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The emerging vocational landscape: One pastor’s experience and what it means for the larger Presbyterian Church


The emerging leaders of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) are more diverse than ever, and the vocational landscape within the denomination has changed dramatically. In many cases, the habits and structures of our governing bodies, institutions, agencies and congregations continue to support a reality that no longer exists. For many pastors with the majority of their ministry years ahead of them, this chasm creates a vocational crisis that is not being handled with the urgency it deserves. These gaps are most obvious for candidates moving into ordained ministry and active pastors moving between calls.

In eight years of ministry I have accepted two calls to the same congregation. From working as a part-time Christian educator at Selwyn Avenue Presbyterian Church in Charlotte, North Carolina, I moved to ordination and served as a part-time temporary supply associate for congregational life and adult Christian education for seven years. (The text on my business card was very long.) Last fall, Selwyn Avenue installed me as a full-time co-pastor. While it wasn’t a sweep-you-off-your-feet affair, it was a leap of faith and an intentional response to God’s call for everyone involved. My journey is a result of visionary leadership sustained by the ruling elders of our congregation, an abiding trust between colleagues, honest advice from mentors and a careful balance of thick skin, humor, confidence, humility, persistence and prayer.

As with every story of vocational call, mine is unique. While drawing conclusions on personal perceptions or experiences can be dangerous, the hopes and concerns I raise are shared by many ministers across the country. Interviews I’ve conducted, countless conversations and a quest for illusive data have revealed truths and quiet trends within the PC(USA) that I hope will help guide our institutions, agencies and congregations to equip and sustain a vibrant generation of leaders who are poised and capable to “run with perseverance the race that is set before us.”

An encouraging conversation I had recently with Timothy Cargal, assistant stated clerk in the Office of the General Assembly, revealed, “Of those who entered ministry in the past several years, four out of five were ordained within two years of receiving permission to negotiate for service.” While this is good news, many find the promised land of ordained ministry more difficult to navigate than numbers suggest. Although the discernment process for both of my calls was as significant as if I had moved to new regions, individuals within the system have shown varying degrees of skepticism and encouragement. Without the guidance of two spirited leaders within our presbytery’s committee on ministry, God’s call for Selwyn Avenue would surely have been silenced. Ultimately celebrated and affirmed, the trajectory of my ministry was difficult for our Presbyterian system to absorb. My story is often heard as an exception to the rule – but honestly, is it?

Searching for a first call

Upon graduating from seminary, I was equipped with the promises of God’s sovereignty, the truth of God’s expansive grace in Christ, a deep love of our theology and respect for our connectional polity. After passing four ordination exams, squeaking by one ridiculous Bible content exam, surviving CPE (clinical pastoral education) and navigating several presbytery inquisitions like a rat sniffing out landmines, nothing could stop me. The mere chance to embody and express what I knew to be true about Christ’s church had me shouting “Here I am Lord!” with hopeless abandon.

However, the circumstances of my personal life made seeking a traditional call nearly impossible. My spouse, Rob, was establishing his medical practice. Our 6-month-old bundle of colicky joy, Joe, neither slept nor silenced. And one month after graduation, news of a forthcoming second baby left us speechless. This was not how we planned it. This was not simply a dream deferred, it was an identity crisis. Between sippy-cups and diapers, the deep connection to seminary had fallen away, but the whisper of God’s voice had not. When baby Maeve turned 8 weeks old, I hired a babysitter and humbly accepted an invitation to plan adult Christian education for Selwyn Avenue Presbyterian Church (where I had previously interned) on a very part-time, contractual basis. Although the paycheck just covered childcare, I was elated. While the confident shout of readiness for ordination had been muzzled by circumstance, it was not silenced. Unfeasible or not, local or not, the soft voice in my soul beckoned me to timidly browse the Church Leadership Connection (CLC) website for what could be possible.

The CLC is the Presbyterian Church’s version of eHarmony: Connecting like-minded pastors and churches for lasting relationships. The website is phenomenally efficient and comprehensive. The top-notch staff, hopeful language and detailed instructions are helpful and welcoming.

But a few clicks on the CLC quickly revealed that the traditional call system was not created for leaders like me. My husband’s vocation provided our family with financial stability, but his hours were demanding. Like many primary caregivers, I also required what Harvard researcher and professor Claudia Goldin deems “temporary flexibility.” In a 2016 NPR radio interview with Ari Shapiro, Goldin explained that the gender pay gap does not always indicate discrimination, but instead may reflect “the high cost to maintain flexible hours conducive to caring for a family.” This reality affects caregivers regardless of gender, although statistics in our denomination may indicate it impacts women more.

