Perhaps you are blessed to be part of a congregation that has a full-time professional staff. Your pastor and most of the associate pastors are seminary educated. The staff members provide leadership and train lay leaders in specialized areas of ministry such as Christian formation, worship, youth, children and preschool, and senior adults. This is the model that 20th century American Christianity sought to achieve and one that was encouraged by most denominations. Even smaller churches attempted to follow this model.
In many cases, this model is no longer viable. Here are some reasons.
First, congregations no longer provide the financial resources to support this model. Giving is down among congregants. Even if a church has cut its missions giving to denominational entities, they no longer have the resources to support this approach.
Second, seminary education is expensive and fewer seminary graduates can afford to take entry level positions that fail to help them cover their educational debts. First call churches could be more aggressive in helping with this debt, but their resources are often limited as well.
Third, population shifts have left churches in smaller communities, even “county seat” churches, with an aging congregation, fewer young adults and families, limited income, and limited vision. The key concern is sustainability not growth.
Fourth, in the past seminaries provided a steady source of young adults who were willing to relocate anywhere to find a ministry position. Today, there are fewer young adults receiving theological degrees. Many are not interested in church related positions and often want to live in more urban environments.
So what is the answer? Many congregations are finding creative ways to address the church staffing situation.
1. Many are using biprofessional staff including pastors and associates.
2. Some are sharing pastoral staff with other congregations.
3. Others are calling out lay leaders to assume more responsibility in ministry leadership, often compensating them for their time and encouraging them to receive additional training.
Each approach has its strengths and weaknesses. Theological institutions can help in this transition in several ways.
First, seminaries are educating “second career” leaders who will serve as full-time ministers in their retirement or will be biprofessional ministers while retaining their present vocations.
Second, pastoral leaders must be intentionally trained as equipping leaders who can work with lay and part-time leaders to pursue the church’s mission. For those who have been out of seminary for awhile, this may come in the form of continuing education, support groups, and coaching.
Third, seminaries can provide learning opportunities both for seminary graduates who are being asked to take on new responsibilities in a shrinking organization and for leaders without a theological education who find themselves in significant roles of leadership in the congregation.
Is the glass half full or half empty? Personally, I think this is an opportunity to recognize the gifts of those in the church and leverage these for effective ministry, but it will require qualities that are not often attached to the church--flexibility, creativity, and innovation.