I’d love some feedback from my readers — anonymous with a legitimate email address is fine in this case — to find out what supply preachers are getting paid, if anything. A denominational identification and a general sense of the area (region and relative cost of living) would also be very helpful.
Why? Because supply preachers — paid per service or sermon — is likely to continue as a solution for churches, particularly as the decline of the influence of churches in the United States escalates. But I worry that the rate is too low. And if it’s too low, the people who will preach supply will be students, retirees, plus perhaps those who have well-paying work (and may not have much opportunity to preach) or who are desperate for every penny. Too low for what? Putting together a living with part-item gig. That itself isn’t ideal, but is probably going to become more common as the United States economy also changes. Supply preaching will have to pay as well as other casual opportunities. This is all the more complicated since prospective mission churches are the ones more likely to need supply services, and they’re less able to afford them.
For the last couple of years, I’ve been trying to understand the Oriental Orthodox churches and the Church of the East: Christian churches that have an early history of divergence from the Eastern Orthodox and the Catholic and Protestant churches in the West. The Coptic Christians I’ve recently written about are in this group. So were the Eritrean Orthodox who worshipped downstairs at Universalist National Memorial Church so many years ago. Also the British Orthodox I’ve cited on this blog. Originally, I was interested in them because some nineteenth-century Universalists saw a kind of pro-universalist apostolic purity in them; a history ripe for the reclaiming. But lately I’ve been more interested in their approach to mission.
For one thing, they’re not bashful about missions, and why should they be? Most come from parts of the world where Christianity isn’t a majority faith. To survive you have to have a strong sense of identity that corresponds well with missions. But you’ll forgive me if I suggest that their approach to the faith isn’t Mod or particularly attuned to contemporary culture. But, as they say in the software world, “that’s a feature, not a bug.” They work, or seem to work on a different timeline than your garden-variety mainline Protestant (Overstatements follow, but follow me.)
So I was a bit shocked to see that so many of the mission churches meet only once or twice a month. And many, perhaps most, of those — with English-language websites anyway — meet on Saturday morning.
The reason is pretty obvious. It allows the priests to serve more congregations. Some of the Copts travel several hours from their home parishes to serve missions, something that wouldn’t be practical if the mission had a Sunday evening liturgy following a liturgy at home.
This, too, is something those nineteenth-century Universalists would have understood, and also I’ve done my rounds of supply and circuit preaching. But their usual appointments (and mine) were on Sundays, which is also the tight time for church buildings. Few edifices are as well suited for worship as a church building, so why not gather for worship on Saturday mornings.
Because everything is changing so fast, even those of us in the profession can’t keep up with the framework, the lingo or the expectations. The fancy name for all of this is adaptive leadership, which is a nice way of saying that we’re all running like Indiana Jones a few yards ahead of the boulder of cultural change that threatens to flatten us at any moment.
She suggests that I might know how the remaining worshippers of the future will act, and so I’m adjusting some of my previously planned writing to address the question that’s the title of her blog post: “What Happens to Worshipers When The Traditional Church Closes Its Doors”?
The adjustment will come in phases, so let me address what won’t work; that is, doing church more cheaply. This won’t save us. So keep the champagne flowing? No. A cheaper, simpler approach won’t save us, but neither will we have an option. In time, even a deep endowment can dry up.
So the four directions in downsizing the church are taking creative alternatives to
staffing the church work with trained and ordained ministers, in new configurations
staffing the church work with new groupings of people with differing professional interests and accomplishments
making use of space other than conventional church buildings
making different use of the church buildings that exist
So what’s the solution? It’s making the experience of the church more desirable than the cost. The financial cost, true, but also of time, patience, labor, expertise and reputation. This last may be the hardest. Like climate change that melts the permafrost, releasing methane accelerating the warming — mull on that simile for a moment — if someone feels like a sucker for participating in a church, no cost savings, no special programming, no reasoned (or emotional) appeal will make it seem like a good idea.
And overcoming that dilemma is more than the subject of a blog post.
Like so many people, I have an enormous pile of books on my bedside table, and the ones on the bottom will be compressed into diamonds before I get to them. There a Japanese word — tsundoku –to describe the habit of acquiring books without reading them, and I’m guilty of that, too. Being a slow reader doesn’t help. Nor does the vast variety of good books, now in the public domain, that can be had electronically from Archive.org or other places.
