Friday, 22 November 2019

What future for rural parishes in the Church of Ireland?

As I see it our rural parishes face two significant challenges:

1. The present model of one incumbent for each group or union of parishes is no longer fit for purpose in many places:

  • Fewer parishioners and falling sustentation is increasingly leading to the appointment of part time clergy.
  • At the same time administrative pressures on incumbents are growing, eg for safeguarding trust, GDPR etc.
  • The work of a singleton incumbent is increasingly stressful and far too many succumb to the pressure.

2. We need to ride two horses if the church is to flourish in the future. We must both develop fresh ministries for new younger and hopefully growing congregations, at the same time as we continue to provide traditional ministry for existing dwindling and aging congregations:

  • Small aging congregations fear their churches may be closed. They are suspicious and often resistant to change, while often recognising change is inevitable.
  • There is unlikely to be sufficient critical mass and resource in most groups and unions of parishes to support the development of new ministries and fresh expressions of church to build the church of the future.

One pathway to the future could be clustering existing groups and unions into wider ministry areas. Each might consist of up to 4 or 5 existing groups and unions, with a ministry team consisting of several full- and part-time stipendiary clergy with additional NSM, OLM and Reader support.

  • Ministry teams would provide mutual support and absence cover for individuals, so reducing stress on incumbents.
  • Administrative support would be shared across the ministry area.
  • The pooled resources would both provide ministry to traditional congregations and release resources to develop new ministries and expressions of church.

To be successful such a clustering approach is likely to require:

  • Sufficient full- and part-time resource to allow mutual support.
  • Ministers comfortable with working as part of a team with clearly defined lines of authority.
  • Geographical and cultural coherence.
  • Reassurance to small congregations. Can we promise them that their churches will not be shut unless they ask for it, provided they can both maintain the building and raise up a reader to lead worship when necessary?

I think it is urgent to explore the implications, pros and cons of such a clustering approach, and if it makes sense to try it out. And we should also explore other pathways. But if we do nothing, the future will surely be one of continued decline punctuated with ministry crises.

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