August 01, 2015

Has the national trend of fewer elders, more local pastors - particularly part-time pastors - been evident in the Missouri Conference? If so, what accounts for it?

A few years ago, the Missouri Conference commissioned a Clergy Trends Study by the Lewis Center for Church Leadership and they found that during the ten years from 2002 to 2012, the number of congregations using full-time elders in our conference had decreased by 123. The number using part-time local pastors increased by 49 and the number using lay ministers, part-time retirees, etc, had increased by 42.

It’s helpful to remember that in our conference (with 799 churches), the average worship attendance in the ten largest churches matches the average worship attendance of the 501 smallest churches. Local pastors help us significantly at both ends of the spectrum. Full-time and part-time local pastors fill critical staff positions in all our largest congregations, and part-time local pastors and lay ministers are our best way of giving leadership to many of these churches.

Local pastors are typecast as keeping the doors open in small churches. But in some conferences they are serving in mid-size or even large churches, as senior pastor or on staff. In other places they’re planting churches or leading outreach to Hispanics or other groups the UMC hasn’t done that well with. What are the roles you’re seeing them in Missouri?

As for full-time licensed local pastors, we assign them and appoint them according to how their gifts for ministry match the mission field and the congregation. We do not presume that every elder is somehow more gifted than every local pastor.

Therefore, we have local pastors serving as senior pastors of large congregations, in senior staff positions in large churches, as new church start pastors, and on the conference staff as directors.

Here are few examples: 

What’s the upside to more local pastors, generally speaking?

I distinguish between full-time licensed local pastors and part-time licensed local pastors in this answer. People become part-time local pastors to fill a critical missional role, especially in our small churches.

We have hundreds of churches with fewer than 40 people in attendance, and many with fewer than 20. These congregations require only a few hours work a week, and therefore cannot offer much compensation. No one can move across the state to take a 10-hour/ week job, and so the answer has to be found nearby. That’s how we find and develop so many part time LP’s; they are active UMs from within the community or from nearby congregations. The upside is having people available for part time service in places otherwise unreachable by itinerant ministry.

People become full-time local pastors mostly because their family or work situation does not allow them to relocate for three years or more of on-site seminary education. Or, they feel called to full-time, life-long ministry and take a lay position on a large church staff, and then pursue their educational requirements while working full time. The upside is having gifted people serving in ministry who do not have access to seminary education.

If there’s a downside, what is it?

The downside of having an increasing number of local pastors with a decreasing number of elders derives from the rather complicated educational tracking and sometimes patchwork curriculum that can stretch over so many years for local pastors to continue their educations.

Also, deploying hundreds of local pastors multiplies administrative complexity because of the many supervisory and mentoring requirements, annual interviews with district committees, and the limited sacramental authority of local pastors that requires linking them with elders for some ministries.

The “local” in local pastors means that their authority, sacramental and otherwise, is limited to one location, the local church where they are assigned. It is also localized in time, meaning that their credentials are good for one year at a time and they must be reviewed and reaffirmed annually. With hundreds of local pastors, this requires extraordinary administrative work.