Laity and retired clergy lead together in small congregations

The Rev. John Heinemeier retired from ministry after 45 years, then returned to work and became the part-time vicar of St. Cyprian’s Episcopal Church in Oxford, N.C. Photo by York Wilson

St. Cyprian’s Episcopal Church in Oxford, N.C., illustrates a new model for underserved churches: active laity and retired pastors.

In 45 years as a pastor, the Rev. John Heinemeier could predict where he would be on Saturday night: at home, writing his sermon. At all six congregations he served, Saturday night was the first chance he’d had all week to prepare his sermon.

But in the year and a half that he has been serving as vicar of St. Cyprian’s Episcopal Church in Oxford, N.C., that has never happened. In retirement, working part time, he finally has been able to put first the very tasks he felt called to ministry to do.

“Now I am able to spend more time preparing to preach and teach,” he said. “I have time to think and reflect sacramentally. For the first time, I have time to do the things that clergy are called to do utterly well.”

The story of St. Cyprian’s is more than just an Easter story about one small congregation’s resurrection. St. Cyprian’s holds lessons for all churches, and insights into new ways of doing pastoral ministry, say Heinemeier and the Rev. Michael B. Hunn, Canon to the Ordinary for Program and Pastoral Ministry for the Episcopal Diocese of North Carolina.

Hunn said the church is slowly emerging from an era where it operated based on a “priest-as-CEO” leadership model.

“The ethos was one priest, one building, one parish secretary and one very bad Xerox machine,” he said. “That was the team you had to have. The professional staff ran the church, with lay oversight from a board.”

Heinemeier and St. Cyprian’s offer signs of the increasing role that lay leadership will play in the future, freeing up clergy to be true pastoral leaders. They also illustrate the untapped potential that retired clergy offer for leading underserved congregations, particularly those that can no longer afford full-time clergy.

At St. Cyprian’s the vestry and other laity play a critical role, coming forward with new ministry proposals, handling most administrative matters and doing much of the visitation. Recently, for example, Heinemeier asked a layperson to attend a custody hearing to provide moral support for another parishioner. “I don’t need to be there,” he said. “A layperson can do it.”

The church is reclaiming a more active vision of lay ministry, one in which laity are ministering in the world on behalf of Jesus, and clergy are their servant leaders, equipping, teaching and supporting laity, Hunn said.

“Lay ministry doesn’t mean having laypeople acting like priests, but a real partnership between laity and clergy,” he said.

That lay-clergy partnership that has been so evident at St. Cyprian’s has to happen more and more, Hunn said.

“No one went into seminary thinking they wanted to be the administrator of a nonprofit,” Hunn said. “If you see yourself as an employee working for a board that hired you and that expects you to manage the church, that’s a lot to put on one person.

“If you don’t have time to pray and study and you’re expected to chair meetings and make sure the budget is balanced and do the administrative management, and that’s what your priesthood is measured on, then you will burn out.”

Heinemeier, of course, now works only part time, generally one day a week. Few pastors outside of retirement can expect such great hours. But the pairing of part-time, retired clergy and lay leadership will also play an important role in leading congregations in the Episcopal Church, and likely other denominations as well, Hunn said.

Nationally and in the diocese, the Episcopal Church is trying to work with retired clergy, changing the way it does clergy deployment and transition ministry. Last year, the denomination launched New Dreams - New Visions, a pilot project aimed at pairing retired clergy with small, underresourced congregations with strong lay leadership. The project was convened to address two key issues in the Episcopal Church, according to Episcopal News Service: a significant number of clergy are poised to retire, and a significant number of congregations will not be able to afford to pay for full-time clergy.

“In our denomination, we are seeing lots of baby boomer clergy coming up on retirement age, and a lot of them want to and are able to work part time,” Hunn said. “Retirement doesn’t mean what it used to mean.”