Q & A with Bishop Robert Schnase on Local Pastors


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: 
  • Morningstar UMC, O’Fallon (a St. Louis suburb) is one of our fastest growing churches. It’s 15 years old and has an average worship attendance of over 2000. Alan Bugg serves as Executive Pastor (2nd only to senior pastor), Jim Peich as Connections Pastor, Keith Langland does pastoral care, including celebrate recovery. All three are full-time licensed local pastors. 
  • Troy Merseal is a FT local pastor serving as site pastor at the Wright City new satellite church that is an extension of Sunrise UMC, another St. Louis area church. In fact, most of our site pastors at second or third sites started by larger churches are local pastors.  
  • Dennis Miller serves as senior pastor of Aldersgate UMC in Nixa. The church’s average worship attendance is 650. His two associate pastors are also licensed local pastors.  
  • Oakton UMC, in Oakton, MO grew in attendance from 70 to over 200 under the leadership of Larry Garfield, a FT licensed local pastor. When he retired, we appointed his son, Kent, as senior pastor, and the congregation grew in attendance to over 400. Kent supervises a new Hispanic ministries site that is served by another FTLP, Ymbar Polanco.  
  • Brett Cheek serves as teaching pastor at LaCroix UMC in Cape Girardeau, MO. He regularly preaches to three services at LaCroix with a total of over 2000 in attendance. Brett, like several other FTLP’s, is actually a seminary graduate, but has chosen local pastor credentials rather than our ordination process.  
  • Marsha West Eichler served on staff of a larger church as a FTLP, but now serves as lead pastor of First UMC in Washington and is doing a great job of leading this church in a new direction.  
  • In our conference office, the Director of Mission, Service, and Justice Ministries, Jeff Baker, is a FTLP. As a Director, he serves as a cabinet level supervisor. And Joan DeBoe, serves full-time in finance and administration for us, while also preaching on Sundays in a nearby church.

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.