Pastors for the Next Church

This article has been making the rounds, questioning the utility of long expensive seminary educations as a means for training pastors:

Decentralized church systems with a history of less formal schooling historically outperform top-heavy ones with heavy academic requirements.

Meanwhile something like half of the churches in the Presbyterian Church (USA) are without pastors. Many cannot afford to pay one, especially not a full-time salary. All sorts of prognosticators say we’re moving back to the “tentmaker” model, in which the pastor has a paying job independent of the pastoral ministry. (The term goes back to the Apostle Paul.)

This is a multivalent issue and a complicated problem. (I disagree with the author’s argument about the reasons for mainline decline; it’s not lefty politics, it’s primarily demographics.) But one thing I haven’t heard anything about is a source for these “tentmakers”: stay-at-home mothers. So in addition to people who work full-time and have a part-time ministry gig, why not encourage “full-time mothers” to become part-time pastors? I live in an area that has quite a few stay-at-home moms, and I have met countless of them who have incredible gifts for ministry. They run VBS programs. They teach Bible studies. They could be trained and paid for doing what often amounts to a small part-time job.

I am a pastor who works part-time in a small congregation. I love the part-time schedule on its own merits. And I love it also because I parent three small children, and there is incredible flexibility to be home when they get off the bus, or to work from home when they’re sick, or to take a day and chaperone the school field trip (Friday, pray for me). It feels way more flexible than, say, teaching, which is another profession that many women find appealing because of its supposed family-friendliness.

Of course, the times it’s not flexible, it’s really not—crises, hospital visits, deaths. But with the right support system in place, it’s incredibly workable. The congregation I serve has been nothing but gracious when it comes to my kids, their schedules, and illnesses. Unfortunately, the predominant view of ministry as a profession is that it’s all-encompassing, and family life suffers. Stereotypes abound about PKs who grow up to resent the church. Those stereotypes are not without basis. But I’m telling you, I can think of hardly any profession that is as family friendly as ministry.

I think if the church could somehow harness the gifts of these women, it would be incredibly beneficial, both for churches and for the women themselves, who may feel like they want something of “their own” that’s not related to child-raising.

I’ve witnessed such a dejectedness when we think about our churches not being able to pay for full-time ministers. There’s a real sense of shame, like the church has failed. And I know that some people are called to ministry and want to work full-time and/or are the sole breadwinners in their families, and that has to be part of the equation too. But with this crisis comes an opportunity. I talk to more and more minister-moms who work full-time and would give anything to move to part-time. In many cases, their family can make it work economically; it’s just the church that needs to shift its attitude about what makes someone a “real” pastor.

Could denominations be creative in how we certify pastors? Could seminaries be creative in how we train them? I met recently with a woman who’s incredibly gifted, and is even considering seminary, but how does she do that with school-age children? Does she have to wait until her children are in college before she starts a cumbersome M.Div. program that could take three or more years? The church has need for her now.

What do you think?

Image: add a Bible to that mix and you’re set.


12 thoughts on “Pastors for the Next Church

  1. Jeanny House says:

    After my current position in judicatory work ends on June 30, I will be a tentmaker for as long as the tiny church I plan to serve can keep up a very small stipend and my health insurance. I’m more and more convinced that this is a direction that many mainline churches will need to go. It will also require that churches and pastors rethink roles and responsibilities.

    Shift happens. What will we do with it when it does?

  2. esperanza says:

    Great post. I’m a stay at home mom with two little bitty kids (and a seminary degree). I’m doing stated supply a couple of times a month at various places nearby. I think (especially in a couple of years) that I could handle, and would enjoy, a part-time call at a small congregation.

    I would seriously consider working for health insurance as my pay, or as a big chunk of my pay. Under the current Board of Pensions rules, that doesn’t work well with non full-time calls. That needs to change.

    I’d also need some child care help from the church–for meetings, worship, etc., times when your standard daycares aren’t open.

    I don’t know that this necessarily requires a change in the way we certify ministers. But I’m not totally opposed to it. Our Presbytery has an extraordinarily strong Commissioned Lay Pastor program. I think we actually have the structures in place to do this, as long as we can tweak them a bit. (I’m Presbyterian too).

