Mutual ministry in the Episcopal Church: opportunities and possibilities

Yesterday I had the opportunity to visit an Episcopal parish in a rural Kentucky community. The congregation is not able to support a full-time parish priest (or even a part-time staff) so the diocese has given them the green light to experiment with a “mutual ministry” form of leadership.

On any given Sunday there are about 20-25 people in attendance. About 6-8 of them are involved, as members of the vestry, in divvying up the responsibilities of a typical parish priest. One person is in charge of budget and finances, another in charge of pastoral care, another in charge of running the education/formation classes, etc. The diocese sends a supply priest every other Sunday to celebrate the Eucharist service, but otherwise is not involved in the day-to-day community. The other Sundays two members of the vestry alternative preparing and delivering the sermon and celebrating a prayer service (everything but the Eucharist). The diocese is interested to see how successful this program is, as they’re anticipating that a few decades down the road this type of parish leadership may become increasingly common.

Growing up in the LDS tradition, this all seemed very familiar to me. It is similar to how local LDS congregations are organized: divvying up responsibilities between the membership so that everyone is able to run almost all of the community functions on a volunteer basis while everyone also keeps their “day jobs.”

On the other hand, in this mutual ministry organization it was a “bottom-up” process: the parish members decided for themselves what the various programs, ministries, and responsibilities were that needed to be met, decided collectively how they might effectively address them, and went through a process of mutual discernment to determine whose gifts and talents and interests best matched the various needs of the parish. And while there’s a “vestry chairman,” there’s no one in the congregation who is seen as the “go-to” decision-maker or who has the “final say” on any given decision.

The trend in Mainline Christianity membership is currently one of decline, not growth. While the community parish priest is the traditional model in Episcopal congregations, it will likely become more and more difficult to sustain, especially in smaller communities. This makes for exciting opportunities and possibilities:

  1. How might TEC congregations form partnerships with other Mainline Christian congregations in communities (Presbyterian, UCC, United Methodist, Disciples of Christ, Unitarians, e.g.) to effectively meet the needs of the parish members? (Example: in my community the TEC parish partners with the Presbyterian and Disciples congregations for VBS, youth ministries, etc.) Would there be a way to further explore other types of “full communion” with other Mainline communities so as to enable the sharing of priests for purposes of celebrating the Eucharist?
  2. What types of formation opportunities are available to lay members to effectively train for these types of ministry opportunities? Example: would there be opportunities for TEC dioceses to create grants to cover tuition for parish members to take some online seminary courses in Biblical scholarship to better equip them to teach Sunday School classes or courses in ministry and counseling to better prepare them for pastoral care?
  3. Might there be creative ways to explore how the priesthood ordination process works to better enable members in small congregations to participate? Might there be a “fast track” option for members of small, mutual-ministry congregations that does not require a full seminary training (which is out of reach for many with day jobs)? Or perhaps empower deacons to be able to fulfill this role? Or perhaps create an alternative priesthood “branch” whose members are empowered to celebrate a Eucharist and perform absolutions and annoit the sick but without the need for a full M.Div. training and obligation to participate in broader TEC governance?

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