Deconstructing the UCC Ministry Opportunities Webpage: What Kind of Pastor Do Churches Say They Want?

What expectations do United Church of Christ (UCC) congregations that are currently engaged in search-and-call processes have of their prospective ministers? What qualifications are they looking for? Who do they say they want their next pastors to be, and what do they want them to do? And are their expectations realistic?

To begin grappling with these questions, I turned to the UCC Ministry Opportunities website and examined every listing—some 256 of them, representing 5 percent of the United Church of Christ’s 5,117 congregations—posted during the week of February 14-20, 2016.

What I came away with was a “snapshot” of the church—or rather, a snapshot of 256 UCC churches and their ministries—at one particular moment in their history. The following are the major themes and findings of this study. (You can read the full report here.)

Church Demography

Many listings on the UCC Ministry Opportunities website described churches that are small and/or populated with retirement-aged folks. The narrative of the United Church of Newport, in Newport, Vermont, could have been written by many: “We have an aging congregation, but occasionally [we] attract a young family to come and stay.”

Seventy-eight churches—just over 30 percent of the 256 listings—said that they were looking for part-time pastors. This finding dovetails neatly with the research of church leaders and consultants who tell us that in coming years, more and more American Mainline and Progressive Protestant churches, including UCC congregations, will be led by part-time clergy.

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Would a minister move across the country for a part-time call?  (Source: Pixabay.com.)

As increasing numbers of churches list their part-time openings on the UCC Ministry Opportunities website, other very small and poor churches may avoid doing so—particularly if they do not want to call new ministers from thousands of miles away (and/or if they do not want to pay for such ministers’ moving expenses). Instead, small churches may be content to ask their Conference staff for the names of a few local retired ministers who can “supply their pulpits” every Sunday.

Despite persuasive arguments by church leaders, including UCC General Minister and President John Dorhauer, that future parish ministry will be increasingly bi-vocational (see Beyond Resistance, p. 51), many pastors are reluctant to accept part-time calls which will require them to seek additional employment outside the church. This antipathy toward bi-vocational ministry is nearly absolute for ordained seminary-trained clergy with M.Div.’s, doctorates, and other advanced degrees. And no minister I know of is willing to relocate to a distant location, at their own expense, to accept a part-time call. So I wonder: Might this trending increase in part-time and bi-vocational ministry suggest that a kind of search-and-call provincialism or hodophobia—a reciprocal reluctance on the part of churches and pastors to travel, or even to search for each other, outside of their established geographical boundaries—will set in among UCC congregations and ministers in the years ahead? Anecdotal evidence suggests that this is already happening.

Only two or three churches admitted in their narratives that their Sunday morning attendances are small—possibly in the 30-to-60 range—despite claiming memberships in the 200-to-500 range (or higher); nevertheless, I suspect that a great many UCC churches have similarly-stark membership-attendance disparities. Such dramatic variations may reflect church leaders’ failure to update their membership lists. They also may reflect a desire on the part of congregants who have moved away or become home-bound to remain on their churches’ active membership lists. On the other hand, some Mainline/Progressive and UCC churches are redefining or de-emphasizing older, traditional conceptions of membership, which may be seen as inherently exclusive, dividing congregants into “insiders” and “outsiders.”

Open and Affirming (ONA) churches tended to mention, and indeed emphasized, their ONA status in their listings. In addition, a few non-ONA churches used ONA-sounding language in their narratives, to indicate that they are “faithful and welcoming,” or “open and accepting,” or “welcoming to all.” I am not certain if, or how, these “non-ONA but welcoming-to-all” churches are affected reputationally by their use of such substitute wording. Are they seen by their congregants, by their broader communities, and not insignificantly, by the UCC ministers who read their narratives, as less welcoming than, or as equally welcoming as, ONA churches? Here’s my strong suspicion: Whether these churches realize it or not, their substitute wording does not make them seem inclusive, but rather, functions as a kind of unintended code language, indicating that they are not Open and Affirming, and/or that they disagree with the affirmation and full inclusion of LGBT people in the life of their congregations.

Seventy (about 26 percent) of the 256 churches indicated that they offer a parsonage as part of their compensation package.

Of the 256 listings on the Ministry Opportunities website, a prodigious 156, or 61 percent, did not contain any compensation (salary and benefits) information. There may be all sorts of reasons for omitting such data, but in my view they are bad reasons. Search committees should not assume that ministers do not care about, or need, such salary information, or that “if a pastoral candidate is really interested in our church, she will dig through our 25-page church profile” to find those compensation figures.

