The Episcopal Diocese of Connecticut

Parishes changing in ECCT

Pace of change quickening for parishes in ECCT

By Karin Hamilton

What “Steady Habits”?

Many of us believe that our state’s moniker, “The Land of Steady Habits,” really describe its citizens’ penchant for eschewing change.  But official Connecticut State Historian Walter W. Woodward dispelled that notion in a magazine article he wrote in 2012 for Connecticut Explored. Woodward traced how the meaning of the phrase has changed since it first appeared in the late 1800s. He concluded with this: “After all these years, then, the steadiest feature of “The Land of Steady Habits” is its capacity for change.”

So if the state moniker describes our flexibility in the face of change, rather than our opposition to it, we might have still  believed that it certainly didn’t apply to Episcopalians here, because let’s face it, there are plenty of both young and older Episcopalians who like things a certain way, thank you very much. We also know Episcopalians here who still idealize the church of the mid -20th century and are convinced that -- like vampires -- all they need is “new blood” and everything will go back to where it was about six decades ago. 

But we’d be wrong, because Episcopal churches in steady Connecticut are indeed changing.

All churches are facing the realities of culture change, of course. In the Episcopal Church in Connecticut (ECCT), Bishop Ian T. Douglas has been tireless in preaching and teaching about the “end of Christendom” and the beginning of the “new missional age,” about the need to “try on” new ideas, and about moving from a church-centered perspective to a God’s mission-centered perspective.

The good news is that Episcopalians in Connecticut, of different ages and backgrounds and contexts, are trying out ways of being the Church. Amid these parishes and worshiping communities addressing the changes there’s a subset in a unique circumstance: Parishes currently without a priest and looking for one to serve a less-than full-time position.  Despite their efforts and those of the ECCT bishops and canons with whom they’re working, there simply are not priests available who can afford to take a less-than-full-time position. This isn’t a value judgment, as there are advantages to being small Episcopal communities.

Embracing change, trusting God

In most cases where this is true, culture changes have led to smaller, aging congregations. While there are advantages to being a smaller community, the on-the-ground reality for most of ECCT parishes is that fewer people means less money for building maintenance, ministry, and yes, clergy. Piled onto this are other socio-cultural changes that have resulted in fewer available clergy, even for full time work, and particularly for more affordable ½ or ¼ time positions either as rectors (tenured) or priests-in-charge.

Here’s an overview of the way some ECCT parishes have responded in recent years to these changing circumstances:

  • St. James’ in Hartford around 2010 and later, St. John’s in East Hartford in 2017, sold their buildings and brought the income to another church (the former to Christ Church Cathedral, the latter to St. John’s in Vernon); each eventually deciding to merge.
  • St. John’s, Sandy Hook in 2016; Christ the Healer, Stamford in mid-2018; and more recently St. Philip’s, Putnam in November 2018, formally decided to dissolve as parishes and its members planned to join other nearby Episcopal congregations.
  • 2018: Our Saviour, Plainville, and St. John’s, Bristol are sharing one priest and one missional curate, while remaining individual churches, as are Trinity, Milton and St. Paul’s, Bantam.
  • 2018: Grace Yantic and St. James’, Poquetanuck are sharing one priest and keeping individual parish identities. Two other parishes are in conversation right now about moving into this model.
  • 2018: the Middlesex Cluster: Emmanuel, Killingworth; St. James’, Higganum; and St. Andrew’s, Northford, are creating a new model to become co-operating parishes.

Faithful Futures: New/old model

In early November, the bishops and canons of ECCT held one of their monthly “Faithful Futures” gatherings for parishes. These are held on the first Thursday of each month at The Commons in Meriden usually from 6:30 – 9 p.m.  Topics for these monthly gatherings vary over the course of a year and are often invitation-only to multiple parishes facing a similar situation. The group format helps parishes realize they’re not alone; often results in learning from each other’s experiences; and avoids months and months of waiting for a visit from a single canon or bishop.

The November 2, 2018 session was on “Clergy Transitions. The invitation to attend went to parishes currently without clergy leadership and that are looking to fill positions that will be less than full time -- often half- or quarter-time. Currently there are 26 parishes in ECCT in such circumstances. Representatives from 15 parishes attended; they varied in size, location, resources, and other variables.

Canon for Mission Leadership the Rev. Lee Ann Tolzmann, whose office is currently working with about 30 parishes in ECCT seeking ordained leadership of differing types, talked first about trends that have produced a greater-than-ever need for part-time parish priests and simultaneously, fewer available priests who can fill that need.

