I served as rector - head minister - at an Episcopal church that always had a worship service on Thanksgiving Day. It is a holy day in our tradition, and a quite lovely start to our national day of gratitude for abundance.
The service was at 10:30am, so I would say, ‘put your turkey in the oven, come to church, get home by basting time’. It was never a big crowd, but it was fun, and when it came time for the sermon, I would offer one that was 'potluck'.
I would start with a question to ponder from the Scripture we just read, and ask those present to weigh in with their own wisdom, experience, or curiosity. 'Sort of like Thanksgiving dinner with friends,' I would say. 'I bring the pumpkin pie, you bring the mashed potatoes, someone else gets the cranberry sauce, and pretty soon we have a meal.'
The congregation loved it - and I think those present appreciated being valued for their theological offerings. They also loved hearing their neighbors speak of their own relationship with God. It was also much easier for me, if I'm being honest. I didn't have to come up with 2 different sermons in one week! And though I did reflect on the Good News, I was able to facilitate its proclamation rather than do it all by myself.
Since that time, I have become a Free Range Priest, and I serve on an hourly basis, 2 Sundays a month, with a truly lovely congregation. And I have found that ministry thrives, even when I am not around all the time. In fact, I think that by NOT being around all the time, doing 'everything', I am actually leaving space for the gifts of others to thrive.
I like to call it 'potluck' ministry - I bring the sacramental presence, others bring prayer, witness, preparation, and lots more. It is an abundance that defies the scarcity mentality we can sometimes assume of smaller congregations with part-time clergy leadership.
There's a real trick to this, though. Just like Thanksgiving - or any big meal - if we think it is up to us to do everything - from shopping to prepping to cooking to cleaning - and we don't want anyone else to 'help', then we are really getting nothing but exhausted. And our guests become distant people having conversations among themselves.
But, if we really see our ministry - or our meal prep - as a collaboration, a partnership of capable ministers, all with different gifts to offer, then we can build community and bask in the fun of it all.
Here's some tips for YOUR 'potluck', sustainable part-time ministry...
1. Free yourself from meetings
The Welcome Committee, the Finance Committee, the Worship Committee... You don't have to be on any of them! Really. In fact, it's best that you aren't. Give space for community leaders to organize their own priorities and goals. Be nearby as a 'clergy consultant', but let them decide their own mission.
Bonus: you get your evenings to yourself! Also, the congregation may decide they don't need a lot of committees.
2. Leave the bulletin to others
Nothing seems to bring as much stress and overfunctioning - especially around holidays - as the bulletin! One way to lower the stress is to not be involved with it. If your tradition requires certain prayers or readings from you, you can offer these to whomever is putting the bulletin together, and then you can have no opinion at all about the rest of it.
Bonus: the congregation may start wondering if they need the expense of time and money that a bulletin is costing them. Technology allows us so many easier, cheaper and more sustainable ways to guide worship, including using books and learning songs and prayers together.
3. Refuse a key
I know an ordained minister who lives 20 miles from the church she serves, and she drives there every time the alarm system accidentally goes off. 'Why are you doing this?' I ask her. 'I'm the only one with the key!' She also shows up an hour before worship because she's the one who turns the lights on, starts the coffee, etc.
Please let other members of your community do the safety and prep on the building and the gathering space. The easiest way to do this is not to have a key to the building at all.
Bonus: This will literally help you keep the boundary of not being at the church building all the time, and not doing more work than you need to - leaving room for others.
Your gifts are enough What YOU bring to the table with your ministry - bearing the sacraments, Scripture, and tradition of the faith - is a crucial part of theological meal. Valuing your own work brings so many gifts to the church and the world - including making space for the holy service of others.
Your ministry is what the world and the church needs more of. When you are living into it fully, others thrive in their ministries, too. Free Range Priest can help.