Where do pastors come from?
Churches tend to behave as if pastors are a special kind of cyborg incubated for years in dusty seminary libraries and delivered, fully formed, to congregations as needed. It’s as if the shortage of pastors has something to do with the air quality of the seminary library or not enough dust on the shelves.
But generally, the pastoral path begins with one of three experiences: internal call, external call, or sense of obligation (legacy). Internal call does not necessarily come from inside of a person, but refers to any internal emotional experience in which a person encounters the divine and, as a result, feels compelled to enter ministry. That internal call can be supplemented by an external call, that is, trusted adults who affirm and invite an individual to participate and vision themselves in church leadership. (I have heard it said that women and LGBTQ people are more likely to experience an internal call first and heterosexual men are more likely to experience an external call first, because sexism, but I don’t know have the data to back this up.) Lastly, some people begin to pastor out of a sense of obligation, typically because they come from a family of pastors and the community expects them to do this work. This can be a set up for disaster, but many times, obligation blends organically with external and internal calls.
Most pastors experience both internal and external calls before they begin formal ministry, which means that it is us—collective adult churchgoers—who bear significant responsibility for identifying new pastors. Seminaries educate pastors, but these pastors come from the daily work of churches.
Which means that a decline in the number of pastors reflects something about churches rather than people. Churches no longer know how or they no longer believe their role is to call new pastors. Consider: how many new pastors has your church produced in the last decade? Two decades?
There’s limited utility in blaming churches for their struggle to pay people to serve them—blame doesn’t solve problems, and certainly denominational leadership and pastors themselves have demonstrated a short-sightedness in failing to nurture upcoming talent. The church has no coherent leadership development pipeline, and it shows.
The solution, then, lies in asking these questions: What can the church do to make ministry a more viable career? What does it look like when churches are intentionally calling their members—both young people and adults—into leadership? How do we affirm the gifts we notice in other people?
From the time I was about 15, my home congregation invested heavily in my leadership development, identifying retreats and theological summer camps and conferences, as well as inviting me to preach, serve on committees, complete a paid summer internship, and volunteer in other roles. The church invested significantly in my education at a denominationally-affiliated college, and their contributions covered roughly one full year of classes and saved me about $30,000 in college loans (before interest). They also provided financial support my first year of seminary, before they decided I had too much scholarship money from the school and discouraged me from asking for additional support if I was going to use the money for such ridiculous things as gas, rent, and living expenses (it was for books and tuition only, I was told).
Small moments of committee-driven discouragement aside, my home church made it easy for me to say yes to ministry. They invested in me with the church’s time, talent, and treasure. They made me feel that it was totally natural and reasonable for young women to become congregational leaders and affirmed my internal call.
Here are a few additional ways we can make it easier for people to say yes to pastoral roles:
- Hire internally for the short term. In this bottleneck of pastoral supply, it makes a lot of sense to bring current attendees into 1-2 year paid roles both as a benefit for the church and to allow these members stepping stones to make other career transitions, whether post-college or into retirement. These laypeople may not have the passion or skills to stay in the role long-term, but relying on the old school Anabaptist practice of distributed, short-term leadership could be beneficial for both congregations and individual leaders.
- Churches—supported by denominational leadership—should collect data to identify barriers to entry into ministry. Is the biggest barrier the high cost of graduate education, the low pay rate for most positions, the lack of boundaries and limited vacation time, the challenge of being given a stipend to “find your own healthcare” on the exchanges? Survey current pastors and seminary students and comb through existing data about what workers desire to identify 1-2 priority areas where church practices can be updated to better support the individuals in leadership roles.
- Search committees can review and revise their job descriptions in light of feedback from potential candidates and denominational leaders supporting the search process. This could include best equity practices like displaying the salary on the job description, describing benefits, or reviewing which job requirements are requirements and which are preferences. It could also include adding a section such as “People who tend to thrive in this role have the following characteristics…” or “This is a good fit for people with background in [insert non-church career areas, ie., social work, music, education, customer service, etc.].”
- Speaking of boundaries and benefits, can you imagine a pastoral job description that pays a pastor for 12 months with one full month off every year? I can. It sounds like heaven. Rewriting rest into the job description—and committing to it and creating structures to support it—will make a position more attractive.
- Search committees can also take the dramatic step of removing some of the job responsibilities. Because job descriptions are typically written by committees that have never worked in pastoral roles, they tend to write in too many job responsibilities. Recently, I was sent a job description that included four distinct competency areas and tasks that fell on all seven days of the week, within a 75% time role. I had a visceral gag reaction reading the job description. If you want to make a position more attractive, reduce the amount of things you’re asking one person to do. There’s nothing more beautiful than a job description that fits on two pages.
- Rely on cross-denominational hires. As denominations shrink and workers seek to live in areas that best fit their needs, it makes more sense to find someone who has the skills who can learn the traditions. This often feels risky, and it is, but if you believe that pastoral skills are essential, then you have to trust that the traditions can be learned. Or you can add a couple of years to your search timeline.
- Churches who are looking for pastors—and those who are settled with a pastor who makes them very happy and will stay forever and ever amen—must ask themselves, “What are we doing to call forward the gifts in our own congregation?” How are we creating a culture of call and invitation? Are people given the chance to practice the pastoral role—through invitations to leadership, financial support for education and training, and affirmation of passions and competencies? At this point, churches must play the long game in order to play the short game. Calling forward new leaders (whether they choose paid congregational positions or other roles in church leadership) clarifies and strengthens the search for a new pastor.
The church is in a labor shortage largely of its own making. It will take years to rebuild a leadership pipeline and it will require intentional change in culture and practice. Which is all the more reason to start now.