I heard the story of a particular presbytery meeting hot on the heels of four glorious September days in “graduation exercises” with the second Cohort of the Company of New Pastors. (The Company of New Pastors — formerly Excellence from the Start — is the Lilly Endowment program out of Theology and Worship that involves pairs of Pastors mentoring new seminary graduates who are in their first called positions.)
The four days were a “debriefing” on more than three years of semi-annual meetings for worship and study, reading books related to ministry and delivering papers in our small groups. The assumption is that community is formed and mutual professional support occurs — not out of therapy or skill development — but when it is grounded in theological reflection on the practice of ministry. At “graduation” we were privileged also to reflect with Eugene Peterson, author and pastor, on the life and work of a pastor.
The sixty-plus people who participated in this cohort agree that the program models the most effective way to develop habits for long-term faithfulness in Ministry of Word and Sacrament. We believe this model ought to be replicated everywhere as soon as possible for the health, wellbeing, and witness of the church.
Now for the irony: I returned from the meeting to listen to a recent seminary graduate (whose seminary does not participate in the program) speak of the discouragement he feels at not yet having received a call. To underscore the conversation’s poignancy, this well-above-average candidate told me about a presbytery meeting he attended. After the commissioning of a lay pastor, sessions were encouraged to recruit elders to enter Commissioned Lay Pastoral training to offset the “great shortage of pastors in our denomination.”
There is something distorted here.
It bears upon the ugly discussion in the PC (USA) about membership loss. The church is victimized by systems that deplete the heart and soul of pastoral ministry. In a denomination that once provided for persons to be ordained under an “extraordinary clause,” which meant that certain educational requirements could be waived, we now have created a system of “second class pastors.” Yet most congregations (of whatever size) need the services of Ministers of Word and Sacrament. We claim we cannot afford it and do not raise the funds to make it possible.
Then add to that situation the interim ministry circuit.
Is there an Executive Presbyter anywhere who thinks we need to limit this practice, not for unhealthy congregations, but for healthy ones? I love the image I read recently of the platoon on a combat mission that loses its lieutenant, calls back to headquarters for a replacement, and is told to make good with an interim until such time as the permanent replacement arrives in a year or two. That is no way to win a war, and it is (except for sick congregations that need help) no way to keep momentum going in strong congregations faithful to the gospel.
This adds up to systemic failure at a membership loss rate of 40,000 to 50,000 persons per year. Thus the celebration and fervent recruitment of lay pastors, in the presence of a well-qualified candidate who is seeking a call, is an insult — not as much to the disappointed candidate — as to the body of Christ. Except for churches that cannot “afford a pastor,” there is only one vacancy in that presbytery.
Where does the church go from here; from the encouragement of the Company of New Pastors to the sad irony of that presbytery meeting? At least we can begin to speak the truth in love about the need of every congregation for an installed Minister of Word and Sacrament (not temporary supply, not stated supply, and not a two or three year interim.)
Then we might get to the heart of the membership loss. It is not about us, the pastors, but about the church and the gospel for God’s glory. Among the Reformed, for goodness sake, the office of the Minister of Word and Sacrament is not a frill about which we can remain casual. Ministers of Word and Sacrament are a necessity. Thanks be to God that Lilly expends its resources with this understanding of the well being of the church of Jesus Christ. May God bless their witness, and may their good work increase.