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Jun  2015 23
Nurturing Leaders: Meet My Pastor, the Seminary Educated Carpenter

Scripture: 1 Timothy 5:17-18

When I entered full time ministry with a full-time salary ($12,000) in 1981, I could see a career track in local church ministry and I never questioned whether I could count on local church ministry for a middle-class compensation package.

Today’s younger seminary graduates cannot make these assumptions. The number of middle-class compensation packages paid by local churches is shrinking. We are at the start of what may be a radical change for mainline denominations regarding how clergy make a living. And this change is affecting and will affect education for ministry.

The conversation in denominational offices and among mainline seminaries about clergy “livings” and education for ministry has been much too thin, despite some alarming research and plenty of anecdotes. Research related to the declining number of full-time salaries was conducted some time back by a team at Duke about the rise of low paid and even uncompensated clergy (read the executive summary, with a link to the full report).

Several years ago I heard that for the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), about 800 of the 3,700 congregations could sustainably offer financial support for full-time clergy. In The United Methodist Church, the number of local pastors (rather than often more expensive ordained elders) has grown, which also means the statistical norm for education level among clergy in The UMC has declined.

Two clergy colleagues recently told me stories that correlate with my suspicion about a soon-to-come steeper drop in capacity to pay clergy (or pay for the way we’ve been doing church, for that matter).

There is an implication in congregations where as high as 40 percent of the budget is provided by people over 65 years old that giving will not be sustained when that cohort passes. In congregations with less than 40 people in the pews (where a few givers are supporting a minimum full-time compensation package) the death of less than a handful of people will mean a change in capacity to pay a minister.

In addition, I have two interpretations of the rise of “nones” (people who don’t really care about church) and the “dones” (people who may have cared about church but left unsatisfied or dissatisfied) and the decline in the U.S. population of persons who identify with church.

The un-congregating of the U.S. is underway and the association of Christian congregations with middle-class Americanism is eroding (and that is not a bad thing). This means the base of persons likely to be attracted to any form of organized religion is lessening, thus diminishing congregations’ capacity to pay their clergy.

In short, the wealth and current giving bases in many congregations that are necessary to pay middle-class compensation packages are diminishing.

So, what are the consequences for developing clergy leadership, which is the topic of the blog series? Here are my opinions:

  • Congregations, denominational leaders, and seminary educators need to support two kinds of bi-vocational ministers. One kind is comprised of change-of-vocation persons. When they respond to a call to enter ordained ministry, they should be advised to keep their day jobs. The second kind of bi-vocational minister is the college student who knows she wants to be clergy and development officer, clergy and marketing director, clergy and carpenter, etc.
  • A congregation served by a bi-vocational pastor that was previously served by a full-time (by which I mean paid a full-time salary by the congregation) will need to move with care in and through a significant transitional period regarding expectations and how ministry gets done.
  • Denominations and seminaries need a sustained, robust conversation regarding what is a fitting education for ministry, including duration, content, delivery, recruitment, costs. Two of several necessary topics for conversation are:
  • Colleges and graduate seminaries might collaborate to develop five-year educational programs for bi-vocational ministry, a hybrid of undergraduate and graduate education.
  • Denominational leaders should think carefully about the value of the Master of Divinity degree and whether or not that degree should remain THE standard for clergy.

Now, my starting point is that the MDiv is highly valuable!!! MDiv students often speak of their lives being transformed in ways that benefit them and the people they serve. But what in particular fosters the transformative effect? Is it class content, duration of the program (e.g., to use a food preparation analogy, seminary education is more like slow-cooking than microwaving), relationships with the faculty and with other students, or some combination of all? Probably a combination. But I would challenge the assumptions that the MDiv is sufficient preparation for a lifetime of ministry; once credentialed, always credentialed when it comes to education. What about a model of utilizing one of several entry-level degree programs for ordination or licensing and then a serious requirement of substantial graduate education courses in order to retain one’s credentials?

  • If more graduate educated clergy are going to be bi-vocational, then the issue of student debt needs to be addressed effectively.
  • The churches and seminaries need to do everything possible to wean students and themselves (some schools, in truth are living on that loan money) from federal student loan programs, which for too many students (and I’m going to exaggerate here, a little) have created a dependency as pernicious to long term financial health as pay day loan offices are to the persons who buy loans there.
  • Adequately addressing student debt means we need a renewed partnership between denominations, congregations willing to invest in leadership development for the long haul, and seminaries. Perhaps we can imagine together how to marshal the resources and agree that students headed for some sort of ministry should not graduate with more than a specified ceiling of debt.
  • Denominations should welcome the possibilities brought by bi-vocational clergy. In terms of forms of Christian community:
  • Not every new Christian community start needs to become a congregation as traditionally understood, with property and age-graded programs.
  • Some communities might be neighborhood cells or house communities, acting as leavening agents for the reign of God, or specific ministry focused organizations.
  • Rather than pursuing the model of each congregation developing into a self-contained unit capable of a full range of program based ministries, develop a model of niche ministries that in clusters also can cooperate on, say, adult education offerings, in partnership with local colleges and seminaries (or with schools that teach online, if not local). Will such cooperative efforts last as long as particular congregations have? No. In an era of rapid change and the need to be adaptable and experimental, is that a bad thing?

Yes, there is an alternative response to the material conditions I’ve cited above:

  • Fewer and larger congregations.
  • Far fewer seminary-educated clergy.
  • Bigger wealth and education gaps between smaller and larger congregations and the clergy serving them than currently afflicts the churches.

So, church friends, what is a fitting response to this radical change in how clergy make a living and what is a fitting education for ministry? What are your ideas?

Prayer: Gracious God, our mental models give us sight and prevent us from seeing. Turn our heads and focus our attention to where we should look, in order to support the persons you are calling into ministry.

Browse more posts by: Gary Peluso-Verdend, Phillips Faculty
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