Blue’s Clues: Clergy Leadership Formation in Small Congregations

small church

This is the ninth post in Blue’s Clues, a series on the resolutions and reports of the Episcopal Church’s General Convention. The index of posts is here, and my index of resolutions and likely votes is here.

Let’s begin at the beginning. It’s easy to forget, if you live in the big-church world, that the Episcopal Church is mostly small churches. At last report, the median Average Sunday Attendance (ASA) of an Episcopal Congregation in the USA is 57 people. Almost half of congregations (and increasing) do not have a full-time priest. So when someone decided it was important to look at resources for leadership and formation in small congregations, they were not wrong.

This committee was chartered by resolution 2015-A045 to “to explore quality programs for formation, for expanding education opportunities for clergy and laity, for collaboration between local diocesan school programs and seminaries, for ecumenical collaboration, and to explore a wide range of delivery methods. The task force shall report back to the 79th General Convention with a plan to provide quality formation for clergy in small congregations that is affordable, theologically reflective, and innovative.”

It’s important work to consider, and the committee has done some good research and developed some interesting ideas. Like other committees, they’ve gone beyond their mandate, though that’s not always a bad thing. And in other ways, I wish they had done more. But, on the whole, this is a compelling report, worth reading. In their proposed resolutions, they’ve offered some concrete ideas to which folks will have varied reactions. That’s life at convention.

For purposes of their work, they relied on the definition from the explanation in their enabling resolution of “small church” as 100 or fewer ASA. That makes sense. In their work, they sought to discover the needs of small congregations, especially as it relates to leadership formation. They were trying, also, to discover what collaboration might already be happening in the creation and sharing of resources.

The committee conducted its research primarily by speaking with bishops, canons to the ordinary, and chairs of Commissions on Ministry; they also talked with unspecified others. I do wish the committee had made it clear to what extent they actually spoke with clergy, lay leaders, and “regular members” of small congregations. It’s not clear to me this happened, though I’d be pleased to hear from committee members if they did that work. They were otherwise thorough, so I’d surprised if there weren’t some consultation. Still, it is emblematic of the culture of our church that we seek to learn about the grassroots level by consulting with bishops and canons to the ordinary. Don’t get me wrong, we absolutely need to hear from top leadership. But we need to place equal or greater emphasis on the grass roots.

The report talks about how they also conducted more general research, looking for relevant articles and data. I hope the committee might share links to some of the better articles they found. This could be a gold mine of useful information for others.

Here’s what the committee found. It’s my crude summary, so make sure you go read their report in their words.

  • “There is already a wealth of resources available for leadership formation for small congregations”
  • There’s a need to coordinate and share resources across the church
  • Effective leadership in congregations relies on collaboration between “well-formed clergy and strong lay leaders”
  • Bishops’ leadership is important.
  • “There is limited availability of appropriate and culturally-sensitive vocational discernment and formation materials and strategies for clergy leaders called from ethnic minority communities”
  • “There are robust non-seminary programs for theological education and formation at the diocesan and regional levels”
  • Dioceses operate in silos.
  • There’s not enough scholarship money available for non-seminary training programs.

Yes times nine. This is all true.

There are also some further findings. Again, go read the report. But this one stood out. “Small congregations and diocesan leaders say they need their clergy to be evangelists, change agents and mission focused leaders. What they say they most value are pastoral skills.” What’s interesting here is that we want “pastoral skills” which I suspect is often a kind of code for smoothing over conflict. But then there’s also a perceived need for change agents. While both are necessary, I do wonder how many people see the irony in wanting both. It reminds me of the old cartoon. First panel. “Who wants change?” All hands are raised. Second panel. “Who wants to change?” No hands. We want change agents, but we also want the clergy to make everyone happy.

Yes, it’s a false dichotomy. Yes, pastoral care is more than making people happy. Yes, you can change without ruffling feathers every time. But at some point, as a church, we need to decide that we primarily value evangelism, discipleship, and a relentless pursuit of the Gospel; or we primarily value pastoral care and internal maintenance. We’ll always need to do both, but we need to choose one as our first priority. And until we pick Door Number One, our churches will continue to be withering museums of maintenance. But I have digressed from the committee’s report. Sort of.

I want to embark on another digression that the committee did not take. They rightly highlight a real need. As I quoted above, “There is limited availability of appropriate and culturally-sensitive vocational discernment and formation materials and strategies for clergy leaders called from ethnic minority communities.”

