Western New York deanery initiative seeks to keep small, rural churches alive

Posted Jun 26, 2020

[Diocese of Western New York]The Genesee Deanery of the Diocese of Western New York is made up of small towns and small churches that are struggling to survive. Only one of the nine churches in the three-county region between Buffalo and Rochester has an average Sunday attendance of more than 40. Five have an average attendance of 15 or below. But in this collection of rural communities and former canal towns, an experiment is underway that could suggest a path forward for small churches and rural communities across The Episcopal Church.

The Genesee Deanery initiative was first conceived by the Rev. Colleen O’Connor, who, until the end of last year, had been the part-time priest at both St. Mark’s Church in LeRoy and St. Paul’s Church in Stafford. It imagines a deanery team of two or three priests and a deacon who would rotate among six of the eight parishes in the deanery that do not have full-time clergy. The plan would make it possible for all six to celebrate a Eucharist or communion service at least three times each month, in addition to having a steady pastoral presence, and a priest available for emergencies.

“My goal is that these parishes would also participate in congregational development projects, and that the lay leadership can think about how to reach out to the community, about who they are and who God is calling them to be,” O’Connor said. “If survival is not an issue, how do we spread the gospel to our communities? We are not going for megachurches, but to have a vibrant healthy church active in our communities.”

The participating parishes are Christ Church, Albion; St. Luke’s, Attica; St. Paul’s, Holley; St. Mark’s, LeRoy; Holy Apostles, Perry and St. Paul’s, Stafford.

Of the three remaining churches, St. James, Batavia, by far the largest church in the deanery, has a full-time rector. It has committed to collaborating with other parishes, but is still considering how fully it will participate.

“I am excited about this plan because it takes into account the culture of the region and the character and charisms of each of the individual congregations,” said Bishop Sean Rowe. “It allows people to collaborate in a way that really brings a balance to lay and clergy leadership.”

The deanery has been losing population for more than two decades and suffering economic setbacks as well. A Fisher-Price plant in Medina closed in 1995, a Champion sportswear plant in Perry closed in 1998 and the massive Diaz Chemical plant in Holley closed in 2003, leaving behind a Superfund site. The region today is sparsely populated, but close-knit.

“It’s a lot of small towns spread apart,” said the Rev. Bonnie Morris, rector at St. James. “There is a lot of countryside. People live in their communities a long time. They know each other from way back, and they have very definite ties to their community.”

Rowe says preserving those ties is at the core of the deanery initiative. “We are saying that just because these churches are a small presence, that doesn’t mean they aren’t critical to their communities,” he said. “You have to believe it matters that The Episcopal Church is present in these tiny communities, because otherwise you follow the way of thinking that says, ‘Why don’t you close all of these places?’ That’s what you do if you want the church to be an urban-suburban phenomenon, and that’s the way the church is heading. I am saying these places are critical, but this is not just about keeping them open, it’s about making them present in their communities.”

In 2017, the deanery received a grant from Diocese of Western New York to explore the benefits and challenges of sharing clergy. On the first Sunday of each month, O’Connor, then the priest at St. Mark’s and St. Paul’s, would lead worship at St. Luke’s, Attica and attend its vestry meeting. St. Luke’s would pay the deanery for a supply priest, and the deanery would contract with a supply priest to lead worship at St. Mark’s and St. Paul’s.

On the third Sunday of the month, Morris would lead worship at St. Luke’s before returning to her own parish. St. Luke’s would again pay the deanery for a supply priest, and the deanery would compensate Morris.

“If St. Mark’s and St. Paul’s (Stafford) weren’t willing to go along, it wouldn’t have worked,” O’Connor said, joking that after listening to her preach for 15 years, “they were really excited to hear someone else for a change!”

The feedback from participating parishes was positive, and after the Dioceses of Western New York and Northwestern Pennsylvania began their partnership, O’Connor brought the proposal to Rowe seeking further support.

“The reality out here is that even if we put all of our resources together, they wouldn’t be able to afford enough bodies to make that work,” she says.

Rowe, an advocate of collaboration among dioceses as well as among congregations, was impressed by the plan and its architect. “She really has a missionary heart,” he said of O’Connor, who supplements her income by helping seniors choose Medicare insurance plans. “The church doesn’t value this kind of work enough.”

The initiative moved forward on June 25 when Western New York’s Diocesan Council approved a three-year $20,000 transition ministry grant, creating a full-time position, for O’Connor as deanery priest.

Although several details remain to be worked out, including the nature of St. James’ involvement, the benefits of collaboration in the deanery are already manifesting themselves. “What we get out of it is a feeling of Episcopal community that goes beyond our parish,” Morris said. “We are the minority in the Christian community, especially in this area, and this is giving us the chance to share some initiatives, like gathering more people for a Bible study or a ministry effort.”

Earlier this year two members of St. Luke’s participated in the confirmation class at St. James and were confirmed during Rowe’s visitation to Batavia. Two members of Christ Church, Albion were received into the Episcopal Church at St. James during that same visit.

Jim Isaac, who was president of the Western New York Standing Committee when that diocese and the Diocese of Northwestern Pennsylvania signed their partnership agreement, is part of the committee developing the initiative. A member of St. Mark’s, LeRoy, he said the deanery initiative is emblematic of Rowe’s approach to fostering vitality through reorganization.

“His attitude is, ‘Okay, we got this to work once when we brought two dioceses with a lot of talented people together. What’s next?’ This deanery project kind of fits into his focus. The parishes put in some money, the dioceses put in a little.

“Okay, let’s make this work.”