By: The Rev. Steve Pankey
General Convention is rapidly approaching, and I’m doing all I can to make sure I arrive in Indianapolis having fully reviewed “The Blue Book.” Tonight, I’ve taken out a huge chunk of text, and one report stands out among all others as I consider life in The Diocese of the Central Gulf Coast.
The Standing Commission for Small Congregations report begins on page 511 of The Blue Bookand I commend it to your reading . Their mandate is “It shall be the duty of the commission to identify and recommend to General Convention policies, priorities, and opportunities to affirm and strengthen the health and development of small congregations.”
It is late, so you’ll have to forgive me for quoting large sections of text, but three items are of note:
- A reality of The Episcopal Church is that more than half its congregations are considered small congregations, with an average Sunday attendance (ASA) of fewer than 70 persons. These congregations are equally divided between rural and urban settings.
- The Commission was charged with planning with the General Convention Office to make the mission, ministry, and vitality of small congregations a major emphasis of the 77th General Convention. This was exciting for all who felt some attention for small congregations was long overdue. Much time was spent talking about this and planning how to showcase small congregations. After presenting our ideas to the Joint Standing Committee on Planning and Arrangements, and getting approval, the unfortunate reality of funding became apparent: there is no funding. No funding was attached to Resolution 2009-A113, so there is no money to carry out the charge. There will have to be a much scaled back presence at General Convention, and the message that cannot be made too strongly is that if a resolution asks for action, it is useless unless funding is attached.
- General Convention actions can be insensitive to the realities of small congregations. Economic justice actions appropriate for large congregations often have a devastating effect on smaller places and smaller budgets. Lay pensions, changes in health insurance, and pension policies often are not affordable in small church budgets. Small congregations which find paying for a priest difficult will either go without or cut back lay employment, relying instead on volunteers. At General Convention it would be helpful for small congregations to be kept in mind when considering legislation.
I’ve said elsewhere that my seminary experience prepared me to work as the Rector of a Parish that no longer exists. Given the disparity of voice: the majority of our parishes are small but the majority of our parishioners are in large congregations, what is the way forward? I don’t have any answers, but I applaud the work of this group and pray that they get the credit and awareness they deserve.