Wednesday, May 13, 2009

On the Bishop-elect's agenda: Clergy deployment in South Dakota

Bishop-elect John Tarrant noted the problem of clergy isolation in his recent comments to the Episcopal News Service.

That is just one of several clergy deployment and retention issues that he will engage as the Tenth Bishop of South Dakota. Ironically, this will come up right away as his election opens a vacancy at Trinity Church, Pierre.

Learning about clergy life here is eye opening, humbling and inspiring. I am somewhat insulated in a "normal" city parish. Many of the skills and assumptions I've developed over 20 years as a priest work quite well in Sioux Falls. But what clergy face in most South Dakota settings - rural towns and Indian Reservations - is very different from anything experienced by the majority of Episcopal Church clergy.

Most of us have not had to find out if our health plan will cover air transportation. People needing trauma care here will likely need a helicopter or fixed-wing trip to Sioux Falls or Rapid City.

Most of us daydream about the freedom to travel upon retirement. But some Reservation clergy look forward to just the opposite - the chance to stay home. They put in years of constant driving over long distances to reach scattered and isolated churches. They seldom have time off in settings with frequent medical emergencies, high suicide rates and cultural ways that work against concepts of "time management." A Tribal member's funeral can last several days, including Wakes that allow for any and all guests to speak. Events start when the people are present, not when the clock ticks a certain hour.

The compensation of clergy outside the cities is among the lowest in the Episcopal Church. Reservations include some of the poorest counties in the United States. Many "White" congregations are in very small communities and not able to support a full time priest.

The isolation noted by John Tarrant is inflicted by long distances between Episcopal clergy, and in some cases between a priest and clergy of any tradition. Add to this the formidable forces of nature here. Events can be scrubbed at a moment's notice by blizzards, tornado watches, floods or other extreme situations. Interstates can be closed for hundreds of miles. Loss of power and communication can isolate a community for days at a time.

And the assumption that "technology" can compensate doesn't work. There are chunks of South Dakota without cell phone or internet coverage. After presiding at a funeral on the Crow Creek Reservation in the middle of the state, I flipped open my cell phone to call home only to find that I couldn't get coverage - not even roaming - until I'd driven about half an hour toward the city of Chamberlain. That was just a short inconvenience for me - it is a fact of life for many of our diocesan clergy.

Needless to say, clergy turnover is high and vacancies are not easily filled.

Among the many expectations we lay on our Bishops (many of which are totally unrealistic), clergy development and deployment is an area in which the Bishop actually has the authority to make an impact. It was gratifying to hear all four candidates for Bishop discuss this prior to the election.

Pray for Bishop-elect Tarrant as he seeks to meet this need. And pray for clergy to serve in this part of God's world, and for God to sustain them here and bless their efforts.


Anonymous said...

I wonder if Tarrant retains close contact with his seminary, enough to inveigle some seminarians or young folks to come out and try it . . . But still, you'd have no stability, most likely, with that method.

TLF+ said...

That is one model brought up by several candidates. The key is to then provide them a support system that makes staying here an option. Like you say, still the risk of "two years and out" - but worth a try and it could be a very rewarding ministry to see congregations get reanimated.

Maybe Nashotah House needs to reclaim its frontier DNA. We need clergy selected and developed for this kind of work - most of what are seminaries produce are therapeutic/academic/maintenance types. We need missionaries here.

The Archer of the Forest said...

As Urban centric at the Episcopal Church has become, that's going to be a tough task. I remember many times in seminary getting asked the question of how I saw my future ministry. I also said something along the lines of "small town" or "rural ministry." Invariably, I also got vacant stares, usually with crickets chirping in the background. I got to where I would respond (with a twinkle in my eye) to the uncomfortable silence with "well, somebody has to actually do social justice ministry outside the comfortable 'burbs."

Having worked on Rosebud one summer as a seminarian, I think the Diocese needs to re-institute the funding for some summer internships for seminarians, perhaps on Rosebud or other places.

I found the internship invaluable, and I found my way back to South Dakota eventually, so I think it's a good investment in the future. I doubt I would have even considered South Dakota if my internship had never happened.

TLF+ said...

Good point, Archer - I think that idea came up on the walkabout as well. Internships can expose folks to the unique possibilities here.

One of my delegates - a relative newbie to the diocese, is still talking about the Convention. He had not seen a truly bi-cultural Epiacopal gathering before. Even with our challenges, there is real opportunity to be a Kingdom witness here.

The Archer of the Forest said...

That is one thing that I think is really cool about this Diocese. A lot of places talk a good talk about diversity and all that, but when it comes down to who is showing up in their churches on Sunday morning, it is mostly all white folks.