While I was serving as a District Superintendent, working with some fifty United Methodist churches and other ministries, it became clear that a strong working relationship between ministers and people in our congregations was vital to strong, healthy churches. Where there were healthy, functioning relationships with cooperation and clear communication, churches thrived.
When this relationship did not function well, the church or ministry struggled to be effective. Happy, energetic leaders make a positive difference in our ministry together.
John Maxwell says, “Everything rises and falls on leadership,” yet the way we provide leadership in our churches is changing. In America’s early days, most churches did not have a local pastor. As the population moved west, it outpaced churches’ ability to provide pastors in the frontier.
As the population settled, so did the pastors, and our United Methodist Church did a remarkable job of connecting churches with pastoral leaders. In fact, the Methodist Church was the only denomination in Oklahoma that provided a church in every county in the state.
In the last hundred years, the population has shifted dramatically from rural to urban areas, once again requiring a change in leadership and staffing configurations. We are now seeing a rise in part-time pastors and bi-vocational pastors serving, especially in our smaller churches.
Since the United Methodist Church has a minimum salary requirement, many of our shrinking churches can no longer afford a full-time pastor like they could a few years ago. Therefore, we are training and deploying many more people designated as “local pastors.” (Local pastors have some seminary training but have not completed a masters level seminary degree or the full ordination process for United Methodist clergy).
We are also seeing a shift in the staffing of larger churches from mostly clergy to an increasing number of lay staff members leading in a variety of ministry areas. In recent research, total dollars spent on lay staff exceeded that for ordained clergy. In the same study it was reported that “between 2002 and 2012, the number of churches spending $100,000 or more on lay staff increased by 32 percent.” (Dr. Ann A. Michel, Lewis Center for Church Leadership)
We have seen that same trend here at Boston Avenue. When I served here fifteen years ago, I was one of nine ordained clergy. We now have five clergy.
Our staff is not smaller; we just have more lay people filling those staff slots. Another way to think of it is that we have shifted from general pastoral leadership to specialized ministry leadership.
Another change we see is that there are more women in ministry leadership. Some churches are still hesitant about having a female clergy leader, but most churches have learned through experience that female ministers, like males, bring a variety of personalities and skill sets.
Effectiveness is increasingly gauged not by gender, but by performance in the ministry setting. Fifteen years ago we had five women out of thirteen on our program staff. Today we have eight out of fourteen on staff at Boston Avenue.
We also find that a larger portion of pastors in our denomination are over 55 years of age. If you recall the earlier discussion of age in Part 4, you remember that the aging of our clergy parallels the overall aging of our constituency.
Ten years ago, this “over 55” group represented about a third of our clergy. Today that is closer to half of all clergy.
We also observe a significant number of people going to seminary after an earlier career in a different field, rather than following a path straight from high school through college and seminary into full-time ministry.
Gil Rendle observes that change in our time is coming faster and is larger, more continual and more immediate than ever before. He distinguishes between two kinds of change. One is technical change, where we see a problem and we know how to fix it. In the second, adaptive change, we see the problem but do not know how to fix it.
He and others observe that traditional churches are in a time of adaptive change.
Rendle uses a metaphor of the wilderness, drawing on the exodus of the Hebrew people as a model for us to consider during this kind of change. He says it appears that Moses did not always have a ready answer for problems they faced, yet living in the wilderness provided energy, new thinking, and new behavior. It also generated more trust in God, resulting in renewed hope and faithful living.
He notes that out of that time in the wilderness, amazingly, came the Ten Commandments. (Journey In The Wilderness)
Despite changing ratios of ages or genders or ethnicities in a staff or congregation, it is important that the leadership serves the congregation and leads it in taking the next faithful step in ministry. It is important for our ministerial leaders to create and nurture that vital link of clergy and laity working together to fulfill God’s call in a particular congregation. I believe we are doing that at Boston Avenue.
In spite of the challenging cultural changes that all churches face, I believe we are on the right track. Interfaith experiences like Open Tables and the Interfaith Trialogue help us build relationships with other faith groups in our city. New Sunday School classes and other groups are being formed to reach more young adults, and mid-week worship opportunities may accommodate those who travel on weekends or have Sunday conflicts.
New local ministries like Sistema Tulsa and COMPassion dinner invite all ages to be involved in hands-on mission.
As always, it helps us gain proper perspective when we remember that this church was engaged in ministry before we arrived, and will be engaged in ministry long after we are gone. God is alive and working for good.
It is also significant to remember that, within the body of Christ, we each have a role to play. It is my fervent hope, while we are here, that each of us will search and pray so that we successfully find and fulfill our role in faithful service to the glory of God in this time and place.