A New Curacy Program to Attract Younger Priests

In the next 3-5 years when one quarter of our seminary prepared priests will retire. The Diocese of West Missouri is actively seeking funding for a new Curacy Program to attract and retain younger clergy.

Sally Shied Ten-minute read.   Resources

September 15, 2018, Kim Taube and Warren Swenson are the most recently ordained priests in West Missouri. Image: Gary Allman

T The average age for a parish priest in The Diocese of West Missouri is around 62 years old. America’s pastors are growing older. In 1992 the average pastor was 44 years old and one in three was less than 40 years old. Twenty-five years later the average age is 54 and only 1 in 7 is less than 40 (The Barna group). Many factors go into this number, but the quandary will affect the health of congregations all over.

The Diocese of West Missouri will be seeing a significant turnover in the next 3-5 years when one quarter of our seminary prepared priests will retire. Transitions in the diocese will be more common. With thoughtful planning, the diocese can maximize the potential of our new priests (Curates) to be effective and remain active in the church. This can be a time of growth and renewal! To quote Bishop Marty, “We need to plan now for this transition, and we diligently need to seek new energies and new perspectives of generations now entering the fullness of their adult years”.

The Diocese has submitted a grant application to the Lilly Endowment for $860,594.77 to cover major expenses of a project to attract and retain younger clergy (see Footnote2). The goals for the Curacy Program of The Diocese of West Missouri are:

  • To attract new priests;
  • To retain the promising and gifted seminarians who originate from this Diocese and others;
  • To bring energy and vitality to the diocese; and
  • To provide the stable leadership necessary to spur growth in congregations that otherwise would not have access to full-time clergy.

The Diocese of West Missouri is seeking additional funding of $25,000 over a three-year period to support the Peer-to-Peer learning portion of this project; which includes three weekends per year at a small retreat center in the rural Ozarks. This is an aspect of the project that can stand on its own should the Lilly Endowment funding not come through. This program is for all newly hired and newly ordained priests and deacons as well as the new curates.

Where Did this Plan Come From?

The Curacy Project came to the Commission on Ministry, Subcommittee for Clergy Continuing Education, Orientation, and Mentoring from a small group led by the Rev. Meghan Castellan. After receiving the 100% backing of the sub-committee they drafted a resolution to the convention of The Diocese of West Missouri who referred it back to the sub-committee to begin research and study and determine the feasibility of implementing a diocesan-wide curacy program. In March the committee was ready to press forward preparing our application to the Lilly Endowment. The leadership for this initiative has come from the Commission on Ministry and its special sub-committee. Chairman of the committee is The Rev. Deacon Beck Schubert; other members are Walker Adams, Ruth Beamer, The Rev. Ken Chumbley, The Rev. Dr. William Fasel, Robert Maynard, Sally Scheid, Mickey Simnett (see Footnote1), The Rev. Galen Snodgrass, and The Rev. Ron Verhaghe. Also assisting the committee are The Rev. Canon Dr. Steve Rottgers and Gary Allman, Communications Director, of the Bishop’s staff.

The Curacy Program will give Curates experience in both urban and rural settings. The trend is that only urban areas can support full-time priests. The Rev. Dr. Bill Fasel said clergy coming from residential seminaries and intending to work full-time will only experience the life of the church in metropolitan areas. Realistically, future bishops and leaders will come from this group with little to no understanding of small towns and small churches. The Diocese of West Missouri wants to give Curates a broader experience. Several churches in the diocese are described as “on the bubble” — in that they previously could afford their own priest and had larger congregations. As congregations shrank, from a myriad of outside forces, these churches can no longer afford their own priest. They now share a priest which obviously does not give the congregants as much access to a member of the clergy.

It is hoped that with more access to a priest, through the Curate or the priests and deacons ordained through the Bishop Kemper School of Ministry, they will have a chance to do more planning and once again become strong. Right now, two churches in the diocese have seen this phenomenon with a dedicated part-time priest. Even when only with a church for a short time, the Curate can lead new ministries, new growth, enhanced energy, and renewed optimism. This reinvigoration will enable some churches to grow to the point where they can, once again, be able to afford a priest. The mixed experience of larger and smaller churches, urban and rural will help the Curate to transition a future church.

As any ordained person or those involved on the Commission on Ministry, Standing Committee and other formation groups can attest, hearing a call to the priesthood through the ordination process takes a candidate many years and multiple interviews at the local, regional, and diocesan level. The requirements include a bachelor’s degree and three years of seminary resulting in a Master of Divinity. During this period the candidate most likely will have to relocate at least once. It is a long row to hoe. Ordination is like other graduations in that it is the commencement of a long and hopefully, fruitful career.