Our church has such a massive problem with racism that we are in denial of our problem with racism. The committee is right to point out the need for these materials, and they might have gone on to point out the stunning lack of diversity in our church, let alone our clergy. On the one hand, TEC is very diverse, being in 17 countries. We shouldn’t forget that. But in total attendance, the USA congregations have the lion’s share of members. And in the USA, the diversity picture is bleak.

While the USA is 73% white (2016 data), the Episcopal Church is 87% white (2014 data). I could not find recent information on racial demographics for clergy, but I did find disturbing data from about 2001 that reported that 95% (!!!!) of rectors were white (report). It is just about as disturbing that we haven’t collected or reported data since then. If it’s there, please tell us in the comments. We now collect compensation data so that we know we have a gender-based pay disparity in our clergy (it varies by position and region, but in every case, men are paid more than women for identical work; 2016 report). We don’t even collect data to know what our race compensation disparity is, but I guarantee you there is one.

So I do hope, in addition to creating resources to help us raise up and form leaders who represent the diversity of God’s people in the world, we will reckon with our culture of institutional racism. A good place to start would be the collection and reporting of data on congregations, lay leadership, and clergy leadership and compensation.

Usually I apologize for digressions, but for this one, I’m #sorrynotsorry.

Before I comment on the individual resolutions, a note. Much of the committee’s work centers on proposals for various kinds of networking or resource sharing. While I agree with them that there is a need for this, I disagree with many of the proposed solutions.

By way of explanation, let me give a related example. I hear from a goodly number of clergy that they find their work to be isolating, and they wish there was more collegiality among clergy leaders. OK, I agree. But too often, the clergy place the onus of responsibility for fixing this on the diocese. “I wish our bishop was offering more ways for clergy to connect.” Maybe it is helpful when bishops and diocesan staffs offer programs, but it’s not the solution. The fact is that any cleric can reach out to colleagues and form colleague groups. Clergy can inquire about resources. Clergy can share what they are doing well and what’s not working. If there aren’t Episcopal churches nearby, try the Methodists or Lutherans or whatever.

Collegiality does not require a program, it requires intention. And without intention, programs won’t work. The problem in the Episcopal Church is not that we lack networking programs, it’s that our leaders lack the intention to be collaborative with other colleagues. Sure, there are examples of collaboration. But if we were really good at it, no one would be proposing programs to solve this problem.

These days, if I want to learn about programs for leadership formation, I can use social media to ask colleagues. I can email people. I can contact diocesan staff. I can Google. While a churchwide program might be helpful, it is not necessary to solve the problem of our failure to share existing resources. Bishops and lay leaders need to hold their congregational clergy accountable. How are we connecting with others? What can we learn? What can we share?

What we have is a leadership deficit, not a program deficit. What we have is a problem of urgency. If we were focused on urgently making disciples of all nations and on teaching people to love God and neighbor, we’d get serious about learning what’s working (and not working) from others. So, while I think the committee’s intentions are fantastic — and while I agree with their diagnosis of many of our problems — I think they’ve offered the wrong solutions. I’ll be interested to hear what others think, so please leave comments!

Do read the whole report. If I were making a prioritized list of reports to read in the Blue Book, I’d put this one in top half. I’ve only touched on some of what they said.


A022: Create a Formation Networking Team. Full text. Likely vote: NO.

This resolution would create a Formation Networking Team at the Episcopal Church HQ to be a “networking referral hub for existing and specially-developed resources.” That doesn’t sound so bad, but the price tag is a breathtaking $900,000. Without detail in the explanation, it’s hard to know how that money would be spent, except that some of the money is for staff. But, more to the point, I’m not sure this is the right solution, as I wrote above. I don’t know that people will call someone at 815 to find resources if they’re not already calling colleagues to find resources. And if there’s a need for some “curation” of best resources, we can do it a lot less expensively and more efficiently. For example, we have para-church organizations such as Forma or the VTS Center for the Ministry of Teaching that could receive a very modest grant to catalog resources  and provide a website.

A023: Assist Vocation Discernment Groups. Full text. Likely vote: NO, but I’m interested in hearing why it’s needed.

This resolution seeks to “collect, evaluate and encourage the sharing of excellent resources for the training of commissions on ministry and discernment committees for clergy and lay vocations and publicize to The Episcopal Church, its dioceses and congregations the availability of these resources.” Depending on whether A022 passes, this will be done by the Formation Networking Team or some other group. Having served on a Commission on Ministry (COM), I’m not persuaded of the need of this kind of catalog. Maybe others need this, but I do believe we were able to seek out the internal and external resources we needed to be effective. If this is needed, I wonder if diocesan staff or chairs of COMs might do this informally. Again, I see the benefit of cataloging resources, but I don’t see the need fund a group to create this catalog.

