A small – and growing! – percentage of clergy now officially serve as ‘free range priests’.
Ok, I admit it … I’m a church geek. I love statistics, data, and learning more about how we’re sharing Good News.
But I’ve learned to steel myself against bad news. Every time a new survey or report comes out, every time Pew Research writes an article, I expect to hear the church is declining and even members don’t show up that much anymore.
So imagine my surprise when I watched the Church Pension Group‘s webinar called Trends in Ministry: Insights into Episcopal Clergy, and found it full of really encouraging facts.
Diversity of almost every kind is continuing to grow among clergy, and one particular kind of diversity was music to my ears: Free Range Priest-ing is now officially a thing!
They don’t call it that directly (I get it, that’s my particular ministry), but I was thrilled to see this:
14% of Clergy serving in the Episcopal Church are ‘Specialty Ministers’
That’s huge! Well, maybe not a huge percentage of all clergy. But the mere fact that enough ministers are serving in creative ways that it’s statistically significant is really important – and really good news. And these are just Episcopal Church clergy. I’m going to assume – and try to verify – that other denominations are also seeing more clergy and lay ministers serving in new ways.
When I watched the Youtube webinar, my heart leapt a little when Dr. Matthew Price described ‘specialty minister’ as ‘people working in seminaries, diocese, schools, hospitals … and beyond the parish.’
It’s those words, ‘beyond the parish’, that made me so happy. I started Free Range Priest in 2016 – almost seven years ago – and at that time, no one was even talking about serving ‘beyond the parish’. There was no category for entrepreneurial/creative ministry, online ministry, social media ministry, all the different ways we can be ‘faith practitioners‘ in the world.
Today, there are many ministers serving in this way. How many? It’s hard to tell – but being counted in this data is an incredibly bright spot that means there are at least enough of us that we’re trying to count.
The emerging model
MOST clergy work in the ’emerging model’ – about 56 percent of Episcopal clergy under retirement age.
Characteristics of the emerging model are ‘part-time employment’, ‘at multiple employers’, ‘working outside TEC (the Episcopal Church)’, ‘interrupted service’ (meaning not continually employed by the church ); and ‘non-linear compensation patterns’ (pretty self-explanatory!).
This may seem like bad news. It definitely confirms that most congregations can no longer afford full-time salaries for clergy.
What’s good about it, though, is that we’re talking about it. We’re reporting it. We’re allowing ourselves to shake off the idea imprinted in our brain that the only way to serve the church – or be a thriving church community – is full-time clergy employed by one congregation.
From here we can take the emerging model more seriously – and support new ways of service that are actually thriving. We can support clergy serving in this model, give resources and training to ministers – lay and ordained – who are finding ways to connect and engage with people that are thriving.
We can stop just doing the same things over and over and expecting different results.
We can be church in new ways
And we are!
As church attendance and membership continue to decline, we don’t have to be in denial about it. We can see it as a call to get serious about living lives of faith in new contexts. We can support congregations in new ways that respect where they are (not who they were in the past). We can reach the generations of people who have never been to church by offering ways to deepen their relationship with God online. We can create community in online spaces, and in-person in places that aren’t necessarily church buildings. We can support clergy and lay ministers serving – and being compensated – in new places and ways.
And we are.
It’s starting to count.