But a book list has inspired me to declare tsundoku bankruptcy, restoring the unread books to a shelf, and pulling out those I own. I might even end up buying a book or two. But only after I finish the rest.
Over the last few days, I’ve chatted with some minister friends about the appeal of the Coptic church, particularly with respect to its antiquity, perseverance under genuine persecution (particularly lately) and the beauty of its liturgy.
And I almost decided not to mention these attributes in blog post, and I wondered why I felt that way. Which means that I should write about my hesitance.
I’ve been around Unitarian Universalists long enough to know that we add practices and make decisions without appealing to reasons or traditions. We devalue our internal logic and traditions, and then wonder why we agree on so few things and tend to follow each passing fad. Tired of hearing that Black Lives Matter or about Nepalese relief or even about regionalism of seminarian in-care programs? Wait a while. Is that right? No. Is there a better way we can reply? Perhaps.
Over all, our tendency is to look wide and abroad for answers, resources and solutions. The Copts could easily — well, perhaps not so easily, but you get the paint — join a river of borrowed influences. What we could learn from them is that a church’s history, theology and customs create systems of thought, preferred methods and particular choices. This is what we do, and how we do it. At its best, it provides a matrix to know what’s essential, and what’s not. A recently announced Coptic initiative to plant churches relies on this ability to make choices. It’s anticipating the transition from immigrant Copts to their American-born children, and possible converts. The faith, liturgy and music would stay the same, but the name (Coptic means Egyptian) and language of worship (to English) will change. The essential gifts of their church will remain the same, or at least that’s the concept.
As Universalists and Unitarian Universalists, we need a better grasp of the gifts God gives us a church, so that we can apply these to our decision-making and contribute them to others who may benefit from our experience.
I can think of a few.
While most Unitarian Universalist churches are non-Christian, they do somehow create and nurture a small (but not negligible) number of Christians.
We have long histories of women’s ordination, and LGBT* ordination. We have worked out some (not all) of the cultural and professional details that churches that have made this decision more recently have not.
We take cues from nature, time and seasons more seriously in our worship than many. This is not my original opinion, but that of an Episcopalian musician I met who had strong opinions on the subject.
Yes, well, congregational polity, which is not the sell it once was. But it’s easy to underestimate it when there’s no bishop trying to shutter your church. And with it come some skills and resources for self-reliance.
And there are surely other gifts we should own up to.
The Christian share of the U.S. population is declining, while the share of Americans who do not identify with any organized religion is growing. These changes affect all regions in the country and many demographic groups.
So, tomorrow is Mother’s Day. And I’m glad I’m not preaching. It’s an impossible gig. I’m really glad I’m not preaching.
You need to talk about Mother’s Day, as if it were traditional for churches and not a civil and cultural observance, so lacking many of the liturgical hooks that makes worship manageable.
You need to show how important motherhood is, particularly for those who have dedicated large parts of their lives to it, without minimizing those who did not or could not have children, or suggesting that this is the main end of womanhood.
You need to extol maternal love, but also recognize that some mothers are or were hurtful, abusive, or otherwise harmful.
You need to acknowledge the deathlessness of the love that often did exist without hurting those still mourning their mothers.
You may need to talk about the fact that we are all someone’s child, without harming those who lost their children.
You may recognize that some people grow up with no mother, but perhaps not without one or more fathers, at the risk of making motherhood a vague concept.
You can point out that Mother’s Day began as a peace action, but not without addressing the other points.
And you need to balance all these conflicts, and pray that this careful act isn’t undercut by some well meaning custom, like rose corsages. A custom that may be very well-loved by some.
Several years ago I sent you a link informing you of the sad demise of the Gardiner, Maine Congregational Church (UCC), formerly the First Universalist Church — one of the handful of congregations that elected to affiliate elsewhere rather than be part of the UUA merger. This article, from [the May 2] Augusta Kennebec Journal, tells of what is about to become of the lovely old meetinghouse.
I appreciate the news. I hate to see churches die, but since the conversion by a cider maker will preserve the attractive building, I can’t complain.