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Research Report Series 4.2: 
Finding Leaders at All for Part-Time and Rural Parishes

Adair T. Lummis

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Regional leaders generally find helping congregations get the best clergy for openings paying good full-time salaries a far more pleasant and productive use of their time than trying to find clergy for congregations at a distance from urban areas, offering low clergy salaries.   It is probably fair to say that the great majority of regional judicatories have at least several and sometimes many congregations with open pulpits that cannot pay enough to attract a full-time pastor.  Regional leaders’ experiences, experiments and solutions in trying to find pastors for rural parishes and part-time positions are the focus of this report.   

Deployment Problems with Finding Clergy for Small Parishes

To summarize points made in Report 4.1 Getting Pastors for Congregations with Full-time Positions, regional leaders interviewed encountered difficulty in getting newly ordained seminary graduates to accept the kind of full-time positions open to entry-level clergy.  These pastoral openings are most likely to be congregations in small towns, rural areas, or depressed urban locations with very modest salary packages.  These positions may have rewards other than purely monetary ones through offering opportunities to provide very needed pastoral leadership, members who clearly appreciate their pastor’s ministry, and in some locations beautiful scenery and relaxed living conditions.  (Like congregations anywhere, however, small towns and rural churches can be conflicted or controlled by disagreeable lay leaders who resist change).  

Regional officials attributed reluctance of seminary graduates to take such entry-level pastorates partly due to these recent graduates’ having unrealistic expectations of the kind of church positions available for them.  Regional officials, however, also noted a number of reality problems faced by new seminary graduates accepting pulpits of congregations in distant rustic settings: 

  • Many recently ordained clergy are in their thirties and forties, and have a family they need to support. Supporting a family these days for clergy usually requires the clergy spouse also being able to find sufficiently remunerative work.   If the congregation is located in an area where opportunities for well-paying secular (or other church) employment are few, the upshot may be that the clergyman or clergywoman either refuses the congregational offer or moves as soon as possibly. This difficulty is compounded if the pastor and spouse both need some secular employment.  The remark made by regional leader is not atypical:   “The church in (New England small town) has been vacant for a year now because oftentimes the pastor has to work in a secular job too, and that is a tough situation up here.”

  • Seminary-educated clergy may not be good pastors for congregations in mill, mining or farming towns. This is likely the case if these clergy do not understand, appreciate, relate to, or communicate well with the people in the church pew or community.   
  • Newly ordained clergy hope to “grow a church”. if they cannot get  position immediately at a large church. However, in order to increase congregational membership, the church must be located in area where enough people live, who are not committed members of other congregations.  Churches in communities far from urban centers where there is low population with more exit out than in, are not likely to grow.  This reality is likely to be very depressing for clergy with entrepreneurial abilities and motivation to increase church membership.   
  • Recent seminary graduates, who hope to move from their first position as pastors of rural or small town congregations to being a pastors of larger, more affluent metropolitan area congregations, may experience greater difficulty in doing so than their classmates pastoring churches in more populated areas. The latter even if they are pastoring small, financially precarious city churches, may be viewed by the calling committees of the multi-staffed congregations as more conversant with ministry in the urban/suburban context and given hiring preference over clergy from rural areas.  

If the above disadvantages discourage seminary graduates from accepting full-time positions in rural and small town congregations, the difficulty in finding clergy for congregations in these locations is exacerbated by the fact that a substantial number can afford only one part-time pastoral position.  This crescent reality has led regional leaders to use a variety of solutions to get ordained leadership for these congregations.     

Solution 1.  Merging or Closing Congregations

If a congregation cannot afford to pay a full-time seminary-educated pastor or even a part-time pastor, one solution is to merge with another congregation in proximity or simply  close. A number of judicatory executives interviewed wished more of their small, stagnant or dying congregations would do just that, as discussed in Research Report 3, “Regional Leaders Ways of Working with Congregations.”   Closing or merging churches, however, is not easy even in denominations which have formal authority over congregations, such as the Episcopal and United Methodist Churches.  Further, judicatory executives may want to keep a denominational presence in an area which is sparsely populated or where few members of the denomination reside.     

Solution 2 “Yoking” Congregations of the Judicatory Under One Pastor or Clergy Team 

2A.  Two and Three Point Charges 

Having one pastor serve two or more congregations is a long standing solution for getting seminary-educated pastors for congregations which cannot afford a full-time pastor of their own, and will not or or cannot merge with another.  In rural areas, this can mean that one full-time  pastor serves two, three and sometimes four small congregations in a twenty-five to fifty-plus mile radius.  This works probably best where the distance between the yoked churches is within an hour’s drive.   However, clergy generally would prefer pastoring one church than having responsibility for two or more, and this is even more likely to be the case where the distances between congregations are greater.   

