Falling in love again — with a congregation

If you have ever doubted that miracles can happen, consider this: I fell in love again with my congregation because of a church committee.

For real.

Last year, in fairly quick succession, both priests left my parish to pursue other calls. Under the double challenge of a pandemic and a discernment process about our property, endowment and mission, this felt like a gut punch.

Parishioners, some already disengaged from disembodied online worship and formation programs, felt shocked, abandoned, spiritually bereft and even angry.

In the midst of this communal ennui in late 2020, I was appointed to the rector search committee as a member of the vestry, the congregation’s governing board. While eager to advocate for my own vision for our leadership, I was steeling myself for the impatience I sometimes experience with the plodding, secular feel of church committees.

But this ministry surprised me.

Over the eight months we met weekly (and then some), we did many of the things church committees typically do. We prayed, studied, discussed, trained, questioned, planned, designed, facilitated, hosted, updated a website, took meeting minutes and wrote reports.

Our group, nine adults and one youth, was guided by a diocesan process we adapted to our parish and the realities of COVID — which meant nearly everything we did was mediated by Zoom.

What distinguished this committee was a palpable sense of hope, genuine affection for one another, and an understanding of the holy responsibility of doing God’s work together. This ministry was heavy and yet light, because we trusted one another and shared the load. But these characteristics did not emerge overnight. As happens with formation, they manifested slowly with practice and with God’s help.

While this experience was particular to this moment and my context, some of the generative practices of our search process are replicable even in seasons of stable leadership.

What better time — as some churches return to in-person worship, anticipate a new program year and wonder about church life post-pandemic — to discern why we choose to live life in community with God and one another and to wonder where God is leading us next?

Center conversations in the movement of the Spirit.

In my experience, some church committee meetings can feel an awful lot like meetings in other sectors. We may sandwich our discussions between prayers, but the meat of the conversation is more about our own opinions or weighing pros and cons than about God’s mission, our relationships with Christ, or how the Spirit is working right now.

One of our committee’s first tasks was to write a collect together.

Developing shared language from the outset and repeating this prayer over many months formed us to engage a process of discernment rather than decision making — aligning our desires with God’s rather than simply meeting our own goals. This prayer helped get us on the same page about our church’s mission, situate our work within our baptisms, and invite the whole parish into the process.

Remember what you love.

One of the candidates we interviewed asked us, “What do you love about this place?” What a good question.

Church life can be aggravating, with its debates about pew cushions or carpet color. We wish the sermons were shorter or longer. We may not agree with the hymn selections or budget priorities. And church can become so familiar that we forget why we showed up and decided to hang around in the first place.

This question invites us to engage church emotionally, not just intellectually. With renewed affection, we remember how the floor creaks, why the same casseroles are always served at fellowship dinners, the predictable jokes about stewardship season.

We remember the saints who departed too soon, the dedicated volunteers who sustain ministries, the young people we have watched grow up. We remember those times we felt nurtured, delighted and purposeful.

Might this question serve as an icebreaker to a routine meeting? Might we answer it when welcoming newcomers? Might we incorporate it into our daily devotions, thanking God for the gift of the church we call home and inviting us into deeper service to its thriving?

Listen, really listen, to one another’s stories.

A centerpiece of our search process was a parish survey and six listening sessions. More than 100 parishioners — including almost 20 youth — showed up on Zoom to share their stories. Some of these parishioners, who spoke passionately and sometimes tearfully, had not been attending worship but were willing to share their histories, hurts and hopes.

The conversations centered on four prompts:

  • How would you describe our church’s mission and values?
  • Remember a high point, when we were doing God’s work and fulfilling our mission. What was happening?
  • Remember when you most appreciated the ministry of a priest. How was your well-being nurtured and supported?
  • Using single words or short phrases, name three strengths of our congregation.

Storytelling, with its power to create healing and hope, is needed more than ever after more than a year of isolation and distancing. The fellowship that sustains us during periods of transition or conflict is nurtured when we stop to ask one another meaningful questions and allow ourselves to be shaped by what we hear.


