Monday, May 28, 2012

The reality facing smaller churches

For many years smaller churches were able to attract fully-funded (the term I prefer rather than full time) pastors, especially those who had recently completed seminary or were semi-retired.  Some of that attraction was due to the parsonage many of them provided.  Newly graduated seminary students often didn't have the money to purchase a house, and retired ministers and those nearing retirement liked the idea of downsizing their house.  If they owned a home, they could sell it, invest the profit from the sale of the house, and move into the parsonage.  Many of these churches are finding out the hard way that fully-funded pastors are no longer interested in serving smaller churches, and many entering the ministry are less inclined to want to live in a parsonage as past generations.  Studies have found that many clergy will simply not serve in a smaller church.  There are a number of factors behind this that we won't go into in this post, but it is the reality that smaller church leaders need to recognize when they search for a new pastor.  What are these churches going to do as they begin to look for new pastoral leadership in the future?  Many of them are realizing their best option is to seek a bivocational minister.

Research has found that bivocational ministers often provide excellent ministry, and the churches they serve can often thrive under that leadership.  Despite that, many smaller churches struggle with the idea of calling a bivocational minister.  They see it as taking a step backwards rather than an opportunity to begin doing ministry a new way.  The fact is that many marginal fully-funded churches have not enjoyed a good ministry in years (decades?).  They might be able to call a fully-funded pastor, but that person often does not stay long enough to provide effective ministry and leadership.  In some cases, the people they have called turned out to be highly dysfunctional who caused much harm to the church during their tenure.  Such churches would often find that calling a bivocational minister as their next pastor might actually put them on a road to a much more effective ministry.

Bivocational ministers often bring some strengths to a smaller church.  If the church has experienced several short-term pastorates, they will often find that the bivocational minister tends to stay longer at his or her church.  More often than not, the bivocational minister already lives in the general community, has ties to the community, and is less likely to be interested in moving.  Virtually every church growth book I've ever read and said that a longer pastorate is one of the keys to a growing church, and bivocational pastors can provide that to their smaller church.

Because they often already live in the community there is not the learning curve someone new will have.  When I became the pastor of the church I served as a bivocational minister I was already part of the community, and that gave me a big advantage over someone who would have just moved in. 

Small churches that call a fully-funded pastor usually do not pay a very good salary and offer few benefits, but even that consumes a large portion of the church's budget.  There is little money left over for ministries that might reach new people which limits the growth of the church.  During times of financial challenges like many churches have experienced in the past few years there are few places to cut spending except clergy compensation.  Obviously, this creates problems for the pastor and his or her family, and will often cause them to leave in order to better provide for the family needs.  Many smaller churches can pay a very fair salary to a bivocational minister and still have sufficient funds left over for ministry purposes.  If the bivocational minister has health insurance in his or her other position that can save the church even more money that can go to ministry.

Smaller churches need to do away with the false pride and ego that demands they have a fully-funded pastor and recognize the reality of ministry in the 21st century.  We are already seeing more and more churches move from having a fully-funded pastor to a bivocational pastor, and the churches that are doing that are much larger than the ones we used to associate with bivocational ministry.  Leaders from various denominations are telling me they expect the trend to continue.  If your church is going through a transition from having a fully-funded pastor to a bivocational pastor, and it's struggling with that transition, please contact me.  I've spent three decades as a bivocational pastor and a judicatory minister working with bivocational churches, and I might be able to help.  If you make the transition well, you will find that your church will do quite well with bivocational leadership.


Terry Reed said...

It has been my experience that most small churches seeking a fully funded pastor claim they "need" someone full time. The main reasons cited are related to maintenance rather than growth--be at the hospital when someone has surgery, make it to the nursing home every week, etc. Oh and of course visit new people so we can grow--but that is usually down on the list. The idea of the church caring for its' own as opposed to the pastor doing it all is a novel approach for these congregations.
Terry Reed
Small Church Tools

Dennis Bickers said...

You're right, Terry. We really need to focus on congregational care rather than pastoral care in our smaller churches. The congregation needs to be equipped to minister to one another and not depend upon clergy to do that.