2 B.  Circuit-Rider

The circuit-rider model of a seminary-educated pastor who visits monthly with each congregation in a widely dispersed regional cluster is an approach particularly favored by judicatories in the more sparsely populated regions of the United States.   In this model the seminary-educated pastor provides oversight and sometimes educational, worship and program resources to the leaders of these far-flung congregations.  These leaders, volunteers within the congregational membership, are typically given some theological and specialized ministry training for preaching, conducting worship, and pastoral duties by their judicatory.  Some of these lay leaders who serve in these various clergy roles are certified or ordained to a restricted status (usually they are limited to ministering in their home congregations as will be discussed later.)   A problem is that this model still calls for an experienced seminary-educated pastor to be the ever-traveling supervisor of widely dispersed congregations.

Another version of this model is basically to use a paid team of seminary-educated clergy, or clergy and lay professionals (Christian educators, church social workers/counselors, choir directors, etc.) to serve a cluster of congregations within an hour or so drive.  This model spreads the responsibility for the congregations among team members, who can also provide ongoing support for one another.   However, the paid team approach may still not be appealing to congregations that want their own pastor and may not be financially feasible if the congregations in the cluster cannot or will not provide sufficient financial support.  (Teams composed of those who volunteer their time will be discussed further later in this report.)     

Solution 3:  The Judicatory Providing Financial Inducements to Pastors Who Will Serve in Rural Congregations

Regional executives in several denominations interviewed are using financial incentives to get seminary-educated clergy to take positions in rural churches, either through augmenting the salary the congregation itself can offer, or paying back part of the educational loans incurred by the pastor.  This solution, however, diminishes the amount of judicatory money available for supplementing clergy salaries for new church starts in areas where growth is expected.  Further, this solution is of limited value if the judicatory has many such small, regionally dispersed congregations, since there will be insufficient funds to continue this support at level which really impacts these congregations.      

Solution 4. Using “Retired” Clergy   

Using clergy who have formally retired from full-time employment to fill vacant pulpits of rural and small town churches is fast becoming a favorite solution with many regional leaders.  Better retirement packages provided by several of the denominations represented in this study allow clergy to retire earlier than was true several decades ago.  Early retirements may diminish the number of experienced clergy available for full-time pastoral positions.  However, this trend presently provides a pool of seminary educated clergy who might be amenable to becoming a  part-time pastor of an aging congregation in a  pleasant rural community.     

Solution 4  “Union Congregations” and Using Clergy from Other Denominations 
4.A.  Union Congregations   

Several of the denominations represented by judicatory leaders in this study are concentrated in particular regions of the United States. In other words, denominations may have disproportionately many congregations in the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic states and relatively few in states making up the Deep South and Southwest; or many congregations in Chicago and its suburbs but only a couple in Salt Lake City and environs.  Sometimes judicatories want to establish or maintain a congregation in an area, but really do not have the funds to support the congregation alone.    

One solution in long use is to have a congregation supported by two or three denominations, which are relatively similar in theology and values.  Examples of union or cooperative congregations given by regional leaders interviewed are congregations which are jointly Baptist-UCC, Episcopal-Lutheran (ELCA), Methodist-Presbyterian, as well three and four denomination union congregation, such as Baptist-Methodist-Presbyterian, and Baptist-Lutheran-Methodist-UCC.  Usually all participating denominational judicatories have oversight and contribute something (though not necessarily proportionately) to the upkeep of the church, and take turns in providing the pastor (in line with their particular polity).  Regional leaders interviewed who had union congregations within their jurisdictions were hopeful that these will continue to work. They like the ecumenical cooperative arrangements, but are aware that having a pastor of another denomination does increase the possibility that the congregational members will be more attuned to the theological orientations and mission priorities of the present pastor’s denomination than theirs.   To those of you reading this who have had particularly good or bad experiences with such “union” “cooperative” or “community” congregations, please share your insights.     

4.B.  Full Communion and Ad Hoc Arrangements 

In some denominations congregations have the autonomy to call a pastor from another denomination if they so choose, although in all denominations congregations are strongly urged to hire clergy duly educated and certified by the denomination.  In practice, however, the American Baptist Church, the Reformed Church in America and the United Church of Christ especially, and to a lesser extent in the Assemblies of God and Vineyard churches, can hire a pastor without judicatory approval and without losing their standing in the denomination. These are also the denominations most prone to losing their congregations to another through the influence of these outside pastors, who remain with their particular tradition. In contrast, congregations of the more liturgical, hierarchical denominations - the Episcopal Church, the Lutheran Missouri Synod, and the United Methodist Church - must have a pastor ordained in the denomination unless they obtain official judicatory approval.    

Recent Full Communion arrangements among the more liberal Protestant denominations now permit congregations and judicatories more leeway in hiring a pastor who is of another (approved) denomination, without making the congregation a union church. In some case, pastors actually hold joint ordination credentials and report to two regional executives of different denominations, which is possible in ABC, RCA and UCC.   

