Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Out of retirement

Rev. Clayton Billard retired three years ago after some 35 years behind the pulpit.

He's now back on active duty after the retirement of Rev. Hugh Fudge earlier this month left St. James' Anglican Church in Port aux Basques without a minister.

Rev. Billard will fulfill the role until a new minister can be found - a challenging proposition given a shortage of new clergy across the diocese and throughout the province.

Fewer people becoming clergy is a trend that reaches well beyond the Anglican religion. United, Roman Catholic and Salvation Army denominations are facing similar circumstances - more clergy are retiring than are available to take their place.

Rev. Patricia Ritchie of the Wesley United Church in Port aux Basques is looking forward to an early retirement set to start next June. She left a 20-year nursing career to go back to school and become a minister.

"I knew I would be making less money, but as long as I had enough I was OK," she said. "We often say we're called, but more people are looking at the dollars and cents."

Someone who wants to become a minister needs a four-year undergraduate degree, plus three years of theology school. It can add up to a student loan of more than $70,000 in some cases. Rev. Ritchie said that can make it harder for new ministers to chose to come to rural areas.

About two years ago, vacancies in Stephenville and Burgeo left Rev. Ritchie as the only United minister west of Corner Brook. While those positions are now filled, it's unknown what the future will bring.

Rev. Ritchie said members of the congregation fill long-term vacancies in some parishes, while retired ministers fill other holes.

Pastor Jamie Warren, of the Faith Pentecostal Tabernacle in Port aux Basques, said the declining numbers of clergy being seen in that denomination won't likely be an issue for another decade.

All positions in Pentecost churches are filled, even in places where there is more than one pastor, such as youth and senior pastoral roles.

However, Pastor Warren said the retention rate for full-time clergy is not as high as it used it be - some clergy are giving up pastoral work for other types of positions like missionary roles.

Captain Michelle Blake of the Salvation Army said fewer people are going into the ministry than are retiring, but this year's numbers are higher than last year.

She said some amalgamations and closures of churches in some areas have lessened the demand for clergy, helping ease the strain. The Salvation Army hasn't yet seen the use of retired clergy long-term but has used it as a temporary solution.

Father Lee Lainey of St. Ann's Roman Catholic Parish said priests from other countries are helping to fill vacancies in the diocese. Currently there are two priests from the Philippines, one from Nigeria and one from India - all parts of the world, according to Father Lainey, that are producing large numbers of clergy.

He said vacancies haven't yet become a problem for the Catholic church, but the future may bring more foreign clergy or a return to the missionary priest, who travelled between several areas.

Father Lainey said that some people feel the vow of celibacy is part of the reason why more people aren't becoming priests. However, he said other denominations, which don't require that commitment, should not be having the same issues if that were the only cause.

Rev. Billard said the ministry is not a regular job; it involves a great level of commitment.

"When you're talking about religion, you're talking about something different altogether. It's not like Marine Atlantic or a paper mill or a fish plant. It's not a job. You have to feel this is something you have to do.

"It's 24-7. It's a lifestyle."

Decline in attendance

Most of the clergy agree the declining number of ministers are related to the decline in church attendance.

Father Lainey estimated that only about 10 to 15 per cent of the people on his parish's rolls actually attend services on a regular basis.

Most Sundays his church is only about half full. He said that's quite a change from when he was younger and can remember having to arrive at Saturday night mass early in order to get a place to sit.

Father Lainey said society has become more secular and practicing faith has become an option instead of an expectation. He said the trend leads young people to have less contact with the church and with God, so they don't consider becoming a priest.

"If the contact is not there, if the church doesn't have any place in their lives, how can they recognize a calling?" questioned Father Lainey.

The congregation at St. James has also declined. The church rolls contain the names of about 800 families, said Rev. Billard, far less than the 1,500 to 1,600 that would have been there when he was young.

"It once was the biggest parish on the island," he said.

Declining attendance is also a worry for financial reasons, said Rev. Ritchie. She said older churchgoers who she's losing are often the regular donators to the church.

"All funds to keep the church going have to come through the Sunday offering," she said.

Pastor Warren said even if the generation that does not regularly attend church goes back to regular attendance later in life, their children have missed out on religious contact during their formative years.

Father Lainey said the fact that people who don't regularly attend Sunday services still come back to the church for special things like baptisms, marriages and funerals means that the church still has a place in their lives.

"It's not all doom and gloom," he said. "People haven't abandoned the church and their faith altogether."

Pastor Warren said maybe the church needs to look at new ways of doing things to remain relevant to people. While the message of the gospel never changes, he said they ways the church presents it could be adjusted.

"I don't think people are totally uninterested," he said.
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(Source: GN)

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