In the middle of the last century, the ideal staffing of a mainline church looked like this: a full-time, seminary trained minister (male); at least one associate (often seminary trained) who specialized in youth and/or children’s ministry; and a full-time or part-time music leader. Of course, this was not the reality for every church. Many churches, especially rural churches, had a bi-vocational minister (one with another vocation), a volunteer or part-time music director, and lay volunteers for other ministries.
As we move further into the 21stcentury, the second model is becoming more common. Even mainline denominations which have high standards for ministerial preparation--both in the discernment process and in educational preparation--are looking at other options to fill the pulpits of churches who have both declining memberships and smaller budgets.
On the other hand, there are the non-denominational or community churches who place more emphasis on leadership ability than formal preparation, calling pastors and staff members who lack theological credentials. There are also alternative church models that depend entirely on gifted volunteers to lead the fellowship of believers.
The landscape has changed as well as the viability of the ideal. What does this mean for leadership development--both for clergy and lay--for the church in the 21stcentury?
First, this means that the distinction between clergy and laity is less clear. Many churches are affirming that Christian baptism equals a call to serve. Whether one is compensated for service or not, each believer has a role to serve in the life of the church.
Second, a number of churches have decided that the most effective leaders for their congregations are those who have been nurtured there. They have gifted lay people who can preach, teach, and serve. What hinders them from becoming the ministers of the congregation?
Third, new structures of leadership are being either created or revived. The “circuit rider” model of Methodism where one minister served several congregations is alive and well. Baptists often had “farmer preachers” who plowed six days a week and preached on the seventh. This model has never gone way, but those bi-vocational preachers are now business people, educators, salespeople, and professionals. The major change is that these models are spreading to other denominations who have been used to full-time professionals.
Fourth, churches are realizing that it is finally time to give leadership to women, the young, and marginalized people. Crisis drives change. Unfortunately, it takes a leadership bind for many churches to finally call out, train, and ordain women and men who should have been in lead roles already.
Five, new types of leadership call for creative ways of educating and equipping. Both accredited and non-accredited programs are emerging, some church-based and some are alternative denominational structures. Seminaries and theological institutions are also recognizing that they can serve this population of learners. Although many of these programs are developed out of necessity, this does not mean that they cannot be quality academic programs while developing necessary ministry competencies.
We are just at the beginning of a major shift in religious leadership. What is the Spirit of God saying to us in this time of change?