I’ve been attending an Episcopal church for 10 years and chose my church, St. Barnabas, because of the extraordinary woman, Susan Richmond, then the assistant minister when I was in crisis. She offered compassion, wisdom — and a strong, smart woman’s perspective. Had she not been there, would I have returned and stayed? We now have a woman rector, Norah Smith — but for the first time in many years we have no assistant minister and no plans to hire one.
Our wealthy suburban New York church, with about 300 members, can’t afford it. Recession is hitting religious life across the country, reports the Associated Press.
With our depressed or vanishing incomes, churches, synagogues and other religiously-affiliated institutions are suffering. People are putting less money in the collection plate or tithing or pledging less (committing a set amount of money each year.) In the Episcopal church, each parish elects a vestry from among its members, a sort of board of directors who work closely with the minister, focusing on, among many other issues, the budget. I had a long chat recently with a vestry member who told me money is now a real challenge, that the wealthy stalwarts who wrote very large checks for years are no longer doing so. And no one else is stepping up.
Does it matter to lose an assistant minister? I think so. For years, it gave me, and fellow parishioners, the luxury of a second point of view, personality and set of skills. As anyone who has ever been part of a faith community for a while knows, religious leaders bring varied skills. One can be a terrific preacher but not a great listener. One might offer fantastic pastoral skills but not pay enough attention to the physical needs of the space; our church is 150 years old this month and almost every single piece of it, from glorious stained-glass windows to mosaic floors to crumbling plaster to the bell tower, needs ongoing repair and maintenance — all of which cost real money.
Our last assistant was a lively, funny 30-year-old, Joel, a passionate preacher (now back at graduate school) and I miss him. I still miss Ken, who was our assistant before him (now in Idaho with his own parish) and Susan. I loved Charlie, our minister who retired, but having an assistant offers a helpful balance.
A religious community is as much a community as a place to pray and learn about and practice the tenets of your faith. It’s a place you marry, baptize your children or plan their bas/bat mitzvahs, watch them marry, attend funerals. At its best, it offers a safe, sacred, timeless refuge from the world’s insanity, a place you shed your daily protective skin and open yourself to something much deeper. It’s a sad fact that, even there, money changes everything.