By Laura Stephens-Reed
It is no secret that many churches, once pushing the fire marshal’s maximum occupancy to its limits, are now in numerical decline. I have my pick of statistics that I could cite, but here’s a particularly poignant visual from the Hartford Institute for Religion Research: The pews are no more than 38 percent full during worship services in half of all congregations. (“Twenty Years of Congregational Change: The 2020 Faith Communities Today Overview.”)
There are many reasons why this is the case. Populations have shifted and demographics have changed. Weekly church attendance is no longer the norm for many. Some, especially younger people of faith, cannot reconcile their perceptions of the insularity and resistance to change by congregatons with their understanding of Jesus and his Gospel.
The result of decreased participation is that the budgets of some congregations can no longer support a full-time pastor. This can be a tough nut to swallow, because this reality collides with an economic culture that tells us that downsizing means we’re failing.
But what if – stay with me here – there is opportunity inherent in making the transition from a full-time to a part-time pastor? I know some very gifted, committed clergy who have sought out part-time pastorates because of the good that can happen when the minister is not the hub of congregational life. This change can free up a minister to live into other aspects of vocational life. It can also reduce the clergyperson’s unhealthy need to please the people all the time because that leader’s income is not wholly dependent on the congregation.
On the laity side, people are released to discover and use their gifts in new ways. They come to understand that they, not the pastor, are the church and, as a result, the priesthood of all believers moves from concept to reality.
These possibilities are suggested not to deny the challenges in going from having a full-time to a part-time pastor. There will be contraction pains. But these can be the harbingers of new life. Here are some things to think about as your congregation navigates this shift:
Will our current pastor stay with us? Maybe, maybe not. Your church is in transition and your minister might need to be as well. Be honest with one another about what would and would not work for both clergy and congregation with regard to a decrease in pastoral pay and responsibilities. If you and your pastor part ways, do it with much celebration of your mutual ministry.
Whether your current minister stays or leaves, the next questions are key.
How do we de-center our pastor as the hub of congregational life? Chances are, if you are changing from a full-time to part-time pastoral model, your congregational life has heretofore been built on the back of your pastor. The minister comes to every meeting, provides most or all pastoral care, and proposes or guides new initiatives. This flow will need to shift, guided by responses to the following questions.
Where are our pastor’s decreased hours best spent? You cannot simply lower the minister’s pay but expect the minister still to perform the same role. Think through what it is that only the clergyperson can do and where your leader can best use his or her strengths and energy.
Whose gifts were made for such a time as this? Maybe you have people in your congregation who have sensed a nudge to ministry but never felt they had an opening to respond to it. Maybe there are church members who don’t see what they have to offer, while to others it is clear what these folks have to share. It’s time to give permission, issue invitations, and tell those around us what talents we see in them.
What will we need to celebrate and stop doing? You might not be able to carry on all the programs that a church with a full-time pastor could. That’s okay! Where is the most faithful and joyful ministry happening? Where is community being built? When is discipleship being deepened? Focus your efforts in these areas and give thanks to God for the things you need to release.
What new partners do we need to seek out? We are not meant to do ministry on our own or even as solo congregations. The reign of God will be built on collaboration. So, who in our community or region is already doing great work that aligns well with who we are? How might we join in instead of trying to duplicate efforts?
What will now be possible that wasn’t before? This might seem like a strange question because of all of the scaling down and refocusing of roles that a staffing model shift requires. But a smaller church with a more nimble structure can experiment more easily and respond more quickly to needs and opportunities that arise. It can be more attentive to needs for sabbath. The invitation of more voices into conversation and even into leadership can broaden imagination and provide more discerners of God’s invitations.
The value of your congregation is not based on the number of people in worship on Sunday morning. You are bearers of God’s image and you are Christ’s hands and feet in the world. As long as you take both of these individual and collective callings seriously, you are doing great! So, if your church can no longer fairly pay a full-time pastor, all is not lost. You are simply moving with intentionality and love into a new season of ministry and you are as essential to the work of God in the world as ever.
Laura Stephens-Reed is a clergy and congregational coach based in Alabama.