There are also ad hoc, more informal or not fully authorized arrangements for using clergy of other denominations particularly in the more theologically liberal denominations.  Regional leaders interviewed gave instances where they have tacitly permitted or even promoted the value of certain congregations hiring pastors from denominations quite different in theology from their own.  These congregations are apt to be between 25 and 75 active members, situated in depressed areas  at a substantial  distance from other congregations of the denomination or metropolitan centers. At least two mainline denominations are filling such openings particularly in the Deep South and Southwest, with Southern Baptist and other evangelical denominational clergy living in the area.  Sometimes these are Southern Baptist clergy who have been divorced or clergy from other denominations without parish positions, who are willing to serve as part-time pastors.   Such pastors, trained and ordained in very different theological traditions, nonetheless understand the people and conditions in the locale.  Further, with roots in the community, these pastors are less likely to leave the small congregation for better positions elsewhere.    

Whether national denominational leaders approve of this practice in the particular judicatories -- should they hear about it -- is not of pivotal importance to these judicatory leaders.  They are finding ordained clergy for these congregations that will never be able to support a full-time pastor.  In one sense they are observing a policy of benign neglect of congregations they cannot help much, following Loren Mead’s suggestion of using congregational “triage” in deploying scare judicatory resources effectively.   

Solution 5. Ordaining Lay Leaders to Less Than Full Clergy Status for Limited Ministry

Some judicatory executives would prefer the congregation close rather than have a pastor from a very different theological tradition. Another solution is to raise up lay persons in these small congregations to serve as pastors, sometimes as a first step to certification and later ordination.    

The Assemblies of God has had a real advantage over the longer established denominations in filling its part-time pastorates because so  much of the education of its  clergy is done through district level educational programs for those who live there.   Other denominations have been doing something similar on a less extensive basis by re-emphasizing the use of lesser orders that have existed for many decades in some form.  Regional judicatories in the liturgical denominations, for example, are putting more efforts into providing training programs for educating lay persons to serve small congregations or areas in which they reside. These lay persons, often without college degrees, after competing their judicatory course of study are certified or ordained to a lesser order that restricts them to one congregation or particular area or type ministry in which they receive some supervision from fully ordained clergy or judicatory officials. They are typically only reimbursed for expenses incurred, and are neither provided housing or a stipend.  Denominations have specific names for these restricted orders, as well as regulations about where and in what capacities they can serve congregations. 

The advantages of this solution are that the judicatory can provide some trained pastoral leaders at low or no cost to their small, isolated congregations, leaders who also will have some accountability to the judicatory which has trained, certified and supervises them.  However, there are potential drawbacks to this solution.  Some congregations primarily serve members who cannot or will not fill these pastoral roles at all, or for very long.   Further, judicatories probably will find it difficult to afford to continue this kind of training and oversight over an indefinite period.  Further, national denominational offices and graduate level seminaries of the denomination may raise objections to what they see as the “overuse” by judicatory officials of pastoral leaders who have not earned M.Div. degrees.     

Solution 6:  Other Innovative Experiments Using Lay Members of a Congregation

Even more radical ways of providing pastoral leadership in the views of some, are judicatory experiments in setting up teams of lay persons for ongoing and specialized ministries.  These teams can be the pastoral leadership of one congregation and/or teams that send members as needed to other congregations for preaching and pastoring on a more temporary basis.   The ministry team with regular meetings can be helpful in recruiting and energizing lay members, providing members with ideas and group assistance in carrying out their ministries, as well as ensuring more continuity of the team ministries by enabling entry of new team members to replace those who drop.  Members of these teams may have extensive training for their preaching, prayer, program, and counseling ministries.  However, they also may not.  In concept after all, the ministry of the laity is not contingent on lay persons’ having specialized training to speak in church, to pray over people, to counsel and console, or to plan and carry out educational programs and outreach ministries.   

What have been the experiences of those reading this with lay teams?  What are some of the things to watch out for in using these?  Under what conditions do they work best?  I hope to reach some of you by telephone who I know were experimenting with some innovative programs using lay or lay-clergy teams in their judicatories.


“Any human institution that does not develop an effective method of recruiting new membership (and leadership) will die; there are no exceptions.”   Loren Mead in making this statement in his book, More Than Numbers: The Way Churches Grow (Alban Institute: Bethesda, MD: 1993:16), goes on to say that nonetheless numerical church growth in members, worship attendance, money activities -- is not the only important way congregations can and should grow. Regional officials, clergy and lay leaders would be well advised to assist congregations, even those that will never grow in numbers, to grow: a) in maturation through increasing the faith of each member; b) organically through becoming more of a community than relates well to other communities; c) and as evangelical, incarnational clusters which can be carriers of the faith to others. Loren’s observations hold for congregations of all sizes and locations, to be sure.   However, these observations might be particularly poignant for regional leaders considering leadership solutions for their small rural congregations.




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