Friday, January 27, 2023

Minister Shortage

 But to each one of us grace has been given as Christ apportioned it….

     So Christ himself gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the pastors and teachers, to equip his people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up (Ephesians 4:7, 11-12, NIV)

My friend Bobby Ross, Editor-in-Chief at the Christian Chronicle, has put together a series of stories about a shortage of ministers — the role Christians from other “tribes” often refer to as “pastors” — in Churches of Christ. In an editorial, Bobby lists some reasons for the shortage: lack of money (especially in small churches), lack of faith (“Many adult Christians have lost their heart for the Lord’s work, and their children can see it. Why would anyone expect those kids to view ministry as a valuable pursuit?”), lack of unity (“Who can pass the litmus tests imposed by many congregations? And who wants to try?”), and lack of respect (“Way too often, we treat ministers in harsh ways that must make our children and even strangers in our communities shudder.”) 

     The stories specifically address the situation in Churches of Christ, but I think Christians in other fellowships will recognize the shortage as well. 

     While I appreciate Bobby’s editorial, and know that it does describe some real issues in our churches, I can’t really relate personally. I’ve been well-cared-for and well-treated, with love and grace. I’m surrounded by people who want to do the Lord’s work. I’ve almost never felt disrespected, even by those who disagree with me. 

     But I do know good ministers who loved the Lord and his church who have been slandered, gossiped about, and whose spouses and children have been embittered toward the church by the way they were treated. 

     I know ministers who have stuck with churches where their every mistake is magnified, even though in doing so they’re ruining themselves financially, only to be fired over some ridiculous “issue.”

     I know ministers who have had severance packages withheld if they don’t agree to tell the church they resigned instead of that they were fired. (That’s more common than you think.) 

     I know ministers who are never allowed to miss a Sunday. (It’s not a vacation if you have to preach Sunday!) 

     I know ministers who have left, and who say they’re treated far better by the companies they now work for than they ever were by the church. 

     Every job has its challenges. Everyone works hard at their job and sometimes feels unappreciated. But ministers have a job that merges with their faith, and it can be hard to separate their role with the church from their acceptance by God. They’re always on the clock. If they get divorced, in most cases their job ends. If they live in a church-owned home, and their job ends, they have to move. Many struggle to find decent healthcare, or buy a home, or save for retirement.

     Sometimes, the problem is just that churches can’t really afford to pay a livable salary, but think a full-time ministry pro is a necessity for growth, or for outreach in the community, or for ministry to get done. Sometimes I see churches’ posts as they search for a minister. Some say that they can provide “some support,” which means the minister will need to get a second job, or spend a lot of his time fund-raising. Fine, but the job descriptions always sound pretty full-time. Some describe a salary range that you could get at jobs that are a lot less spiritually and emotionally draining. Almost none include health care. I think many churches count on the fact that their applicants will be people who have a calling to serve the Lord and his church and will accept less than they legitimately need, convinced that the Lord will take care of them.         

     I saw one recently, no kidding, where use of a riding mower was included as compensation. Which makes me think that church is also trying to hire a groundskeeper!

     So here’s a suggestion for one possible solution to the minister shortage in Churches of Christ….

     Let’s recognize that a full-time, compensated staff person is not an absolute necessity for every church. 

     What if smaller churches did what they do well, instead of worrying about having a professional to do ministry? Need someone to preach a sermon or two a week, or teach some classes? There may be some people in that church who would thrive if they had that opportunity. Pay them something for their time and work, if you can, and then turn that responsibility over to them. Oh, you might hear some clunkers some Sundays — then again, you probably will from a pro minister as well!

   “But who’ll visit people in hospitals,” you ask? I’m so glad you asked that question! You will! Not just you, of course, but the church takes care of one another — we shouldn’t be paying someone to do that work for us, anyway. Same goes for reaching out to unchurched people. Studying the Bible. Teaching classes. Running service ministries. We have almost-limitless resources literally at our fingertips for all of those things. Churches could turn money they’d put into a lower-than-average preacher’s compensation package into outreach efforts, college- and post-grad level Bible classes for those who preach and teach, service ministries, kids’s classes, missionary support, help for the poor, a strong youth group, and so on. The possibilities are limited only by our imaginations.

     I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with a church having a professional on staff. I have, after all, made a living as a ministry professional for almost 30 years. I do think a pro can be a blessing to a church, in many ways, and there’ll always be a demand for people who can fill that role. 

     I’m just saying that there’s nothing wrong with a church that doesn’t have one. I think too many churches tie up too many resources in securing the services of ministers who can’t afford to stay for more than a year or two, or who probably shouldn’t be there at all. 

     Not having a professional minister on staff motivates churches to find and develop local talent. You may discover potential and opportunity you didn’t know you had already in the pews — if you have a reason to look for it. Not having a pro on staff gives you a good reason.              

     In Ephesians, Paul points out that it’s grace poured out by Jesus that equips the church for works of service — “service” there being a form of a word that we often translate “servant” or “minister.” So it’s Jesus who creates ministers, not a salary and compensation package. Jesus, of course, said that those who are great in the kingdom of God are “servants” — same word, sometimes translated “ministers.” He goes on to say that this is following in his example, since he came not to be served, but to serve. Jesus came to minister. And equips his church for ministry.

     My guess is, then, that you already have ministers in your church. You already have people who know that service, ministry, is the highest value in the kingdom of God, and who have received God’s grace in the form of gifts and abilities. All they may need is some trust, a little investment in their growth, and the opportunity to use the grace Jesus has given them to serve — minister — to the church and to the community.

     It we take that seriously, we’ll make a large dent in the “minister shortage,” even if we don’t increase enrollment in seminaries at all. Because we’ll all be doing ministry.

     And then we won’t have to worry that we’re paying ministry professionals with lawn equipment!  

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