Monday, September 10, 2012

Sharing pastors

This past weekend I spoke with a lay leader in a church who wanted to know how many of the churches in my judicatory share the same pastor.  While that is common in some denominations, especialy the United Methodists, we do not currently have any of our Baptist churches in our region sharing pastors.  He was surprised as he feels that is the next thing that is coming for our smaller churches struggling to find pastoral leadership.  I agree, but it won't be easy.

As a Baptist for over 50 years I can tell you we are a stubborn people.  Several years ago when I was still a bivocational pastor my Area Minister asked if I would consider serving a second church.  I was agreeable, and the leadership in the church I was serving agreed to share me with the other church.  However, when he approached that church of less than a dozen people they declined.  They insisted they wanted their "own" pastor.  For the next several years they cycled through a new pastor about every 12 months.  They were able to have their own pastor, but they never experienced any kind of continuity in ministry making it impossible for them to enjoy any type of positive ministry in their community.  Unfortunately, that mindset can be found in many, if not most, of our smaller Baptist churches.

Max DePree tells us the first responsibility of a leader is to define reality.  Sometimes that reality is painful and hard to hear, but it needs to be heard.  Studies consistently find that a growing number of pastors are unwilling to serve in smaller churches.  (You'll have to define what a smaller church is for your denomination because it does vary.)  There is not a clergy shortage as far as raw numbers of clergy persons vs the number of churches, but there is a severe clergy shortage for smaller churches.  You can criticize this all you want and question their faithfulness to God's call on their lives, but that doesn't change the reality of our situation.  Many pastors are not going to serve smaller churches.

This is becoming painfully obvious for the growing numbers of churches that have been served by fully-funded pastors in the past but find they cannot find one willing to serve their church now.  In the past five years I have helped a number of these churches make the shift from fully-funded leadership to bivocational leadership.  In most cases it has worked well once we got past some self-esteem issues in the church.  The second reality is that more of our churches are going to be making this same shift in the near future as their current pastoral leadership retire or accept other places to serve.

The problem here is that there is not an unlimited number of bivocational ministers either.  I do not talk with leaders of any denomination who tell me they have an abundance of good bivocational ministers.  Often, bivocational ministers will serve in churches that are geographically feasible which reduces the number of available bivocational people even further.  I may have one or two bivocational ministers seeking a church to serve in southern Indiana, but that doesn't help the church in northern Indiana because these folks can't move that far from their other employment.

In my mind there are two things that must take place.  One, churches and denominational leaders must become more intentional about identifying and training bivocational ministers.  The identification will come primarily through the local churches while the training will often need to be provided by denominationa and judicatories.  In our case we developed what we call the Church Leadership Institute to help develop our lay leaders and bivocational ministers.

The second thing that needs to happen is that more of our smaller churches must accept the idea of sharing pastors with another church.  There is not time in this post to address all the excuses I hear from churches that do not want to do that, but I will say that every concern can be overcome.   Having a trained, dedicated bivocational pastor that you share with another church will serve your church much better than if you hire someone who is related to a church member's uncle's step-sister on her father's side just so you can have your "own" pastor.

For years many fully-funded churches believed they would be going backwards if they called a bivocational church.  Many of these churches who have now called a bivocational minister tell me they wish they had done so much earlier.  I believe the same thing will happen as churches begin to share pastors.  Once they get the details worked out many of these churches will enjoy the quality of ministry they receive from their pastors, and they too will wish they had done so much sooner.

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