Category Archives: staffing issues

The Witness at the Door

The local Jehovah’s Witness knocked on my door again yesterday.  No, I didn’t draw the blinds and turn off the radio.  Actually, Lori and I have become friends over the years.  She comes every few months and we talk in my doorway.  She knows I’m an ordained minister, and that I’m never going to join her church.  But she keeps coming.  We don’t talk theology, but we do talk about our faith.  This time I told her about my research on congregations facing downsizing and closure. 

Lori told me something I never knew about Jehovah’s Witnesses.  When their communities get to be 120 members in size, they split into two, the way bees swarm and start a new hive.  She says when you get more than 100 people in a church, it gets harder to know and support everyone in their ministry.  Once the split has occurred, both worship groups may meet in the same building, but they meet at different times. 

I guess that explains why you never see a Jehovah’s Witness mega-church. 

Jehovah’s Witnesses don’t hire paid clergy.  So it’s important for each member to take responsibility and accountability for doing the ministry.  I can understand why this would be easier in a small group of 60 or 80 than in a group of 200 or 1,000. 

I first formed my respect for the Jehovah’s Witnesses when I lived in San Francisco.  In the morning when I rode the Muni downtown to my job, I would see two Jehovah’s Witnesses standing outside the transit station, every day without fail, silently holding up their Watchtower magazines.  They didn’t yell or approach anyone.  They were just inviting us to read their message.  I never once took a magazine, but I was always impressed with their steady, patient presence.   While I don’t buy their message, I respect their tenacity in sharing it.  

Lori knows she’s never going to change my theology, but she comes to visit anyway.  And I am always happy to see her.  One time, I ran into her at the Dollar store, and she asked how I was and offered some unexpected words of wisdom, even though she was “off duty”.  I realized that day that Lori is the real McCoy:  a genuine, full time Christian.  Yesterday she said, “I’ve never gotten much book learning.  But I try to read the bible and take its truth to heart.” 

How can you argue with a person like that? 

So yesterday, she offered me her magazines, as usual.  I’ve tried to read them, but they leave me cold. I looked at them doubtfully and asked, “If you give away more magazines, do you get more points in heaven?”  She smiled patiently and said “No.” 

What is the Church?   Lori is.  It is interesting to me that her faith is being formed in a small, pastor-less congregation.  God bless you, Lori!

Tools For Healthy Closure

I recently interviewed two people, one pastor and one lay leader, who had helped guide their two churches through relatively healthy closures.  As I looked at the notes from the two interviews, I noticed that both congregations had developed certain “tools” that made their transitions (in both cases, “blending” with another congregation) go more smoothly.  What were the tools they took advantage of? 

  • These churches both had a history of open communication and participation in their wider judicatory bodies.  They knew their judicatory staff people and understood the polity issues involved in downsizing and closure decisions.  They turned to the judicatory for resources to help in discernment. 
  • Both churches had developed “friendships” with other area churches.  In these two cases, the other churches were of the same denomination, but a friendship could exist between any two churches in the same neighborhood.  This kept the congregations from feeling isolated, allowed them to share some programming prior to their closure, and gave the members church families that could actively welcome them after their own churches closed.
  • Both churches were self-aware enough to understand their own history and character, the reasons for their historical growth and decline, what assets they most treasured, and what their dearest mission activity was.  This common narrative gave the congregations a sense of unity that helped them through the transition. 
  • Both churches were clear about what they needed from a pastoral leader.  This relates to the last point.  A church that knows itself also knows its leadership needs.  In one interview, the pastor said he heard from the search committee “one of the clearest goals I ever heard from a church” when they asked him to help them decide whether they should stay open or not.  It is immensely helpful for a leader to get clear, unified guidance (and permission!) from a congregation to lead in specific ways.    
  • Both churches were clear about their mission.  Even though they were in decline, they had enough passion for their community mission that they wanted to see it live on whether they stayed together as a congregation or not. 

These tools were not suddenly brought out of the closet in time for a crisis.  They were shaped by years of congregations working together in healthy ways: reaching beyond themselves, doing honest self-assessment, clarifying their mission and cooperatively engaging with leaders. 

If your church is still relatively healthy, work on these kinds of traits.  Get to know your neighbor churches; do some honest assessment on a regular basis, and check in with your pastor about the shared misson you are trying to accomplish together.  These tools will help you through any kind of difficulty that comes along. 

If your church is feeling the need for a serious assessment of its future viability, consider how you can sharpen some of these tools and make use of the resources God is placing in front of you.  

What are some of the assets and tools God has given your congregation to help you get through transitions?  This might be a good conversation starter for your governing board.

Part Time Pastor Webinar

I mentioned in an earlier post that Robert LaRochelle wrote a book called “Part Time Pastor, Full Time Church” for Pilgrim Press.  I admit I haven’t read it yet, but I just got word of a webinar he is doing February 16, 2011, for the Progressive Center for Renewal out of the UCC.  The link to sign up is here

Creative Staffing Options

Does your church have a pastor?  I spoke with a judicatory leader recently who told me that over 50% of the churches in his region can no longer afford full time, seminary educated clergy.

In an editorial in the United Methodist Reporter (November, 2009) Donald Haynes wrote about the membership required to finance a full time pastor:

Some bishops are using a figure as low as 100 and some as high as 150 in average attendance to support a pastor, pay apportionments and sustain a viable missional ministry. 

One option is a part time pastor, but finding one may not be easy.  Possiblities might include:

  •  Sharing a pastor with another nearby congregation; this requires a shift in mind-set for the congregation, two churches that are compatible, and a flexible pastor.
  • Tent-makers are part time pastors who also work at another job.  I’ve known tentmakers who served as hospital chaplains and farmers, for example.  Your pastor must be able to live in an area where s/he can pursue their other vocation.
  • Some pastors prefer to work part time and rely on the income of a spouse.  This requires the church to be accessible to career opportunities for the spouse.
  • Lay pastors (they go by different names in various denominations) are trained with the equivalent of about one semester of seminary coursework.  Like a tentmaker, they may serve in supply preaching or pastoral care positions while they work at another job.  In my area, some serve as part time solo pastors.  These placements can be beneficial, but also are controversial, in part because the educational level is vastly different than that of seminary trained folks.  See The Christian Century (July, 2010) for two articles laying out the pros and cons of lay pastoring.
  • Some small churches will find a retired clergy person in their area, perhaps from another denomination, who will supply the pulpit.  This also has pros and cons.
  • Some churches choose to merge, bringing two or more congregations together as one, or forming a federation (two congregations that share a building and pastor, but retain their denominational identities).

The judicatory leader I interviewed pointed out that there is a large pool of  underemployed pastors at this time.  In some places, finding a pastor who will accept part time work may not be difficult because of this current trend.  But the sad reality is that, while many churches need part time pastors, many pastors need full time work and benefits.

I have served as a part time solo pastor for 22 years, and I believe it is possible to do healthy ministry this way (see Bob Rochelle’s recent book, “Part-Time Pastor, Full-Time Church” put out by Pilgrim Press).   But I can also say from experience that it won’t work for every church or every pastor.  To me, the greatest and hardest thing about it is that the laity must learn to own their ministry while respecting the spiritual authority of the pastor.  And the pastor must learn to relinquish control over the ministry while maintaining his/her unique role as spiritual leader.

What do you think of the staffing options above?  Have you tried any of them?  Share your creative staffing story with me!