Lately I feel as though I’ve been awash in numbers. As those in the ministry seminar will know, I have a friend who is a diocesan transition officer. He was at a transition ministry conference this week, at which another thirty officers in the Episcopal Church gathered to discuss vacancies in their dioceses. He posted the following statistics from their gathering: among the 31 dioceses present, there were 374 parish openings. Of those, 64 were full time, and 310 were part time. Further, they had 57 clergy presented as possible candidates for those jobs. In other words, there weren’t even enough clergy to fill the 64 full time positions, much less the 310 part time positions (granted, there will be others applying for those 64 positions, so the number of clergy presented will ultimately be far higher than 57). The other set of numbers I’ve been sitting with came out a few weeks ago when the Episcopal Church released their attendance numbers for 2008-2018. Over the decade in question, average Sunday attendance throughout the Episcopal church decreased 24.4%. Median average worship attendance is 53.
Given these numbers and the realities to which they speak—particularly of a shrinking and spread-out church—it is easy to feel hopeless about the situation. We might have one vision of ministry in our heads, when the realities of the church will likely require us to be creative and to “think outside of the box” of the full time “one priest, one parish” model. We might find ourselves in a church placement amongst people who have little interest in or knowledge of Christianity. It will often, as a mentor once said to me, feel like pushing water uphill.
We do have the opportunity, however, to be excited about these numbers. Matthew 9:36-38 says, “When he saw the crowds, he had compassion for them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd. Then he said to his disciples, ‘The harvest is plentiful, but the labourers are few; therefore ask the Lord of the harvest to send out labourers into his harvest.’” Have you ever tried working when there are too many cooks in the kitchen, so to speak? Or been volunteering somewhere and there wasn’t quite enough work for everyone to do, and no one around to sit down and build relationship with? It can be a frustrating experience, to say the least. When there aren’t enough people, though, that’s when you see people start to discover new gifts, try new skills, step into leadership roles they didn’t know were meant for them.
Small, spread out churches show us that there are so many people around us waiting to hear the Good News of Jesus Christ. We are living in a mission field, and the harvest is indeed plentiful. We are called to be the labourers, and there are so many opportunities for us to exercise the special talents and gifts with which we have been blessed. To borrow a phrase from Bp. Brian Prior, Bishop of Minnesota, we are blessed to be a blessing. May it be so.
Director of Pastoral Studies
This message was written by the Director of Pastoral Studies, Hilary Bogert-Winkler, for this week’s Wingèd Ox, a weekly news digest distributed to the college community.