According to Cargal, the 2016 comparative statistics generated by OGA indicates women represent 55 percent of the current candidates for ministry, but only about 30 percent of all PC(USA) pastors. Reports of gender equality within the roles of associate pastors (352 men/432 women) and temporary supply pastors (409 men/410 women) are encouraging. However, gender bias is a reality the church must continue to address. The glass ceiling to solo and senior pastorates (3,059 men/1,064 women) is likely buttressed (in part) by a caregiver’s need for flexibility. Along with a few doubters looming around the committee on preparation for ministry, I was beginning to wonder if the whole thing was a bad idea. With hundreds of congregations looking for pastors, not one on the CLC website expressed a willingness to extend a call to the likes of me. Indeed, it would take over two years before God’s “yes” at Selwyn, would drown the many times I heard “no” along the way.

Even without the vocational assurances provided to previous generations, those who graduated from seminary in the last 10 years are neither disillusioned nor naïve about the church we have inherited. Yes, we know Protestantism is in decline. We know many of our long-standing churches are rooted in struggling neighborhoods, and often they can no longer afford full-time pastors. And yes, we are acutely aware that 49 percent of all Presbyterian ministers are at least 66 years old and many still serve congregations. Recent data generated by the OGA and shared by Cargal at the 2016 Big Tent conference remarkably predicts 75 percent of all pastors in the PC(USA) will be over the age of 65 by 2026.

Bold, hopeful futures

Yet, we are hopeful. The call to ministry is rarely rational. While we refuse to believe Christ is finished with his church, we also refuse to wait around for 10 years to “see what happens.” In these troubled times, congregations are wrestling with what it means to be the church, and many are pursuing creative staffing models to address their leadership needs. Numerous contracted, ordained pastors are serving in part-time, temporary, bivocational or designated capacities as they push their communities to find creative and bold ways to exhibit the kingdom of heaven to the world.

While various organizations are diligently attempting to respond to the changes in our topography, we do not yet have a handle on what is happening beneath the surface. By design, our denomination is decentralized. Agencies have struggled to produce comprehensive vocational data over the last several years. This is frustrating. Thankfully, the Presbyterian Board of Pensions has diligently worked in partnership with the Office of the General Assembly to provide comprehensive data regarding the demographics and call characteristics of the 3,000 ministers we have ordained over the last 10 years (as well as other statistics). Without a thorough reckoning of who our modern ministers truly are and where they are serving, we cannot faithfully support them as they lead our denomination through this exciting time of transition.

To be sure, the cracks in our system have allowed some light to shine in. Many emerging leaders are pursuing validated ministries as counselors, artists, evangelists or organizers (to name a few) while expressing their calls to ordained ministry in profound and transformative ways. Also, new pathways to traditional pastoral leadership are being forged by those previously marginalized by our denomination. For those who are competent and committed, access to leadership is the first step toward equity.

Certainly the ambiguity of this reality makes it difficult to fully embrace these new models of ministry. Yet, an unwillingness to change how we affirm and support these pastors is a reflection of our fear and mistrust. While diverse staffing models reflect national workforce trends, we all must challenge ourselves to honor these calls with both a hopeful application of our theological language and flexible vocational solutions sustained by our polity. Otherwise we risk reducing the office of teaching elder to that of a hired employee, while ostracizing some of our most gifted and passionate leaders.

Searching and finding

Recently ordained, icic Thomas serves as the interim pastor of Siloam Presbyterian Church in Brooklyn, New York. Upon graduating from Johnson C. Smith Theological Seminary in 2013, Thomas began pursuing a doctorate in New Testament and cultural studies at Drew University in Madison, New Jersey. After concurrently serving as the Christian educator at First Presbyterian Church of Brooklyn, New York, for two years, he began searching for a pastoral call. Quickly, he learned the path to ordained ministry would require high levels of patience, networking and resiliency. In a recent interview I conducted with Thomas he stated, “There is a precarious gap between the searching and the finding.”

Eric Thomas with co-moderators Denise Anderson and Jan Edmiston

Thomas expressed a frustration shared by many new pastors. The CLC system presented both inquiries and rejection letters from churches he never applied to, and the self-referral system often felt like a “bottomless pit.” In his experience, search committees often seemed overwhelmed and occasionally they were unresponsive or unclear on their process. While most part-time positions are not listed on the CLC, some remain listed well past their expiration date. As of November 1, 2017, the CLC reports 1,838 teaching elders and 197 candidates are seeking new calls. While 548 churches are formally seeking new leaders, only 117 (21 percent) are open to first-call pastors. The search narrows significantly for pastors hoping to serve a racial-ethnic or multiethnic congregation. Search committees are not required to post or remove their information, which further limits the accuracy of the CLC database. From pastor to congregation, presbytery to agency, we are all responsible for this mess. In speaking towards God’s sovereignty, Thomas laments, “I wonder if our system doesn’t misrepresent the Spirit sometimes.”

Still, his call to Siloam Presbyterian Church is a good fit. As a church in transition, they are ready for his bold leadership, and he plans to finish his doctorate work while ministering part time. Acknowledging his call was revealed by word of mouth as opposed to the formal CLC system, he remains overwhelmingly grateful for his call. Upon reflection he states, “In some ways, ordination [felt like] a human affirmation of what God and I had known for sometime.”

