Tent-makers, part-timers, and the future of congregational leadership
by Stacy Smith
Ten years ago, when I was in college and first considering seminary, I was blessed to be part of substantial and dynamic ministries that encouraged me to pursue ordination. As an Austin College ACtivator and a leader in various PCUSA events, I was told that I was the future of the church. The PCUSA was only going to survive if people like me looked at that 7% statistic square in the face and said, “I’m young, I’m cool (relatively speaking), and I want to be a pastor.” There are a lot of us who felt the same way and many of my friends and future colleagues signed up for seminary. Some thrived, some dropped out, some realized soon enough that seminary was not perpetual church camp, and some, God bless ’em, landed that job at Mo Ranch or Montreat and figured out a way that it could be.
What struck me at NEXT, and has continued to challenge me in the past few months, is how it seems the narrative has shifted. Now, instead of “Go to seminary and save the church!” the narrative seems to be “Go to seminary – but don’t expect a job when you’re done.” The financial challenges of the church, and the whole country, have created a situation in which older folks aren’t retiring and younger folks have fewer job options – a situation that is certainly not unique to the church. But there are a lot of young seminary graduates who face a significantly different church than when they started school. Without a full-time church job, it can be much more difficult to get ordained, and programs like the Lilly Endowment’s Transition-into-Ministry (of which I was a participant) enable young leaders to pursue ordination but don’t guarantee employment when the program is finished. If we keep going this way, we face the possibility of many dedicated, excited young people who will spend years struggling to serve in the capacity to which they were called and for which they are trained.
The answer is not, I believe, that we need more paid positions. That answer is neither practical nor particularly biblical. Instead, we need to reexamine our expectations for teaching elders, reconsider how and why we ordain people into ministry, and provide opportunities for stronger lay leadership. We (and by we, I am including myself and my colleagues) need to stop thinking that the Holy Grail of PCUSA Ordination is $50K as an associate at a big steeple church, eventually leading to $150K as the senior at said big steeple church. Instead, we should think creatively and expansively about how we can “pastor a church” while earning our income from someplace else. Thousands of ministers do just that, especially in smaller denominations and independent churches. By thinking differently about how and where we serve, we can learn new skills, enjoy greater flexibility in our ministries, and gain better understanding of those dedicated ruling elders who struggle to balance their work commitments and their commitment to congregational leadership.
This is not to say that we need teaching elders to spend more time working, working, and then, in their free time, working at little bit more. In fact, finding new ministry opportunities for lay leaders and tent-makers can positively impact the depressingly bad statistics of clergy health. By shifting our expectations, reimagining our leadership structure, and encouraging young teaching elders to think a little differently about ministry, we can take necessary steps toward a dynamic and financially-sound PCUSA.
Stacy Smith is a parish associate at Idlewild Presbyterian Church and the manager of faith community outreach at the Church Health Center in Memphis, TN. With Ashley-Anne Masters, she is the co-author of “Bless Her Heart: Life as a Young Clergy Woman” published in 2011 by Chalice Press.