Traditional vs. Innovative Ministry

The narratives of 28 churches (11 percent of the 256 listings) described exceptional ministries in which leaders and congregants communicate clearly, function effectively, are innovative, and/or are driven passionately and purposefully by the demands of social justice. These churches operate shelter houses, food pantries, community gardens, tutoring programs, and refugee-resettlement ministries for their neighborhoods and villages; some offer free weekly community meals to the public, while others maintain emergency funds that they dispense to community residents who encounter unexpected difficulties; still others offer sanctuary to immigrants.

A larger number of narratives described traditional UCC congregations with unexceptional or customary worship services, programs, and ministries. While these may be good UCC churches with Progressive theologies, their narratives did not distinguish them as among the few most innovative congregations. Many seem to be doing very little to engage the Millennial Generation, or to reach out to the thousands of people in their communities who have dropped out of church, and/or say that they have no religious affiliation. A great many of these narratives did not acknowledge even an awareness of the demographic and cultural changes that are rocking the American church. Are such congregations satisfied with the way things are? Or perhaps, are they so caught up with their own current problems and decline that they fail to see anything and anyone beyond the walls of their sanctuaries?

God Talk and Spiritualized Language

The narratives of about 30 UCC churches (12 percent of the 256 listings) contained vague language, God-talk, and spiritualized terminology that did little to enhance understanding. For example, an Illinois church noted in its narrative: “We are looking for a ‘leader of leaders’ and a ‘servant of servants.’” Similarly, a Pennsylvania congregation wrote that it wants “a pastor with the leadership qualities of a true Shepherd. Someone who will feed us spiritually….” Another church in Pennsylvania sought “a full-time pastor to lead a congregation through a unifying role in the life of the church.” Meanwhile, a church in New York City had a simple, one-sentence narrative: “Our congregation is seeking a part-time pastor with a love for neighborhood, ministry, people, and prayer.” A congregation in Wisconsin noted that it “is seeking a full time pastor ‘to climb the hill with us,’ … a pastor who can go where she/he is needed and cultivate spiritual growth for our congregation.” And a church in New England said this: “A fresh perspective for this discerning congregation in suburban western Massachusetts is a wonderful opportunity.”

Thirty-three narratives (13 percent of the listings) seemed theologically Conservative and/or Evangelical in tone; some of these churches described themselves, in the words of one Vermont congregation, as “Bible-based” and “Christ-centered,” or said that they were, as a church in Oregon called itself, “spirit-filled”—and insisted that their next pastor must have the same qualities. As might be expected, churches’ theological affirmations influenced their expectations of their next minister. Thus, an Illinois church stated that it was looking for a woman or man who “will have a strong belief in Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior, and will not be afraid to proclaim that message” and to “reach others for Christ.” Another church in Virginia expressed “hope that the new pastor will walk spiritually.” The pastor should be “a person of God, a person of integrity and of good character.” And a Pennsylvania church wanted a minister who “conveys a contagious sense of enthusiasm for the Gospel of Jesus Christ.”

In general, these are all fine expressions and sentiments—but they need to be unpacked. In practical terms, what exactly do they mean? What are “Bible-based,” “Christ-centered,” and “Spirit-filled” churches and congregants like? How are they unique—and what distinguishes them from other churches and Christians? How do they relate to other UCC congregations and to the wider church? What kind of ministries and outreach programs do such churches engage in? Exactly who—and what—are they looking for in their new ministers? What do they want their new pastors to do—and be?

Churches’ Expectations of their Pastors

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Should a pastor be and do everything? (Source: United Church of Christ.)

Forty-four listings described church ministries and programs that seemed stale, unimaginative, and/or conventional. The expectations that many of these churches had of their next pastor were equally traditional and tedious, focusing on preaching, conducting Bible studies, being a Godly role model, working with children and youth, and visiting the sick, the elderly, lapsed congregants, and active and potential members. Some churches added that they want their new minister to attract new congregants and new dollars—in effect, to function as a kind of Pied Piper who will go out into the community and lead people (along with their wallets!) back into the church.

In addition, churches said that they want their next pastor to be an openly friendly, caring, and happy person who: is accepting of the ideas of others; conducts meaningful worship services; has great integrity and reliability; values family and a strong work ethic; demonstrates compassion, spirituality, acceptance, and equality; recognizes the traditions and history of the church; is emotionally secure; is a helpful and confidential counselor; is passionate about their calling to serve; inspires others through scriptural teachings and personal example; and is “technologically savvy.”