The call landscape

While more first-call positions were available than candidates seeking ordination 15 or 20 years ago, conclusions should not be drawn regarding the incongruity of these numbers. Nevertheless, they highlight the potential cultural shifts affecting both congregations and pastors. As budgets have narrowed for many churches, so have the margins for error. Inversely, the expectations for pastors have increased. The unspoken message from several churches remains something like this: We are open to whomever God is sending, but deep down we hope to find Jesus – married to a woman – with two (well-behaved) children. If he has the ability to attract young people, double the budget and charm the Presbyterian Women, even better. By the way, his salary will reflect the fact that this is a first call.

This scenario presents an impossible situation for many emerging leaders. The Presbyterian Board of Pensions indicates the national median income for full-time Presbyterian pastors in 2017 is $57,300. According to a national study generated by the think tank New America, the national average cost of full-time childcare in 2016 is a whopping $9,589 per child. While Jesus did not have childcare to consider, pastors with spouses often rely on two incomes. In many cases, this causes them to be geographically bound. A friend who has served as the head of staff of a vibrant mid-sized congregation for eight years recently shared: “They tell us that we are supposed to say, ‘Here I am Lord, send me!’ But I can’t go. This call to my family is real, and the call to family is very different than it was 20 years ago. Now supporting a family includes supporting a wife who also works.”

As his gifts for ministry mature, the call to grow in his vocation becomes louder. However, many search committees hesitate to consider someone within their presbytery. Occasionally committees call in pursuit of his gifts – only to question his faithfulness as he expresses the dilemma. It stings. More than once, I have been asked by both well-intentioned friends and search committee chairs if I was “truly open to God’s call.” And more than once I have assured them that even though I was, the Red Sea would need to part in order to make it happen. As our families grow and change, so do the possibilities.

My seven-year stint as a temporary supply pastor raised some eyebrows, but ours has always been a relationship of mutual trust. Each year we aligned their needs with my gifts in a symbiotic way, and I was enrolled in our denomination’s benefit plan. As the church grew, so did my availability. Our relationship was guided and fortified by a remarkable senior pastor who later became my co-pastor. Together, we model the benefits of shared intergenerational leadership (albeit imperfectly) with deep hope. While I have felt lonely in ministry, I have never felt alone. For this, I am grateful.

Responding to vocational needs in a changing landscape
Debi Madden

Incidentally, as my role at Selwyn expanded, so did my access to resources of support. For my friends who serve bivocationally, I am more concerned. Debi Madden has served Kirkwood Presbyterian Church in rural North Carolina for nine years. Although Kirkwood is small and aging, they are alive and steeped in mission. She says: “Kirkwood Presbyterian was called by God 75 years ago to be a vital witness to Jesus Christ, and we are determined to remain a witness until such time we close our doors. Even after those doors are shut, it is our hope that we continue to bear witness, perhaps just in a different form.” When I asked how she maintains a sense of solidarity with colleagues in ministry, Madden explained that she struggles. The commute to her full-time job as a clinical supervisor and substance abuse counselor is 90 minutes. She has been unable to attend a presbytery meeting in over five years, lacks financial resources for continuing education and, without enrollment in the Presbyterian benefits plan, does not have access to the extensive care offered by the Board of Pensions. When asked if her pastorate was worth the stress, she immediately responded: “I am exhausted, but honestly I love my little congregation and they love me. Bivocational ministry is an important aspect of our presbytery, [however] it is a challenge for [them to become] more welcoming toward bivocational ministers. I love our denomination, but I am faced with the challenge of working two jobs and doing them both well.”

To shroud uncertainty in theological language or excuse institutional malaise by clinging to antiquated policies prevents us from sustaining leaders with responsible care. Moreover, the misuse of our connectional polity as a means for policing or gatekeeping instead of its creative and hopeful application not only reveals fear, but it is Pharisaical. With 653 candidates called to serve Christ’s church, it is incumbent upon those of us who are interested in the vitality of the PC(USA) to comprehensively and boldly renovate our structures of support by revolutionizing the way we apply our theology and express our polity within the vocational system.

We are connecting and moving in new ways. Seminaries, denominational agencies, congregations and movements like NEXT Church are modeling collaboration as a way to equip and connect leaders across the country. The PC(USA) has weathered a storm or two, but today we proclaim unity, not sameness. Efforts like Trent@Montreat for the newly ordained, The Way Forward Commission and the Board of Pension’s expanded CREDO program prove that our institution is moving in the right direction. Yet, our ability to compassionately respond to the vocational needs of our churches will greatly improve once we begin to intentionally and collectively embrace all of those who are called by God to lead Christ’s church.

Lori Archer Raible is a co-pastor at Selwyn Avenue Presbyterian Church in Charlotte, North Carolina. She also serves as co-chair for Next Church. NEXT Church seeks to strengthen the relational fabric of the PC(USA) by cultivating congregations and leaders who work in sustained, effective and faithful ways to promote God’s transformation of our communities for the common good.