This is not to say that I think we do a great job of running our discernment processes for ordination and other ministries. We don’t, too often. But the problem is a deeper cultural problem that cannot be solved with a resource listing. And if the resource listing is really what we’re after, 3-4 passionate people can have a Zoom call or two, do some Googling, ask some colleagues, and create the list.

A024: Forming Culturally Diverse Clergy. Full text. Likely vote: YES, if amended.

Mostly, I’d be inclined to vote against this resolution, as it works very much like the one before it. If passed, this resolution seeks to “collect, evaluate, disseminate, and encourage the development of excellent resources and best practices for the discernment and formation of culturally diverse clergy, and to publicize to The Episcopal Church and its dioceses and congregations the availability of these resources.” Again, our stunning (and sinful) lack of diversity among our clergy is scandalous. But I can’t see that a resource list is the answer. It’s a cultural problem. Again.

However, if this resolution were amended to require the collection and reporting of clergy discernment, ordination, deployment, and compensation by race (and other demographics), I’d heartily vote yes. We need to see the data so we can see the scope of our problem. And perhaps then our church will be moved to repent.

A025: Bishops and Small-Congregation Clergy. Full text. Likely vote: NO.

This resolution seeks to have people work with the House of Bishops “to assist bishops by providing excellent resources and best practices in their work of identifying and forming clergy and lay leaders for small congregations in their dioceses.” Bishops are well resourced, as a group. If they want a thing to happen, they will fund it. Again, I don’t think this program will solve the cultural problem here. Also, every bishop I know is already working hard, trying to figure out how to form leaders for small congregations. They’re doing it, with varied amounts of success. Perhaps time at an HOB meeting needs to be devoted to this topic so they can chat amongst themselves, but I don’t see how a resource list is going help.

A026: Identify Effective Formation Models. Full text. Likely vote: NO.

Here again, we’re going to “assemble and make available to dioceses a variety of effective models, both local and collaborative, for the formation of priests and deacons to serve in small congregations.” Same answer, same reason.

A027: New Funding for Clergy Formation. Full text. Likely vote: YES.

Recognizing the reality that there aren’t many scholarships for folks exploring non-seminary formation programs, this resolution would create a committee of Executive Council to look for funding. I love this, actually. Executive Council has just the right folks who will know the ins & outs of the many, many restricted funds of the Episcopal Church. If there is money that could be made available for alternative models of theological education, these folks will be the ones who find it. The specific language is “to expand the funding available to aspiring priests and deacons who are engaged in theological education other than full-time seminary education. In addition to considering other funding sources, the committee shall examine the possible use of donor-directed endowment funds held in trust by the Domestic and Foreign Missionary Society [DFMS] as a partial means to fulfill this mandate.”

And if there are ways to identify funds other than DFMS funds, such a committee would be likely to come up with the right kind of thinking. They’ll be able to work with the development office at 815, well-resourced dioceses, and others. Maybe they’ll come up with little, but the effort is worthwhile.

The fact is that we need to invest (financially and otherwise) in models of clergy and lay leadership formation that do not rely on seminaries. No one wants to get rid of seminaries, but seminaries aren’t the solution for many of our theological education and formation needs. So let’s turn our piggy bank upside-down and see what comes out.

Image: A toy church (small church, get it?) from Stockwell Creek Furniture. Make your own!

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9 Responses

  1. Sarah Lawton says:

    Good post, Scott. I largely agree with your diagnosis of the problem.
    We do need to repent. One of our deputation is writing a piece for our next meeting on the connection between evangelism and racial reconciliation–this is certainly needed for our mission context in California!

    Another issue, and this goes beyond these resolutions, is exactly the diocesan siloing that is mentioned in the report. How to light a fire for resource-sharing or anything else at General Convention when the power and direction is largely excercised at the diocesan level? That said, I do believe that church center staff might play a role in bringing networks of people together, and in putting resources into public view. I don’t know about the $900k budget line, but I think church center staff could do some of this for not so much money in our digital age.

    Largely, I agree with you that the evangelism effort has to be at the local level. Clergy play a role in gathering the community, through the sacraments and through preaching and teaching. Also, often, in being a “collared” representative in community spaces. And lay people also have to step up in being part of our wider communities in various ways, and following Jesus in word and deed. If the fire is there, we will find the resources!

    I’m writing this as a member of a small, inner-city congregation with a half-time vicar, strong lay leadership, and a shoestring budget – also blessed with a beautiful nave–no parish hall since that burned down–that we use for prayer (first, always) and also offer to the community in numerous ways. We are blessed by our connections to the community! And yes, people join us, people get baptized through our outreach work. We also get resources – just got a city grant to renovate our bathrooms because of the number of people we serve each week with shelter, food, and more. But we do it because it’s gospel work – proclaim good news to the poor. Live how we pray. We have the resources to do that, already.

