Sunday, December 11, 2011

A Crisis of Expectations

What We're Looking for Often Doesn't Look the Way We'd Expect
In a recent post on her Christian Century blog, Carol Howard Merritt raised some interesting questions about the significant challenges facing younger clergy seeking congregations in our denomination.

Long and short of it?

You come out of undergrad, all bright eyed and bushy-tailed for Jesus.  You crank your way through seminary, eagerly sopping up the latest and most cutting edge scholarship while racking up three more years worth of student debt.   You heave your way through countless Committee for Preparation for Ministry meetings, take those dagflabbing Ords, retake them, and then then drop your PIF out there into the world.

You're not asking for much...just a salary sufficient to support a new small family.  Oh, and a diverse, urban congregation that reflects your passion for liberation theology and/or LBGTQ justice.  And it should be near public transportation.  And willing to try exciting new emergent-ish worship.  And able to get you a new super fast 3G smartphone as part of your reimbursables.

There are a few wonderful, perfectly-primed for seminarian-dreams churches like this.  Seminarians have no hope of getting them.  Ain't gonna happen, kids.  That church will go to someone with fifteen years of experience and a doctorate.  Ninety-nine-point-nine-seven-five percent of the time, your PIF won't even make the B pile.

Instead, you'll be tracked into Youth Ministry, because that's the place the Good Lord calls everyone under 40.  What?  Not called to Youth Ministry?  Not under 40?   Hmmm.   That could be problematic. 

It isn't that there aren't plenty of churches out there that could use a pastor.  There are plenty of vacant pulpits, churches that would be happy to have you.  But they are, for the most part, in rural and small town churches that often can't afford to support a full-time pastor.

Sort of like mine.

My church is an awesome little congregation.  It's welcoming, multigenerational, and warm.  It laughs, is supportive, and loves music.  But what it isn't is large and well-off.  We're the fifth largest church in our modest town, and our town has five churches.  Size matters not in matters of Force and the Spirit, of course, but there are implications.

It does what it can with what it has, and knows how to make do.   But I see the giving figures, which are great given the size of the community and the real impacts of our sustained economic downturn.  Even with people committing amounts that reflect their deep care for the church, a full-timer just isn't an option.  It doesn't reflect the reality on the ground. 

There are thousands of churches like this, in all of the oldline denominations.  They are not bad churches. Some are amazing.  But from the demand side, they just can't meet the expectations of most seminary graduates.   Many could support a single person, living a neomonastic life.  But a family?  No, not unless you teach the kids to photosynthesize. 

If that is the reality, scope and actuality of things, then what must change?