By Ed Thompson
I find I have more questions than answers these days. That could be the result of greater maturity. (I wish.) It could be the increasing realization that the world has changed and continues to change. What I learned in seminary no longer seems as relevant. The basic Bible and theology courses, yes. They may be more relevant now than they were back then. The more practical courses – not that there were a lot of them – not so much. The things that I knew at the start of my ministry no longer seem to fit. The things I learned when I was cutting my teeth as a quadrant pastor no longer seem to work. Even what I felt confident about as I began my ministry out in Kansas and some of what I felt confident about as I began my second tour of duty in West Virginia I now question. Before, I knew what a church had to do in order to find a pastor; now, I’m not so sure. Before, I could almost guarantee what would work. Now, it seems more like a crap shot. Part of that, of course, depends on how picky you want to be.
Many PNCs seem to think that they need to call a younger pastor, who they expect will bring in younger members and young families. (As if that’s all up to the pastor anyway, which seems to be a common misperception.) Although none of them will say this out loud to me or to representatives of the Committee on Ministry, what they really want is a younger, white, male pastor. Besides the fact that some of that cohort is lazy and others are incompetent, they will all have other options. For that matter, all candidates will have other choices.
It seems to me we are caught up in a conundrum. We have a shortage of pastors willing to serve smaller churches in smaller towns, and we have an oversupply of pastors wanting to be called to churches that are doing what they perceive to be creative, innovative ministry in what they perceive to be attractive communities. They are not interested in just doing traditional types of ministry. They perceive that as essentially hospice care, and they may well be right. They would rather work in a secular job than engage in what they see as essentially wasting their time.
Back in the day, a common mantra for many pastors was “Half a loaf is better than none.” While few churches completely matched what we felt called to do and wanted to do, as long as there was some wiggle room, some flexibility, we would at least talk to a church to find out what they wanted and to discover if there was enough room to be able to do what we wanted. There was a perceived shortage of churches or perhaps an oversupply of pastors. This was back in the day of the Baby Boom, the post-Vietnam war era. The World War II generation of pastors was still around, and there was a surge caused by a significant number who were led to seminary in hopes of avoiding the military draft, as well as increasing numbers of women who were now able to be ordained. It was not quite a perfect storm, but if you wanted to be a minister and draw a steady paycheck, you couldn’t be as picky.
Even as the World War II generation of pastors started to retire, there was another surge of second career candidates drawn to ministry and larger numbers of women. Now, as the Baby Boom generation of pastors starts – or, really, continues – to retire, there are also fewer churches with more than one pastor; fewer churches able to afford a full-time, seminary-trained pastor; and fewer churches it seems willing to share a pastor.
We could call this a hot mess. We can also see it as a window of opportunity. While we may prefer to do things the way we have always done them and while we may want to go back to doing things the way we did before the pandemic, the situation before us encourages us to rethink who we are and reimagine what God is calling us to do.
We can go back and do things the way we have always done them, and we can go back to doing what we did before the pandemic. Doing that basically means that we are choosing to die. That’s certainly a choice. If that’s the choice you want to make – and that’s OK – you need to think about two questions: 1) What’s the tipping point going to be? What event is going to show us that we just need to close? 2) What’s the legacy that we want to leave behind? How do we want to use our remaining funds and the funds that might be generated by the sale of our building to benefit our community or to help the ministries that we have supported?
However, maybe as we emerge from the restrictions imposed by the pandemic, we can start to work on building relationships with 1) the people who live in our neighborhood; 2) community partners, the churches and other organizations that we can work with to feed the hungry, eliminate racism, and support people dealing with cancer, dementia, or addictions, among other things; and 3) the people who worship with us online.
Those are not either/or choices. It would certainly seem possible to work on all of them to some degree. I guess it comes down to a choice of whether we want to recreate the past or create a new and different future. While we need to learn from our past and build on our history, I do not think we are called to recreate it. Jesus is going ahead of us. The Gospel of Mark emphasizes that in its account of the resurrection. We can try to catch up, or we can give up. The choice is ours.