    • MaryAnn says:

      You’re right that CLPs are a great mechanism for this. Maybe it’s not the structure that needs to change as much as the perception. There’s a sense in which CLPs are seen as less-than and a last resort. But if we’re really in a new era of ministry—if the landscape is really that different—let’s think of CLPs as the thing that’s going to invigorate the church and help it survive and thrive!

      • esperanza says:

        I think in our area, people don’t see any alternative between FT installed pastor and CLP. Maybe a bigger range of options, or more creative ways to think about the options we already have. Maybe it is an issue of perception.

  3. Sue says:

    Loud AMEN to you MA! I also recently read about CLPs – never knew about them. Eerily, I stumbled upon them looking up something unrelated in the Book of Order and was intrigued that they could be authorized to serve communion. In general, the more I think about it the more I feel like there has to be a better way to train called lay people to better utilize their gifts NOW. Is that anything your “transformation” group touches on??

  4. elbyviau says:

    Ok- so then is the goal for these part-time pastors to work themselves out of a job because they have invigorated and built up a missional church that requires and can afford a full-timer?

    Or are we saying that once a church is this small, there is no “growing back”?

    I am agreeing with you and others that we need to be open to non-traditional (P/T, CLP and tentmaking) calls. But I can’t imagine all of them are to maintain (or provide hospice for).

    • MaryAnn says:

      Well, I’m not sure how helpful it is to address this as an either/or, but the truth is, I have no idea what would happen. Probably a whole host of things, because this is not one-size-fits-all:

      1. Some churches will never grow numerically, with or without a pastor, because their town or community has stagnated, or for other reasons. But a pastor might invigorate the people who are there.
      2. Some churches may grow into needing a pastor full-time, and maybe their formerly part-time pastor will be in a new life stage to want that. (I can see going FT again someday.)
      3. Maybe they hire two PT pastors.
      4. Maybe as the church feels itself needing a FT pastor, the PT pastor feels like his/her work at that church is done and is ready to move on. Just like founding pastors of NCDs aren’t always the ones to stay and maintain for 20 years.
      5. Some churches may grow numerically enough to afford a FT pastor but there’s been enough of a cultural change that they decide to spend their money elsewhere. Part of the shift is to realize that churches have relied on the pastor to provide spiritual services, when it’s really everyone’s job to do ministry.
      6. And maybe it’s all really messy.

      I’m not sure I follow your last sentence—but if you’re saying that some churches have reached the end of their life cycle and shouldn’t necessarily be propped up with resources and a pastor, I would agree.

      • elbyviau says:

        Thanks.. I didn’t really intend that to come off as either/or. (I should know better than to leave comments via iphone because I bungle them in an effort to be brief)

        I was trying to think through what I would want to know walking into a position like this… what is the church dreaming, hoping, expecting for their future? What is realistic?

        Your list includes many of the possibilities I came to as well. And yes, that would vary as wildly as the contexts and histories of the individual churches do. Messy indeed :o)

  5. Virginia Thibeaux says:

    One of the greatest resources the PCUSA is the wealth of trained, talented, gifted candidates whom the church has determined are not fit to be pastors because they are open about identifying as LGBT. Hopefully, with the passage of 10-A these barriers will fall; unfortunately there are presbyteries out there who will never consider the gifts of their LGBT candidates, even to the point of having churches without pastors. And yes, CLPs are a viable option in many cases, but why don’t we see how many churches can accept an out candidate?

  6. David E says:

    I’ve been pondering alternative models of seminary that focus on developing the capacity for community formation, and “do theology” in the context of a community not shaped and formed by academic norms and expectations. As a life-long lefty activist, I’m going to disagree about that as well. The mainline decline is way more complicated than that, and has a lot to do, I’d argue, with the equally complex issue of community. But that’s a blog post for another day 🙂

  7. Amen, MaryAnn. I’m a mom and a part-time small church pastor, and this arrangement has worked out well for the congregation and for my family. My daughter is now seventeen, so college is around the corner. At that point I hope to stay with my congregation, and also branch out to help develop creative forms of pastoral leadership for other small congregations. I hope to build on the work I’ve already been doing with CLPs in our presbytery. Here’s a question I have for the PC(USA): do we believe in the priesthood of all believers or not? If so, then let’s get creative!

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