A window of opportunity is opening for congregations

By Rev. Laura Stephens-Reed

The Theological Education Fund of the Presbyterian Church (USA) recently noted on Facebook that 85 percent of clergy currently serving in the PC(USA) are set to retire in the next 10 years.

Eighty-five percent. Let that number sink in.

Rev. Laura Stephens-Reed

I’m guessing that the percentage is similar across most Protestant denominations, including the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship. Fewer seminary graduates look for congregational ministry positions, instead opting for nonprofit work, teaching or social entrepreneurship. Those who do start their professional lives in church might not stay there until retirement; and this is becoming even more the case now with the Great Resignation.

For many laypeople, the 85 percent statistic probably pings your anxiety: Who will lead us? That is an understandable response. But my own gut reaction is to think that, for all of those ministers who have been waiting in the wings, this is their chance! For all the ministers who have been told that congregations were not yet ready for their leadership, for all the ministers who have been told they were not ready to lead congregations, this is their moment to show what they have to offer—to show up as the wonderfully made children of God, called by God to accompany churches in the holy work of deepening their relationships with God and one another and waging peace.

I’m thinking particularly about how clergywomen might shine in this moment. Baptist Women in Ministry released its most recent “State of Women in Baptist Life” in June, and the numbers were grim. There were fewer women in pastor/co-pastor roles in CBF life in 2021 (105) than in 2015 (117), the last time this type of survey was conducted. This is not for lack of qualified and called women. In addition to more seasoned clergywomen, percentages of enrolled female students in CBF-affiliated seminaries—many at or above 50 percent—have held steady or increased from 2015 to 2021.

The title of this piece though, is “A window of opportunity is opening for congregations.” Because even more than for ministers themselves, mass retirement/resignation realities present possibilities for churches.

This is your chance, Church, to be beautifully challenged and wonderfully delighted.
This is your chance, Church, to welcome new perspectives and gifts.
This is your chance, Church, to do something different, to have a different­—and potentially bigger—impact.
This is your chance, Church, to give people who’ve never seen anyone like them in leadership a role model to which they can relate.
This is your chance, Church, to see what might unfold when you are bold.

Because when 85 percent of your clergy are on the short path to retirement, there are no more excuses. The pool of people who look and act like the pastors you have always had will be a mere puddle, while there will be an ocean—or at least a lake—of pastors who are talented and faithful but whom you would never have seriously considered before.

Recently I had a conversation with my friend and colleague, Craig Janney, founder and president of Greenfields Church Consulting, about how congregations could proactively prepare to harness this opportunity and consider clergywomen candidates during their next pastor search. We developed the reflection points below as a kind of audit of readiness to welcome a female pastor; but each question contains the nugget of an action a church can take to be better able to receive the gifts of a woman in the pulpit. (Note: The steps a congregation takes based on this audit make it more hospitable to all women, and, more generally, to all people.)

Women in lay leadership:

  • When was your first female deacon ordained?
  • What percentage of your active diaconate is made up of women?
  • For other church committees, how well does the female/male ratio reflect the congregation’s composition?
  • What percentage of your Sunday school/Christian education teaching team is women?

Women in the pulpit:

  • How many clergywomen does your church know?
  • How many female pastors serve congregations in your city/county?
  • In the past year, how many women have preached during a worship service?
  • Did the women preach from the pulpit or from somewhere else?
  • Were a woman’s sermons referred to as such, or were they called something different (e.g., talk, devotional, reflection)?
  • When was the most recent time a woman preached during a worship service?
  • To your knowledge, was there any verbal (e.g., expressed concerns) resistance to a woman filling the pulpit? If yes, please elaborate.
  • To your knowledge, was there any verbal (e.g., expressed concerns) resistance to a woman filling the pulpit? If yes, please elaborate.
  • To your knowledge, was there any non-verbal (e.g., church members stayed home or walked out before/during the sermon) resistance to a woman filling the pulpit? If yes, please elaborate.

Support of women for professional ministry:

  • For how many women has your church provided financial support toward seminary/theological education?
  • How many women has your church ordained to ministry?
  • How many women are on your church staff in pastoral roles (e.g., pastor, associate pastor, minister to particular age groups)?
  • In what other ways does your church show support for women in ministry (e.g., give to Baptist Women in Ministry, direct support)?

Women in print:

  • Does your church use inclusive language (e.g., not just “he” and “him”) on its website and in its print materials?
  • How much of your Sunday school/Christian education curricula is written by women?

Conversations about issues important to women:

  • What topics have been formally (e.g., in the pulpit, Christian education, or business meetings) addressed in the past year that are typically important to women? These might include but are not limited to the gender pay gap, sexual violence, and the availability and affordability of child care.

Mull over these questions. Print this audit and take it to your church leadership to start or further a conversation. Work toward a culture of openness to all that women have to offer. Get ready both to bless and be blessed in accepting the challenge, and prepare to be surprised by all that God will do through previously inconceivable mutual ministries.

Laura Stephens-Reed is a clergy and congregational coach based in Alabama.

This article first appeared in the Fall 2022 issue of fellowship! magazine. Check out the issue and subscribe for free at www.cbf.net/fellowship.

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