It is 1973 and Henry is about to graduate from seminary. Soon he will cart off his wife and two kids off to a remote town in Northern New York to his very first pastorate. The church is small, the pay is low but the local farmers fill his refrigerator with food and home grown vegetables are frequently brought to his house. The ministry is hard yet somehow they are able to get by on his meager salary. The church experiences some growth at the arrival of this young pastor. After a short time, he becomes an important part of the community. Everyone in town knows who he is and he is a respected person in the community who is often asked to pray or whose counsel is sought. Church is important to those folks in this Northern New York community. Even those who do not attend often participate in many of the activities that the church has to offer-fairs, dinners, Vacation Bible School, music programs, tent meeting revivals, and other activities. Whenever there is a crisis, Pastor Henry and the church is the first place that is thought of to unravel the difficulties of life.
It is 2013 and that same church in Northern New York is barely twenty strong (or weak, depending on one's perspective). No longer able to afford a seminary-trained pastor and facing the rising costs of health insurance and maintaining a building that is over one hundred years old, the church settles on having a different speaker leading its services every week after the previous pastor had moved on. He left disillusioned in a church and community that was in decline. Many of the church members had grown older and were no longer physically able to carry on the many activities of the church. The community no longer sought the church for its social presence and found that it was more appealing to make the 45 minute trek down the interstate to engage in activities at the mall or civic center. For those who needed answers to life's questions or issues, the Internet or Dr. Phil had replaced the counsel of the church when life became difficult. Increasingly the church nor the pastor, before he moved on, no longer had the relevancy to the community that Henry had enjoyed in the 1970s.
These two scenarios are just a snapshot of the changes that have taken place over the past forty years. The typical image of a seminary trained pastor moving into a church and becoming one of the leaders of the community no longer holds the weight it once did. A number of factors have played into this including the cost of health insurance, the cost of education for the graduated seminarian who perhaps has incurred $50,000 in college loan debt, the secularization of society, the negative reaction to organized religion, post-modern rejection of absolutes-all of these factors and many others have had an impact. The church which had an important role in the community was now seen as a relic of the past and today many people drive by the building unaware that the church even exists. The truth is that this scenario is becoming increasingly a familiar one. Many churches no longer support a pastor on a full time basis and are in a period of decline. In our denominational association, nearly sixty percent of our churches no longer support a pastor on a full time basis and they must work outside the church in order to make ends meet. Furthermore, in many rural communities, there are fewer and fewer farmers and the possibility of the pastor being subsidized with food to help meet costs (as in the 1973 scenario) has become a thing of the past. This has further diminished the ability of the church to secure a pastor especially in small towns.
The point I am raising in this blog is that the pastoral ministry and the church is being redefined. But what are the implications of this? I would like to suggest several.
1) The increasing importance of bi-vocational pastors. If I had a suggestion for seminarians today, my suggestion would be to find an occupation or skill that can supplement your ministry. The idea that upon seminary that a graduate is going to get a full time church that is large enough to support a pastor and his/her family is no longer the rule. Of course, one must depend on God to provide but it would be wise to seek the Lord on other possibilities to help supplement the ministry. Certainly this is not without Biblical precedent as St. Paul was a tentmaker.
2) The increasing role of certified lay pastors. Many churches have a hard time finding pastors who have completed seminary to come to their community due to the inability to adequately support their work or due to a number of other factors including college loans, the inability for the spouse to find work in his/her field, or in declining membership. However trained, certified lay pastors can be utilized especially if it is in close proximity to their home and employment. Churches that struggle in acquiring a seminary trained pastor will have greater opportunity to utilize this developing ministry. It is important to note that this will require a great deal of flexibility by both the denomination and the church. When I first entered the ministry, the expectation in the denomination and the local church was that you had to be a seminary graduate to pastor a local church. But based on current realities, this is one expectation that needs to be evaluated and greater flexibility over the type of pastoral leadership in the local church is a must.
3) The importance of mentoring/training. Since there will be an increasing number of lay pastors, the danger is that they will be sent into churches without adequate training and mentoring. It is here where I feel that the seminary trained, ordained clergy can be of great help in this changing scenario. Trained ordained pastors need to step up to the task of helping lay pastors (who may have not had much training) so that they are not thrown to the wolves, so to speak. Mentoring these lay pastors becomes crucial. One challenge to this may be in the fact that many seminary trained, ordained clergy are still living with the old expectation that only a seminarian trained person should pastor a church, but if the church is to adequately deal with the changing landscape of today's world, then those who are ordained also must exhibit greater flexibility and openness to lay pastors.
These are just a few factors of how I see the pastoral ministry being redefined in the local church. Please feel free to respond and give me your thoughts.