- Associated Press - Sunday, August 9, 2015

DANBURY, Conn. (AP) — It’s hard enough for small congregations with shrinking membership to keep up with church maintenance costs. But when they realize they can no longer afford a full-time pastor, it can make them question their spiritual health.

Once they make the transition to a part-time pastor, they face the bigger challenge of taking responsibility for visits to the ill and emergency counseling that have always been the duty of the person in the pulpit.

As church populations continue to shrink and more congregations turn to part-time pastors, more of the faithful may be challenged to change their relationship to religion.

“For a long time, the laity has come to church as a spectator in an organization run by the clergy, because almost everyone has grown up being serviced by full-time clergy,” said Scott Thumma, director of the Hartford Institute for Religion Research at the Hartford Seminary.

“The pastoral care of friends is their responsibility, not the pastor’s, but since they haven’t had to do it, it is a significant shift for them.”

That has certainly been the experience at King Street United Church of Christ in Danbury, a 100-family congregation that just signed a part-time contract with a pastor who is the full-time spiritual care director at a New York hospital 50 miles away.

“My cell number is printed in the bulletin every Sunday, but if someone needs me, I may be with a patient and unable to take the call,” says the Rev. Paul Bryant-Smith.

“If there is a crisis or someone is in the hospital, our deacons can go sit with someone in the emergency room,” Rev. Bryant-Smith said. “They are our first-line spiritual caregivers.”

Church census data due to be released in early September by the Hartford Institute is expected to show that congregations nationwide continue to shrink. The exception is the Catholic Church, which across New England represents the majority of religious observers at more than 70 percent.

Currently, the median congregation size nationwide is 75, down from 125 a decade ago, Mr. Thumma said. Church census data from 2010 shows that 30 percent of Protestant churches have part-time spiritual leaders.

Whether the shrinking trend is tied to young couples concerned about the economy having fewer children, or whether it’s a cultural shift away from the traditional Sunday church model toward a more customized and individual religious experience, more small faith communities in the Danbury area may soon be like Ridgebury Congregational Church in Ridgefield.

“We have 73 members and we have about 24 people who attend regularly,” says Sharon Straiton, the church’s vice moderator, who said the church has been looking for a part-time pastor without success and is willing to negotiate hours with the right person. “One of our biggest things right now is we need to grow.”

Ironically, the growth may come from the active roles small congregations are forced to take, if that action makes church members better ambassadors of their faith, one advocate for part-time pastors said.

“When the people are more willing to volunteer because the pastor isn’t there to do everything, you are getting back to the Biblical model and you are getting closer to what the Bible teaches,” said Ray Gilder, the national coordinator for the Bivocational Small Church Leadership Network, in Nashville, Tenn.

The difficulty some financially strapped small congregations have making the transition to part-time pastors is overcoming the perception that their spiritual needs will get second-class treatment.

But historically, in America as well as in the first-century church, spiritual leaders had other jobs in the community. The most noted example was the Apostle Paul, who was a tentmaker.

“In Southern Baptist life before the 1950s, it was typical that the pastor would be a preacher-teacher or a preacher-farmer,” Gilder said. “It was only after there was a push in the late 1950s that a pastor be fully funded and have a parsonage that if you didn’t have a pastor who was fully funded, you would be looked down on as sub-par.”

The exception is the Catholic Church, which has a centuries-old tradition of full-time parish priests, and those who take vows in monastic orders.

Steve Fuller, the chairman of the search committee at King Street Church, said the congregation could not be more inspired by Bryant-Smith’s spiritual leadership.

“We were forced by church income to call a part-time pastor because we couldn’t afford to pay benefits to a full-time person, but Paul is a remarkable man,” said Mr. Fuller, who signed Rev. Bryant-Smith to a one-year contract requiring 12-15 hours per week. “His effectiveness in the pulpit relating sermons to the Scriptures and to peoples’ lives, we found remarkable.”

Rev. Bryant-Smith, 44, the director of spiritual care at St. John’s Riverside Hospital in Yonkers, N.Y., lives with his wife in Norwalk, where he keeps a boat. A one-time deckhand and historical educator on the Freedom Schooner Amistad, he earned a master’s degree in divinity from Midwestern Seminary in Kansas City, Mo.

He said part-time ministry would not work without the contribution of the parish.

“They are saying ‘How can we help?’ and ‘What can I do?’ ” Rev. Bryant-Smith said. “So they have embraced the shift from full-time ministry to part-time ministry. As congregations become smaller we are all going to be doing that — becoming creative as we get older.”


Information from: The Hour, https://www.thehour.com

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