First, the trend toward increasing need for part-time parish priests:

  • The number of Episcopalians (and those in other denominations) has been declining – active membership declined 19% from 2007-2017 and Average Sunday Attendance (ASA) declined 24%; about half of all ECCT parishes have an ASA of 75 or less;
  • The number of parishes hasn’t declined at the same rate, meaning fewer people in each;
  • In 2015, out of 163 ECCT parishes, 80 (49%) had full-time clergy;
  • In 2018, out of 160 ECCT parishes, 60 (37.5%) have full-time clergy, and 100 (62.5%) have, or want, only part-time clergy.

Second, the trends and factors reducing the number of available priests:

  • In the next eight years, 40% of currently active Episcopal priests will retire, and these retirements are outpacing ordinations;
  • The vast majority of today’s active clergy need full-time employment;
  • Priests available to work part-time may be retired or have other employment and don’t want to move;
  • Fourteen percent of priests are married to one another, also complicating a decision to accept a position and move;
  • New priests who don’t intend to work as full-time clergy are being formed in Connecticut, but it takes time, since the process is governed by canonical requirements. And since the need is so great in ECCT for part-time clergy, those accepted into ECCT’s current process often have other careers, making full-time study impossible.

Part of the challenge today in ECCT is the expectation of filling a “one parish, one priest” model. Diocesan Bishop Ian T. Douglas, who’s talked a lot over the past years about the broader socio-cultural changes that impact church life, reminded the November 2 “Faithful Futures” participants that “one parish, one priest” wasn’t the norm historically, isn’t the norm in the rest of the Anglican Communion today, and isn’t even the norm in dioceses in The Episcopal Church such as in Alaska, Haiti, and South Dakota. His presentation invited them to consider the possibility of multiple parishes co-operating together by sharing a priest.

LJA Brownie uniform
Bishop Ahrens' old
Brownie uniform.
Good memories, and,
it no longer fits. 

Bishop Suffragan Laura J. Ahrens then addressed the challenges of change, including fear of the unknown. She talked about the expectations we have of the 20th century church, its priest and administrators, and asked the participants to consider what was really needed in the 21st century church. An illustration she offered hit home for many: She confessed that she still has her Brownie uniform, left over from her days as a Girl Scout in the Brownie program in early elementary school. It’s really cute and she has some wonderful memories, she told the group, but it’s too small and doesn’t fit anymore – just like the old model of the church may have wonderful memories for some, but it’s too small and doesn’t fit, either.

Even as the bishops invited the group to “try on” the idea of sharing clergy, and let go of the Brownie uniform, they acknowledged that depending on the arrangement with other parishes, they may not have a priest with them on a Sunday to celebrate the Eucharist. The 1979 Book of Common Prayer states that celebration of the Holy Eucharist should be the “principal” service each week. This was a change from earlier editions that provided for Morning Prayer as a normative option. Participants asked about “Deacons’ Masses,” which are not allowed in ECCT and are contrary to a deacon’s vocation, and one raised a question about re-imagining the role of Lay Eucharistic Visitors.

Church leaders then moved to small group discussion with instructions to talk about what excited or scared them about the new idea; what would need to change; and what they would need to do to make it work.

During a plenary session that followed, people shared reflections from those small groups.

Most participants wrestled with the realities and possibilities, and raised interesting ideas to consider about priests, parishes, and celebration of the Holy Eucharist. And while most also expressed appreciation at learning they weren’t alone, not all felt that way. Some shared their resentment that “the diocese” was not doing more for them: not ordaining priests fast enough, not helping them get a priest, not fixing the situation, not helping them feel more secure, and not giving them answers that will help them explain the situation to their congregation. Several also resented their sense that “other churches with more resources” weren’t helping, either.

Bishop Douglas took the opportunity to remind all of them that “the diocese” is the collective witness of the 160+ parishes and worshiping communities in Connecticut, with its own governing council, canons, and convention, and is part also of the wider Episcopal Church and Anglican Communion. And both individually and collectively, all trying to follow Jesus in the way of love.

The fears expressed by some, and the hope expressed by others, highlight the tension of this moment and are a testament to people’s efforts to be faithful leaders.

                                                    ---------------------------------

Karin Hamilton is the ECCT Canon for Mission Communication & Media. 

Leaders of Grace, Yantic and St. James’, Poquetanuck wrote about their process for sharing one priest, and what they learned along the way. It's included in this Nov. 3, 2018 issue of the newsletter from their Region. 


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