Unfortunately, I do not see this improving any time soon, if ever. Growing numbers of pastors are approaching retirement age. Many seminary trained pastors refuse to consider a call to a smaller church. There are not enough students in seminary today to fill the empty pulpits that already exist, and many of these students do not plan to enter pastoral ministry. Some current pastors are drawn to new church planting as a way to escape some of the problems found in existing churches. For several years we have seen about 50 percent of pastors leave the ministry within five years of graduating seminary. When you add all these together, plus other factors not mentioned, we have far fewer pastors than we have churches with nothing on the horizon that will change this.
What are churches to do when it is time to call a new pastor? Some churches are so healthy and growing that their biggest challenge will be to be sure they call a pastor who will keep them moving forward. However, for many traditional churches they will be forced to consider options that may make them uncomfortable. Some of these options are:
- Many smaller churches will be calling bivocational pastors and/or bivocational teams to lead them. We are already seeing this happening across many denominations, but this trend is only going to increase, especially if the church is determined to remain an independent body.
- Two or more small churches may decide to merge into one larger congregation. This seldom works as well as people hope. Too often after such a merger there is one church with two congregations that never really merge together. If a merger has any hope of being successful it will usually require that all the congregations sell their properties and obtain a new one. The thoughts of selling "our church" usually ends the talk of a merger.
- Because bivocational pastors can be difficult to find in many cases a church may want to consider calling a lay leader from within the church to serve as pastor. There are numerous ways in which such persons can receive pastoral training, and because these lay leaders already have the trust of the congregation, this can work very well.
- For many years the United Methodists have been willing to share a pastor between two, three or even four small churches. This is an option other churches need to consider. I know many churches want their own pastor, but the reality is that this may not be a realistic expectation in the near future.
- Many churches need to take a hard look at their refusal to call a woman pastor. Are you sure your objections to women in ministry are theological or are they cultural? Have you ever really studied what the Bible says about women in leadership roles in the church or are you just repeating what someone told you a long time ago?
- Churches need to look at what they present to a prospective pastor. Does your church have a history of being hard on pastors? Some do, and these churches will find it almost impossible to call a new pastor until they change their bad behavior. If a church is dysfunctional, the word gets out, and smart pastors avoid such churches like the plague.
- Some churches may be so far down the decline side of their church life cycle that they will never be able to call a pastor. Such churches either need to find alternative ways to operate or made the tough decision to close.
Some of these options may be more acceptable to a particular church than others, but this is a conversation that needs to occur in many churches, especially smaller ones. It's a conversation that should take place even before your current pastor leaves, and he or she will leave. Every pastor is a departing pastor from the first day he or she arrives at the church. One way or another, your current pastor will one day no longer be your pastor. Now is the time to begin discussing how the church might respond when that time comes.