After reading such statements, potential pastors may be left wondering how to prioritize churches’ expectations of them. Which qualifications and responsibilities are non-negotiable? Which expectations are of secondary or tertiary importance? How can the pastor know that they are meeting the church’s expectations, and doing a good job?

Indeed, many narratives had such lengthy and demanding lists of expectations that I despaired of ever reading one that said, “We expect our next pastor to be human. We do not expect them to be Joan of Ark or St. Paul. We want next pastor to do their best, and not work more than 50 hours per week. Our next pastor will make mistakes. We don’t expect her or him to be a master entertainer, story-teller, or stand-up comedian. Nor are we looking for a spellbinding teacher or preacher. And we don’t expect our next pastor to bring new congregants and new dollars into the church—that’s everybody’s job—the whole congregation’s.” Perhaps not surprisingly, I never read such a narrative.

Fifty-six churches (22 percent of the 256 listings) stated or implied that one of their highest priorities is to begin a formal program of renewal or revitalization. A similar number—58 churches—suggested that they were looking for pastors with the requisite skills, personalities, and traits to kick-start and drive such a process of revitalization.

Strikingly, a number of churches said that they want a pastor who can facilitate change and innovation while simultaneously respecting their most cherished traditions. This sounds like a nice, best-of-both-worlds compromise, but it may be a circle that is impossible to square. I don’t know if any minister can be both a change agent and the guardian of church tradition! Churches with such expectations may be playing semantical games, and setting both themselves and their new ministers up for failure.

Conclusions

I was favorably impressed by the sheer quantity and quality of faithful ministry, service to communities, and social justice advocacy that I read about in nearly all of the 256 listings, representing large, medium, and small UCC churches throughout the United States. Several listings were downright exciting to read! Indeed, although I was not looking for a new church in which to serve (and I did not ask to have my ministerial profile sent to any of these congregations), I found 25 to 30 churches to be remarkably compelling. My reaction, upon reading their narratives, was, “Gosh! I’d like to serve there!”

I came away from this study with a fresh appreciation for the diversity within the United Church of Christ. Our congregations are Progressive and traditional, Conservative, and even quasi-Evangelical. Some are Open and Affirming; others are still discerning whom they will welcome and how enthusiastically. I came away with a renewed understanding of UCC churches as small and large; rural, suburban, and urban; multicultural and monocultural; multi-staffed, staffed by a single full-time pastor, and led by part-time clergy. And I came away believing that all localized expressions of the United Church of Christ are equally valid—what’s important in the search-and-call process is that a good fit takes place between congregations and pastors.

But I also came away with questions. How will the traditional ministries and expectations that several congregations wrote about in their narratives square with the reality of demographic, cultural, and social change? For that matter, how will UCC churches that lean Conservative or even Evangelical respond to cultural change?

Like classical political conservatism, theological conservatism is concerned with preserving the traditions, social and religious institutions, and moral ethos of the past. Conservative and Evangelical churches seem to have an inherent interest in retaining biblical tradition, and in holding on to what they consider to be the best hymns, worship practices, and teachings of the past. Many such churches care about stability and continuity, and seem to define themselves in terms of their opposition, and unwillingness to accommodate themselves, to change. Yet one of the surest hallmarks of the cultural dislocations that churches are experiencing today is that the old tried-and-true church growth techniques and methods that used to work—no longer do! Which tells me that Conservative and Evangelical churches may have a problem when it comes to dealing with change.

What is needed in many churches is more than just a new pastor. What is needed are new ways of interacting with congregants, with the Millennial Generation, with the community-at-large, and with the broader culture.

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Marriage as a fitting analogy for the search-and-call process? (Source: Pixabay.com.)

My wise friend, Joanne Lanfier, who is a UCC pastor and a counselor with our Association’s Family Counseling Ministry, says that pastor-congregation relationships are like marriages. I would extend her analogy and suggest that the search-and-call process has much in common with the elaborate courtship and mating rituals of both humans and animal species. Ministers and churches try, and often go to great lengths, to present their best and most appealing selves to each other, in an effort to win each other’s approval and love, and form a mutually nurturing partnership. And unfortunately, as in marriage, a significant number of pastors and congregations find themselves in unhappy unions and “break up” after a few years together. Surveys conducted by the Barna Group show that the average tenure of ministers in Mainline churches today is about four years.