By the time a young priest comes to a congregation, a great deal of time and money, not to mention prayer and faith have been invested. Yet, in general, four times as many clergy leave the calling within the first five years than those who served forty years ago. Whether the priest comes from one of the three-year seminaries or a program like the Bishop Kemper School for Ministry.

Seminarians are well prepared in theology when they graduate. But the learning has just begun! Local clergy have commented, “The hardest thing I had to do was doing work I had never done before”; “Getting the lay of the business end of running a parish”; “Adjusting to the demands for my time and personal attention, not just from a few friends, but from every parishioner, all with their yokes, some light, some not.”; “That budgets and Vestry politics matter”. Canon Steve said “ordination is a steep learning curve. The new priest must learn how drive the bus where the rubber meets the road.” He said that common professional challenges are learning what you do not know and that are you not ready to save the world. The most important knowledge is how to build and maintain relationships.

At this time The Diocese of West Missouri has no formal Curacy program. Several current priests were surveyed about what would have made their transition to priesthood easier. In addition to the comments they made about difficulties with their transition experience, they all indicated a more formal mentorship program, and a peer group with whom they could share experiences would have helped. Comments included how important it was to have a regular prayer life, “This is a lonely profession. Know yourself. Know your needs.”; “maintain your relationship with your spiritual director. If a mentor is not assigned to you, find one. If the mentor is not a good fit, find a better one.”

Throughout the program Curates will learn the importance of time management, boundaries and balance. Curricular will be drawn from Leadership Bootcamp, Evangelism 101, and Project Resource, providing Curates with the tools to inspire radical generosity and engage faith communities in the journey of changing the culture of stewardship in The Episcopal Church.
In the peer support sessions, they will learn how to form their own support groups — and more importantly the need to, and how to select a mentor, either lay or ordained from their ministry context, though not a supervisor; how to create community; the importance of self-care and the need to establish and honor a sabbath. Curates will be able to develop peer relationships with a variety of priests serving in a variety of settings. These leaders will have a support system, so they do not feel all by themselves, even in a small town, and they will know how to take care of themselves.

Desired Outcomes for the Diocese and Curates

To evaluate the program, the following outcomes are being aspired to:

Outcomes for the diocese

Short-Term (1 year)
90% of Curate supervisors will report growing congregations with the Curate assigned to them.

Long-term (3 year)
At the end of the Curacy Project (3 years) The Diocese of West Missouri will have developed a sustainable method of filling vacancies and retaining 65% of well-trained Curates in the diocese.

Outcomes for Curates

Short term (1 year)
After each year of Curacy, 100 percent of Curates will report developing collegial relationships with each other; learning and experiences in the program will positively affect their confidence in pastoral work.

Long-term (3 year)
75 percent of Curates will report they have grown in ministry and feel they can be an effective parish priest in a variety of setting

Sustainability and Continuation

In addition to the Lilly Endowment support, the COM subcommittee is working with the diocese to create an Endowment Campaign to raise money to help fund the future of the Curacy Program.

In Conclusion

The Curacy Program is a natural fit for the mission of the diocese as it responds to new issues of these times of reduced financial and human resources. We are calling out new leaders and will be preparing them to be sent out. Training that the Curates receive will be in line with our baptismal vows. Doing these things marks our fidelity to the vows all Episcopalians make to follow Jesus.

Your thoughts and prayers for this new initiative are sincerely appreciated.

Sally Shied is a member of the Commission on Ministry, Subcommittee for Clergy Continuing Education, Orientation, and Mentoring, a Lay Eucharistic Minister, Diocesan Convention Alternate Delegate and member at Christ Episcopal Church Springfield.

Footnotes

1 Regretfully, since this article was written in July 2018, Committee Member Micki Simnett lost her battle against cancer entering into the larger life on August 31. Besides serving on the Commission on Ministry, Mickey was also serving an elected term on the Diocesan Council. Mickey was a recipient of the Bishop’s Shield.

Let light perpetual shine upon her.

2 In late September the committee was informed that the Lilly Endowment had received nearly 600 applications and awarded grants to 78 charitable organizations. The Curacy Program was not one of the projects selected for funding. The committee is now looking for alternative funding for this very important program.

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Gary Allman

Gary Allman is the Director of Communications at The Diocese of West Missouri

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