  2. kjpmcgrane says:

    Some thoughts on the issues/comments; please allow me to share…
    My last 2 parishes conducted Holy Cow surveys, and “pastoral skills” had strong indicators in what the congregation looks for in clergy…but from what we heard, pastoral skills does not equal conflict resolution skills. It means listening more, visiting more, not being distant because your so busy doing projects with the vestry. A clergy-person can hide behind busy.
    A pastoral person can be a true change agent. Often, administrators try to be, but aren’t. A pastoral person can change the heart of a parish, and thereby turn it into a faith community that people want to join and support.
    It is a false conflict to think that evangelization/discipleship is at odds with pastoral care/internal maintenance. IMO, it is impossible to have the former without the latter.

    On clergy formation for small congregations:
    •recruit candidates, don’t just advertise for them
    •train them locally, and make it succinct (read: brief)
    •pay for their training

    If we want clergy who will work many hours a week for little/zero pay, then we need to resolve the 3 issues that make their eyes glaze over at discernment conferences: making them jump through multiple hoops to ordination, ask them to devote years to training (often donating their family vacation time for “low residency ” programs), and spending thousands of their income for a non-paying job. That is the reality of it, and TEC/mainline churches need to face reality – I. E., get off our wallets.

  3. BeingCharis says:

    Regarding A024, I’d like to encourage the church to consider including disability in the context of cultural diversity. While it may not be a popular opinion, there is a certain culture built around disability. Or, perhaps the answer is to say, “Forming Diverse Clergy” (remove the word ‘culturally’) and expand the resolution to include additional marginalized groups that aren’t currently represented as clergy. We need leadership that represents all groups and types of people, especially in the context of non-traditional small churches.

    Regarding A027: this resolution is much much much much-needed for people pursuing nontraditional seminary and non-seminary paths, especially as we begin to realize that evangelism is edging us towards the creation of grassroots non-traditional churches with vibrant ministries, but that won’t be able to sustain (or need) a full-time rector. I especially think of social media-based ministries that do not currently fit canonically with our diocesan-based structure, but that are and will become necessary in the context of the digital age. Finally, this resolution has the unintended effect of opening the door for historically marginalized groups, specifically people living on fixed incomes like SSDI and SSI, to pursue seminary education for ordination (with the expectation that they will not be able to occupy full-time rectorships due to SSDI/SSI requirements and ability).

  4. Susanna Singer says:

    As Chair of the Task Force that did this work, I very much appreciate the nuanced analysis and discussion in this post – thanks, Scott – and in the comments. After submitting the Blue Book Report containing the Original Resolutions, the Task Force on Clergy Leadership Formation in Small Congregations continued its work by conducting six 90-minute teleconferences with 46 leaders around the Church to seek comment on the Original Resolutions — bishops, canons to the ordinary, seminary staff, transitions ministers, and lay and clergy involved in both traditional and alternative theological education.

    Feedback on Resolution A-027 was overwhelmingly positive. Based on feedback on the Original Resolutions relating to the Formation Networking Team (Resolutions A-022, A-023, A-024, A-025 and A-026), the Task Force did some further revision.

    These Original Resolutions have been combined into a single resolution (Substitute A-022) which has been submitted to the Bishop and Deputy Chairs of the Legislative Committee on Formation for consideration by that Committee.

    Primary Changes from the Original Resolutions to the Substitute:
    * The request for PB&F to consider funding is reduced from $900,00 to $300,000.
    * The size of the Formation Networking Team is specified as a small team of persons serving on a part-time basis (a Chair plus three or four other Members).
    * The proposed annual compensation of the Chair and Members of the FNT is set forth.
    * The characteristics of the Members of the FNT are delineated in the Substitute.
    * The Chair and Members of the FNT will be appointed jointly by the Presiding Bishop and the President of the House of Deputies not later than October 1, 2018.
    * The FNT will report to Executive Council, not to the Presiding Bishop’s Office.

    Tasks and Purposes of the FNT:
    The FNT is intended to provide a network hub where dioceses and congregations can find effective models and resources for the formation of clergy leaders for small congregations by communicating directly with knowledgeable persons . Even the most well-connected, digitally-adept formation leaders told the Task Force that searching on their own, as they’re doing now — e-mailing, posting on social media, asking diocesan staff — is time-consuming and frustrating and often fails to connect them with the best available resources. These difficulties are compounded for under-resourced dioceses.