Joanne’s marriage analogy and the Barna research raise intriguing questions for further study: When churches and pastors introduce themselves to each other, what aspects of themselves do they reveal and emphasize? What do they conceal? How can we encourage greater transparency and open communication in ministers’ and congregations’ earliest interactions with each other? How can we help churches and pastors listen more carefully to, and think harder about, what they are hearing from each other? Might there be a better way to do search-and-call—perhaps a way that invites ministers and churches to “live together” for a while, and get to know each other in a more relaxed manner, before they “tie the knot”?

Finally, my examination of these 256 listings confirmed the findings of CARD’s June 2015 UCC Congregational Vitality and Ministerial Excellence Report which suggested that a great many churches are looking for strong entrepreneurial-type leaders and innovators, and for revitalization pastors (whether or not they actually use the word, “revitalization” in their listings). But the CARD survey of UCC congregations, on which the June 2015 report is based, also suggested that the vast majority of UCC ministers lack such leadership and entrepreneurial skills and traits! How will this mismatch work itself out? Will pastors be able to “learn” leadership and entrepreneurial skills “on the job,” or through continuing education, or by reading books, or by attending a pastors’ retreat here and there?  Are pastors and churches “marrying” each other with their fingers crossed, hoping that their new partners in ministry are, or will become, what they need and hope for?

Read the full report here.

Chris Xenakis Rev. Chris Xenakis is a UCC pastor currently serving Groton Community Church (UCC) in Central New York. In addition, he is an adjunct lecturer at SUNY-Cortland, teaching courses this year on world politics, democracy, U.S. foreign policy and multiculturalism. Chris has written numerous books and articles, which can be found on his blog.

 

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11 thoughts on “Deconstructing the UCC Ministry Opportunities Webpage: What Kind of Pastor Do Churches Say They Want?

  1. Wow, this was a FASCINATING read. Several of your observations resonated deeply, but I especially appreciated how you point out the number of churches that crave the impossible phenomenon of transforming their church while keeping everything the same. “We’re in search of a transformative pastor who will not alter our traditions.” I hate to be blunt, but: Good luck with that.

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  2. When you write:
    “The expectations that many of these churches had of their next pastor were equally traditional and tedious, focusing on preaching, conducting Bible studies, being a Godly role model, working with children and youth, and visiting the sick, the elderly, lapsed congregants, and active and potential members.”
    What exactly is tedious about the core activities of preaching and teaching the Gospel, caring for church members, and being open to new attendees??! I’m a liberal member of a politically moderate congregation with an outstanding youth program and many active young families. We recently voted to allow same gender marriage, but not to become ONA, a decision I wholeheartedly supported. My observation is the attitudes of the conference and national UCC towards my more conservative brothers and sisters does nothing but alienate and disparage them, and certainly does not bring them to the church. I agree with 99% of the social justice issues the UCC supports but I am tiring of the condescension towards my brothers and sisters who believe differently then I do. We disagree on many issues, often vehemently, but serve the same Jesus.

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    • Thanks for the comment, Bruce. I found it helpful. Actually, I am not interested in criticizing or showing condescension toward conservative UCC folks, or the churches they attend. Rather, the blog was concerned about UCC churches’ conceptions of their ministries—about the degree to which UCC congregations are able to articulate a clear and fresh vision of themselves and of their mission; about how inclusive their outreach to their community is; and about what expectations UCC churches have of their pastors, and how they see their ministers’ roles. You might say that my research was far less about what UCC churches believe than it was about how they do (and think about) ministry. Of course, there is nothing wrong with preaching, leading Bible studies, being a Godly role model, or visiting shut-ins. But these are not the only things that ministers do—and they’re not even the most important things. Pastoral ministry is about so much more than just an aggregate collection of religious duties and rites that are performed on a weekly basis! In this regard, I especially like the comment made in one church narrative, to the effect that the pastor should be “much like a coach [of] a team of gifted players.”

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  3. Faithful and Welcoming is, in my opinion, an offshoot of Biblical Witness Fellowship from the.mid-70s. FAW, in my experience, is neither Welcoming (LGBTQ) or Faithful (the welcoming, inclusive gospel of Jesus).

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  4. “Faithful & Welcoming” is the name of an alternate-to-ONA program, offered by more traditional churches. You might categorize it as code-phrase to identify a theologically-conservative congregation.

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