DIOCESES in the huge swaths of the United States that are often referred to dismissively as “flyover states” are fighting back with a marketing campaign to recruit new clergy.
Their new “flyover-church” campaign seeks to tell the stories of communities and churches that lie in states that most Americans — and visitors to the US — see only as they cross by aeroplane from one coast to another.
The campaign, which has been launched with a website and social-media accounts, arose after years of discussions about how to attract new clergy, Michael Spencer, a lay canon inthe diocese of Eastern Michigan, said.
“For years, we have been struggling to attract new priests to posts in our dioceses. When, years ago, we needed to fill posts, we’d have six to 12 people to put forward to parishes for discernment, but now we are lucky to have two or three, and sometimes it’s just one candidate,” he said last month.
“We know that for every one priest ordained today there are 1.7 retirees from full-time active ministry. We’ve tried to move on from lamenting that to think of creative solutions to the challenge, and we decided we needed to do more marketing to raise the profile of churches in the middle of the country.
“The popular idea is that the east and west coasts of the United States are the places where everything happens, and the places where we live are the flyover states that you look down on as you fly from coast to coast.
“But we know that we have real life, and real, compelling ministry needs here. We think the issue is not that people don’t want to come here, but that they don’t know about it; they haven’t visited on holiday, and don’t have friends or family here.”
Thirteen dioceses have signed up to the flyover-church campaign so far: Arkansas, Eastern Michigan, Kansas, Kentucky, Lexington, Michigan, Milwaukee, Missouri, Nebraska, Northern Indiana, Ohio, Southern Ohio, and Western North Carolina.
Mr Spencer said that, although the dioceses were unable to offer higher rewards or pay to new clergy moving in, there were real benefits — including less complex diocesan structures than in the coastal states, and more opportunities for taking on senior positions. The cost of living was also a huge factor, he said: house prices in many flyover states were a fraction of the cost in coastal states.
“Where I live in Michigan, a good home costs $120,000, and in San Francisco it would cost $1.6 million.”
In the diocese of Eastern Michigan, churches and communities are often small: many have regular worshipping congregations of just ten or 11. Yet there are also some large towns, such as Detroit — the one-time car capital of the US — and Flint, which has been in the headlines for its contaminated water crisis, both of which offer challenges and opportunities for ministry. The town of Grand Rapids is home to Mars Hill Bible Church, the megachurch set up by the former pastor and author Rob Bell (interview, page 20).
The Episcopal Church has not attempted to bridge the shortfall in clergy by grouping parishes together, as in the Church of England, because that would be “culturally unacceptable here”, Mr Spencer said.
“It is very much the culture here that every church should have its own pastoral leadership. So part of our challenge is to find people not so dependent on income, who perhaps are having a career-change later in life.”
The flyover-church project hopes its next step will be to approach priests who are leaving seminaries and encourage them to apply for posts. The strapline for encouraging applications is: “Ministry in Flyover Country is unlike — and exactly like — ministry in other parts of the world.”