each other with support when needed and nourishing each other spiritually has enhanced our feelings of unity with each other. We are functioning well,” says Judy. “We are a lot more comfortable in our ‘smallness’,” writes Laura, “we are fed spiritually, and from here we go outside the church and care for others.”
2 Sundays a month is not necessary for every congregation or clergy person. It won’t work for some. But I have found it to be one of the keys to re-thinking the congregational model, one that opens the door to sharing God’s love in new and unexpected ways. I hope you find this, too.