By Ed Thompson
Idols come in all shapes and sizes. I am not talking about the baals and astartes that we find in the Old Testament. Most of us don’t know how to spell these words, let alone what they mean. They don’t tempt us, though, and most of the time, we can easily avoid any idols made of wood, metal, or stone.
However, an idol that many churches seem to get hung up on is that each church needs to have its own full-time pastor. That idol has many variations. For a long time, that meant (and in some cases still means) that the pastor has to be a heterosexual, white male, who has a seminary degree (preferably one who’s married and whose wife plays the piano) and hopefully has some experience. Over time, that model/idol gets pared down and begins to change. A piano-playing spouse is probably the first criteria that gets dropped. The desire for experience is probably the next thing that slips away. Marriage then becomes optional. Then women begin to be considered. (Side note: Over the years, I have seen far more incompetent male than female pastors. I can only think of one or two female pastors who might fit that description. Even then, they both had better skills than almost all the other incompetent men I have encountered. Overall, churches are far better served by having a female pastor.)
After that, commissioned pastors begin to be considered as an option. (Side Note #2: I have known some excellent commissioned pastors. Most seem at least as competent and in many cases are more competent than quite a few seminary-trained pastors. Apparently, seminary training doesn’t automatically convey pastoral skills – let alone common sense – to everyone.) (Side note #3: I find it a sad commentary that pastors of a different race and any other sexual orientation seldom get fair consideration. Even at this point and even when they are highly competent, willing, and available to serve.)
Only after those options are considered does it seem that churches will begin to consider part-time pastors. It’s not too bad if they can find a pastor that will only serve their congregation. However, when a church realizes that it can only afford and will only be able to find a pastor if they share one with another congregation, some people will become depressed and think that they and their church have somehow failed. The angst that sometimes accompanies that decision makes me think that a church’s desire for its own pastor has somehow become a modern-day idol.
Probably the biggest issue facing a church that wants/needs/has to share a pastor is that they may have to change their worship time. (Worship on Sunday morning at 11 AM may be another idol.) There’s only one 11 AM on Sunday each week, and a pastor can’t be two places at once. (Well, with the use of technology, actually, they can. If you can deal with watching a pastor lead worship on a screen, two or three or more churches can share a pastor, and everybody can still worship at 11 AM on Sunday. As time goes on, this may become a more popular option.)
Part of the reality we’re facing as a denomination – a reality shared by most mainline churches – is that there is a pastor shortage. Or at least a shortage of pastors willing to serve smaller churches, especially in small towns or rural areas. Being a smaller church in a small town or rural area in West Virginia only exacerbates that reality. It’s also becoming harder for many churches to afford a full-time pastor because of its increasing cost and their shrinking funds. (That may also be an issue of stewardship, which is really a topic for another article or articles – or maybe even a book.)
Sharing a pastor with another church doesn’t mean you’ve failed. Maybe your last pastor could have been better. Maybe you could have done some things differently. But the world has changed. Covid has played a part in that. A number of older pastors decided to retire earlier than they had planned because of the pandemic. A number of younger pastors got fed up with the arguments over when to suspend and when to resume in-person worship and by the way they were treated by churches during the past few years that they left the ministry. (That reality impacted older pastors, too.) Most seminaries have smaller graduating classes and, in many cases, only a handful of graduates express any interest in pastoral ministry. The harsh reality is that there is a shrinking pool of candidates for our churches.
Sharing a pastor with another church may be the only realistic – and affordable – option available. Confronting this idol – or perhaps these idols – can allow a church to continue its ministry and to continue being a blessing to its members and its community.
Every word so insightful and true! Thanks Ed!