    Additionally, as the Church comes to terms with its role in racism, the Task Force agrees that it is a justice issue to find ways to support candidates of color /minorities / immigrants, who are often deterred from residential seminary education by high costs and by formats that are not culturally sensitive. The FNT will play a role in educating Commissions on Ministry, highlighting culturally-appropriate formation programs, promoting alternative models of theological education, and suggesting sources of financial support.

    I am encouraged by the ways in which careful consultation and attention to many voices can result in proposed legislation that more fully responds to the needs of the Church – which is why we do this work at all, of course.

    • Scott Gunn says:

      Thank you for your work — and for this update. I look forward to reading the substitute version of A022. Part of the joy of our legislative process is that we can all talk with one another, and learn much from others in the church. And so our legislation can evolve and improve. Bloggers like me also get to learn from colleagues. So, thank you. I’m glad to hear more about your work and to know you’re still working on the resolutions, which surely address real challenges in our church.

  5. Jane Gober says:

    I do wish that the language was clearer regarding word Formation. This seems focused on a specific training and mentoring and intentional development area – small congregation shepherds. However formation is something that every practicing Christian should be doing, and there are people who are not congregational shepherds with formation leadership as a core duty.

    I am not sure that people who are unfamiliar with small and rural congregations, and/or unfamiliar with our ways of training and shaping professional ministers would really understand who this resolution desires to nurture. Formation is a broadly used word, which may create confusion, because as you know, there is a significant network – FORMA – that collaboratively serves to shape, teach, and mentor people who serve in pastoral and educational and generational ministries – not uncommonly titled with the word formation.

    I hope that in the legislative processes some clarity is brought to what is meant in this resolution by formation, specifically here where the primary focus seems to be training for locally trained congregational shepherds, mostly to be ordained, but also others who are shepherding a congregation with no desire to be ordained. We need to be more cooperative and collaborative with our ‘home schooling’ nurture of small congregational shepherds – however I wonder if greater clarity in the use of common terms would be a good thing.

  6. Maureen-Elizabeth Hagen says:


    Thank you for your comments re specificity. I was a member of this Task Force; not everyone shared the same outlook of leadership formation, but please be assured that many understood your focus. We did stress that we needed leadership formation for priests, deacons, and lay people because all are essential and they work together.

    Also, as the director of a local formation program, I experience first hand many of the challenges faced by those serving small congregations. Half of my students come from congregations with ASAs under 50. One of my students lives on the California border and she is doing her field education in Crescent City, CA, with a congregation that only has occasional supply clergy. This summer I will be going down to the South Coast to work with people who attend very small congregations. Except for one, these are people who are living out baptismal ministry.

    Do you know of a resource which might serve to provide a common language? That would be wonderful.

    • I think of the primary focus of this idea as Congregational Shepherding Home Schooling and the primary focus of FORMA is Discipleship Tilth and Growers Market. (My four years in an agricultural region is showing.) These areas relate and cross fertilize, but are not the same thing in action. I wonder if your title for the work Maureen does in W. Oregon is a more understandable title that clarifies the intention – Mission Academy. That project is equipping and preparing and supporting people who are captains/activists of the local movement.

      Scott your point about most congregations being smaller is well known to myself, but I also feel that there is a loud and broad segment of the chattering society of TEC that haven’t got a clue about smaller resource poor geographically isolated congregations. I am not clear that this project engaged dioceses that meet that description. These are the dioceses where home shaped Mission Academies and Congregational Development schools are doing most of the work of Shepherd preparedness training. I asked, and it seems when leaders in such dioceses need help in this area of ministry they check in with similar dioceses across the globe.

      There is a huge difference between smaller congregations in denser populated areas in dioceses with financial resources, and the smallest congregations in geographically large, population thin, diocesan budget small regions. We – being in the latter – need flexibility and we find ways to make things work by using the network that already exists (the internet) without establishing elaborate structures or toll free numbers to call. Maybe I am out of touch with folks who really need an existing structure to be created before a question gets asked.
      My long term practice is that if I have a question – I do the research and send emails or make phone calls or post questions on Facebook groups. I also field questions regularly, sometimes from people across the globe who are ‘googling’ for help.

      The best part of the power of FORMA isn’t the mandate, it is the network of people of all settings and calls sharing ideas freely. The power of FORMA is it’s scrappiness and flexibility and real human to human sharing – beyond vocational categories – for all the work of Christian discipleship for all. The network for lifelong formation already exists. A digital resource sharing network for local Shepherding Academies could be created without convention action. I dare someone to make it happen before convention starts. Wondering if we are making this harder than it has to be.

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