In the presidential campaign of 1928 in which Herbert Hoover ran against Alfred Smith (and won by a landslide), he used the slogan: "If I am elected, there will be a chicken in every pot and a car in every garage."
Considering what happened just a year later, I'm not sure that came to fruition, but the dream and sentiment persisted, and not just in the area of poultry and automobiles...
The Episcopal Church has had two heydays in its American history.
The first was in the late 1800s and the other was in the mid-twentieth century. (For a great graphic look at this, check out this link-
In the New England diocese of my origin, at the time when I was serving (early 2000s) there were 172 parishes in a diocese with 169 towns.
In our diocese, the number of churches is fewer, and the playing field is different: here, we are more likely to talk about counties than towns. I am still learning the difference between townships and boroughs and cities, but it appears that our planting of congregations has been judicious. (There are 25 counties in our diocese and approximately 750 municipalities in Central PA including everything from one-stop sign towns to large urban centers. In some of my research, I have learned that what we call "Central PA" is really three different geographic regions: South Central, Central, and North Central. There's a lot to learn!)
Two years ago, now, when my husband and I took a road trip to look around at the Diocese of Central PA, we got to giggling as we entered every small township and found not one, but two or more Methodist churches in every town square. We would pull up to the stop sign, look across the square and say, "Methodist!," and then confirm our hunch, as we pulled closer to the building. The Methodists, by example, have 850 parishes in their Susquehanna Conference alone which covers the metropolitan areas of Altoona, State College, Williamsport, Harrisburg, York, Lewisburg,and Scranton/Wilkes-Barre. Wow. This is due, mostly to numerous mergers during the 20th century which made the United Methodist Church the second-largest Protestant denomination in the USA behind the Southern Baptist Convention. A merger of the Methodist Episcopal Church, the Methodist Episcopal Church, South, and the Methodist Protestant Church in 1939, resulted in the formation of the Methodist Church. Coupled with the Evangelical United Brethren, the United Methodist Church (UMC) was formed in 1968.
Denominational Statistics are fascinating to me- but here's the point: I think that we need to break the mindset of a church in every town, a priest in every parish, a chicken in every pot, ecclesiastically speaking. It is time for us to explore ways to think regionally about our church and to think about how we can have "an Episcopal Presence" in towns where there may not be a physical Episcopal structure. We need to think about our convocations as mission fields that include townships and boroughs with no Episcopal presence, but that can still receive the ministrations of our Church.
So what might that look like?
Some of the ideas that might seem fresh to us today are old, actually, and extend back to the days of the Colonial settlement and the later Westward Expansion of our country. (For a good read on this with a Central PA connection, read My People of the Plains by The Rt. Rev. Ethelbert Talbot, third Bishop of Central PA, as he tells about his missionary experience ministering in the Rocky Mountain Region in the territory we now call Idaho and Wyoming in the late 1800s.)
Here are some ideas:
Circuit Riding (as the jobs shrink in size, invite one clergy person or a team of clergy people to minister to several congregations.)
Clustering this is similar to circuit riding where each parish maintains its own building but as a group, the parish entities share resources like bookkeeping, parish administrators, train up one team for pastoral calling, etc.
Merging Two parishes (or more) combine and form a new entity with one parish body and one location and one priest. This is most successful if the chosen site is new to each party.
Mission Fields Send a team of ministers- lay and ordained- into a place with no Episcopal church and conduct services in a secular setting (i.e.: coffee shop, park, library) or rent space from another denomination. Personally, I prefer the idea of an Episcopal service in a secular setting rather than a "borrowed" church as it feels more welcoming to some unchurched folks. Do this on a regular, weekly or monthly basis.
Pop-up Church Plan a regional, semi-spontaneous rotation of Episcopal worship in places where there is no Episcopal church in order to raise awareness of our tradition and provide direction to the closest planted Episcopal church- focus on a spring and summer of worship in parks: call it "For the Beauty of the Earth" and publish a schedule of different parks that you'll be setting up services in for the months of May-Sept.
Seasonal Collaboration form a cluster of churches that have, say, 3 ordained ministers for 6 churches and rotate priestly presence by the season. Maybe one or more of the churches is closed down for a season at a time and the congregation attends their sister church. (Good signage explaining the location of the worshipping community when not at their home space is essential so as not to miss occasional visitors and can actually be presented in a way that lauds the good stewardship of resources.)
Ecumenical Partnerships in some places, Lutheran and Episcopal Congregations worship together, in the same building at the same time with one pastor/priest and they alternate using Lutheran or Episcopal liturgies by the week, month or season. It works!
Building Sharing/Faith Sharing invite another congregation from another denomination (not ELCA or Old Catholic or Moravian with whom we are already in full communion) to share your building.Every other week worship in the tradition of the other denomination. Episcopalians welcome all the baptized to share in our sacramental worship. We are welcome in many other traditions, as well. This does not provide an "Episcopal experience" or one of "Common Mission" every week, but it might work in some very rural areas.
Home Church gather a group of folks for Episcopal worship in homes, taking turns. Stained glass and organ music is nice, but not essential.
These ideas do not touch on the idea of lay presidency of the eucharist, intentionally. That is a bigger subject to open at another time. And, it offers a rich variety of possibilities for worship that at this time are not canonically permissible in our Church... but stay tuned. There's so much to think about.
For now, share your responses in the comments section or on Facebook about the various physical and structural possibilities presented here and please, give some of your own good ideas!