We concluded our first-round screening interviews by asking candidates what questions they wanted to ask us. One of the candidates posed three questions we returned to later in our discernment process: What was God dreaming when this church was founded? Where has God’s hand been since then? What is God dreaming now?

Imagine what might happen if we considered these questions while preparing our annual budget or hiring staff. Instead of trying to get everything “back to normal” following the pandemic, we might stop and reflect on how COVID has created opportunities to be bold and try something new.

The search committee was not just making a hire but discerning a mutual call. Reviewing resumes and checking tasks off our to-do list was not sufficient to envision building beloved community together. We needed to pause to see ourselves woven into God’s story of salvation — past, present and future.

Make space for individual and communal vocations.

We often enter committee assignments with a point of view we want heard. Effective, collaborative committee work requires that we create brave space for individuals to share their identities and calls — and then knit those together.

Our search committee had difficult conversations. We disagreed. We named our worries. We each authentically showed up. And in the end, we arrived at a moment of clarity, unity and joy.

We announced our new rector at the end of July. And for the first time I can remember, I felt genuinely sad that the work of a church committee was ending. For so many months, it was church for me.

Editor’s note: The following is adapted from “Part-Time Is Plenty: Thriving Without Full-Time Clergy,” by G. Jeffrey MacDonald (Westminster John Knox, 2020).

As the coronavirus shutdown of 2020 takes a hefty toll on the coffers of congregations, many will soon have to ask whether they can still afford a full-time clergyperson. Shifting to part-time clergy can save tens of thousands of dollars — enough in some cases to keep open a church that otherwise would have to close.

Yet mainline Protestant churches routinely resist going part time, even when they’re between pastors and taking a fresh look at the position. They’ve heard from pastors and from their denominations that part-time ministry all but guarantees further decline. But that’s not true.

Part-Time is PlentyIn the course of researching part-time clergy in 10 states, I’ve visited 20 mainline Protestant congregations that have found more vitality, not less, in key areas from worship to mission after cutting back from having full-time clergy.

They’ve done it by empowering laypeople to use their gifts and fulfill ministry passions that never got traction under a full-time pastor with an impossibly vast set of responsibilities.

In today’s tough economic environment, we can no longer afford to maintain the belief that the only churches with bright futures are those with full-time clergy. We must shed the thinking that dismisses the part-time ministry option — a mentality that may in fact hasten the demise of local churches.

In my work both as a reporter and as a pastor, I’ve found that mainline congregations tend to begin with an assumption that full-time ministry is always the ideal. I found this in my own church, First Parish Church of Newbury (UCC). Prior to my arrival as part-time pastor in 2013, parishioners had clung to a full-time pastorate until the endowment was depleted, deficit spending was devouring cash flow, and the prospect of disbanding was suddenly on the table for a congregation founded in 1635. The small flock had so equated going part time with giving up that congregants, for a long time at least, would rather have gone broke trying to retain a full-time pastor.

They weren’t alone.

“We were afraid we wouldn’t be a real church” if the pastorate were to go part time, said Ron Bookbinder, a ruling elder at Clarendon Presbyterian Church in Arlington, Virginia, whom I interviewed for my book.

He realizes in hindsight that this belief was unfounded; Clarendon made the switch and is thriving, with growing membership, more participation in outreach and fresh, creative uses of their flexibly redesigned sanctuary. But letting go of the bias and trusting in God to water and bless a thoughtfully structured part-time arrangement took time.

The failure to view part-time clergy as a viable way to structure ministry can lead churches to unwittingly stack the deck against a successful part-time pastorate.

Judicatory staffers may urge congregations to keep clergy full time for as long as possible, for example, because they regard part-time as the kiss of death. But that’s a mistake. Churches that wait too long to go part time and then poorly structure the ministry all but guarantee an inward-facing collapse.

If they’re blessed to have endowments, as my church was, they may deplete those coffers by paying clergy salaries they can’t afford. They use up monies that could have enabled future investments in ministry, with no new flourishing to show for it.

What’s more, congregations have by then used up precious time. A membership that was once young and energetic enough to take on more ministry responsibilities in a part-time rubric is severely diminished in size and energy by the time the switch happens.

At that point, fiscal margins are razor thin or the church is hemorrhaging cash. Laborers fit for the harvest alongside a part-time pastor are now few. On their knees and fearing closure, congregations in this situation reluctantly go part time at the last possible hour. But by then, their continued decline is virtually a fait accompli.

When they fizzle out, they often hear, “I told you so. Part-time is the kiss of death.” That mistaken analysis misplaces blame and perpetuates the full-time bias in mainline church culture. The cycle of death unfortunately and unnecessarily continues.

In some cases, congregations inflate assumptions about how much in church life must be done solely by clergy. Convinced that only clergy can effectively preach, administer sacraments, pray with the dying, visit the sick and represent the church around town, congregations will shrug and concede: “Oh, well. Too bad. Wish our church could do more for members, friends and the wider community. But without full-time clergy, our hands are tied.”

That mentality distinguishes congregations that keep declining from those that take steps to empower laity in new ways and thus thrive. Learning that roles don’t have to be so rigid, that laypeople have more authorization than they realize, that ministry in all its profundity and blessings is meant to be shared — all of this requires a concerted mental shift.

Congregations that thrive after going part time have made that mental shift. The ones that keep declining after going part time either haven’t made it or made it too late to be successful.

To help congregations to make the shift, we must redeem part-time ministry from stigma. That process will need to include heightened appreciation for the important, normative role that part-time ministry has played through most of the church’s history. And it will need to dispel the dismissive contemporary attitude toward part-time work — not just in ministry, but in all segments of American culture.

In many circles, “part-time” unfairly conjures negative associations, as though it were a synonym for halfhearted, not really committed to the job. But why?

“Full-time” refers to working 40 of the 168 hours in a week. That’s less than 25% of the week, yet it’s valorized as if it were a complete commitment, in contrast to, say, that of a part-timer who gives 18% of his or her entire week to a 30-hour job.

In other words, we all give only a fraction of our lives to work, even those of us who are salaried and put in more than 40 hours. “Full-time” is a misnomer that seeks to carve out a separate, elite class of worker. If our lexicon were more precise, we would acknowledge that everyone works part time.

Dedication is a qualitative measure of commitment to work that gets done in an allotted time frame, no matter how large or small that window of time happens to be. It is not a quantitative measure based on the time frame’s size alone.

Hence, those engaged in ministry on a part-time basis (under 35 hours per week) can be every bit as dedicated as their full-time colleagues. The part-timers are just working on the right scale for the faith communities they serve.

The reluctance of mainline cultures to view part-timers as every bit as dedicated as full-timers is akin, it seems, to America’s cultural resistance to working mothers in the 1950s.

The mothers of that era who worked outside the home were looked down upon, pitied or both. Because they did not spend all their working hours solely on homemaking, they were scorned for being insufficiently dedicated to the children and husbands who were presumed to need their full, selfless attention.

This attitude was inherently classist, as only middle- and upper-class households could afford to live such a lifestyle, and glamorizing it only reinforced a premise equating wealth with moral wholesomeness.

Mainline denominations, despite championing progressive public and ecclesiastical policies, have remained largely stuck in a 1950s idea of a dedicated clergyperson. Expecting that the church must be the clergy’s sole professional focus is as dated as insisting that every mother must stay at home and forgo paid work in order to raise her kids.

These days, some mothers still choose to stay at home when doing so fits their families’ needs and resources. Likewise, some clergy still work full time when doing so meets their congregations’ needs and resources.

But just as millions of today’s mothers need and want to work outside the home, countless numbers of today’s clergy also need and want to work outside the church. This does not mean they are bad mothers or uncommitted pastors.

Just as America has embraced working motherhood, mainline churches need to embrace part-time ministry as a legitimate, holy, every-bit-as-dedicated calling.