On the Streets, In Schools and Prisons…..and Yes, in the Church: Meeting the Pastoral Needs of a Broad and Diverse World

This week’s post is written by Rev. Elizabeth Dilley of the Ministerial Excellence, Support and Authorization (MESA) Team within the UCC’s national setting. 

Last week’s CARD blog focused on the clergy supply issue in the UCC. I read it with some surprise, because in the work of the Ministerial Excellence, Support and Authorization (MESA) ministry team in the national setting, the concern has not been framed as a clergy supply matter. Rather, we see the demand for authorized ministers in local churches diminishing, either through reductions in clergy staff positions in congregations that have more than one clergy person, congregations closing, or congregations moving to part-time and/or bi-vocational clergy. One hard truth in our post-Christian nation is that fewer of our churches are able to afford to compensate a minister for full-time ministry in a particular setting.

At the same time, we see the demand for ministry expanding to settings beyond local congregations in exciting ways – to prisons, to the military, to school settings, and even to non-institutional settings such as street ministries and spiritual direction in private practice. In speaking with a number of colleagues, I’ve learned of UCC clergy who serve as administrators in local schools, supervise other chaplains in hospital and hospice settings, and serve in pastoral capacities in non-UCC settings. Some clergy seek such positions because of their deeply understood sense of call to these sorts of ministries. Some clergy create new opportunities for ministry because they do not see their sense of call currently represented in the world. Some clergy are not actively in ministry because they have found it incredibly difficult, if not impossible, to find a call due to their race, gender, sexual orientation, physical ability, or geographic constraints. And none of this takes into consideration clergy who may be taking a temporary leave of absence from ministry to care for young children or sick parents or other family members.

Rev. Lindsey framed this “diminishing pastoral leadership crisis” as a matter of age. Now, it’s true that fewer clergy under 40 are serving in local UCC congregations (323), compared to clergy over 70 years of age (490). However, a higher percentage of clergy under 40 were serving as pastor or co-pastor of a congregation in 2015 (7.8%) versus 2004 (5.8%) (p. 16). Further, among that group of 490 clergy over the age of 70, 185 have served in their current context for at least 10 years, with 76 having served for more than 20 years. When such long-tenured clergy do depart from those settings (hopefully to a robust and well-earned retirement!), many of those churches will seek new leadership – and there is a strong pool of ordained clergy who are eager to serve the UCC in a congregational setting.

Ultimately, I must respectfully disagree with Rev. Lindsey. We in the UCC do NOT face a crisis of diminishing pastoral leadership. We have a crisis of diminishing congregational opportunities for clergy, as well as a diminished capacity for clergy to be compensated appropriately for the work they do. HOWEVER, we also have an exploding opportunity for ministry beyond the traditional walls of the “church,” and we have strong and faithful clergy who serve part-time or bi-vocationally no matter their age. The UCC is on a leading edge for what ministry might look like in the 21st century. Part of the work of the MESA team involves equipping our Committees on Ministry to be prepared to provide care and oversight to clergy who serve in these unique settings, through the use of four-way covenants and strengthened oversight of all our authorized ministers. It is the work of the whole Church to celebrate, affirm, support and hold accountable all the people called into authorized ministry on its behalf.


3 thoughts on “On the Streets, In Schools and Prisons…..and Yes, in the Church: Meeting the Pastoral Needs of a Broad and Diverse World

  1. Pingback: Vital Signs and Statistics: On the Streets, In Schools and Prisons…..and Yes, in the Church – Rev. Christopher Marlin-Warfield, CFRE

  2. Perhaps it would be easier to find clergy willing to serve small, remote, rural congregations if we did away with the stereo-typical images we hold of them and looked at them as something other then small unviable franchises of our brand that may or may not truly represent it. For example many clergy serving these congregations the myth that they can’t get a better call is false. Many actually feel called to serve these congregations or prefer small town or rural life rather then live in where the “real professional” clergy live in large urban centers. And yes I have heard that over and over again. If I was to say to a person of color, “You know you all look the same to me”, I would be called racist and probably would be. But look back at the recent article where rural and small town congregations were described as being all the same, conservative, white etc… I’m reminded of the time I was in the SD Conference and two reps from national whose names many of you would recognized talked about rural ministry as being all the same in a place where all the roads ran straight and there was no ethnic diversity. As I looked around the room there were two tables of Native Americans and at my table was a pastor I was mentoring from a little town on the ND/SD border whose town bakery was recognized on the Food Network as one of the finest ethnic bakery in the country, But that’s right in our “Multi-cultural/Multi-ethnic” church a congregation that wants to remember its German or Swiss roots by singing a verse of “Stille Nacht” on Christmas Eve is another old, probably homophobic Congregation. And yes I have heard that repeatedly. Celebrating your northern European culture may not count.
    A congregation in a primarily dairy farming region has a very different culture from one in a small grain region. If you go out into the western states with a ranching culture you find congregations with different issues and needs and a different culture. Come to an area like this one where tourism and timber are the main employers and again the culture changes again. In much of rural America racism takes the “color” of Native American. But many may not realize that there are a growing numbers of Hispanic and Latinos in rural America. Many small rural congregations are on the front lines of the immigration battles, because of the ethnic make up that is involved in the agriculture of the area or for example meat processing. The “Knock on the door at Night” is heard and feared across rural America. Near here we have a steady stream of Islamic refugees fleeing Trump’s policies, walking through snowy fields in below zero temps and strong winds, to get to sanctuary in Canada. The number is around 130 in just the last few weeks and more come on a daily basis. Some are loosing fingers and toes to frostbite.
    How many of you recognize that rural America is on the frontlines of our foreign policy as a nation. When Pres. Jimmy Carter announced a grain embargo on the USSR, he in effect put a freeze on many pastor’s salaries if they served in areas of small grain farming. The end of the cold war brought an economic down turn to many small towns located near military bases, like the one I’m in now. The town lost many younger residents and the church lost many members when the radar base of the Dew Line was closed. Many military bases are in rural America.
    Of the three congregations I serve, two of them view a gold mine in Canada about 15 miles away very differently. One sees it as having the potential to bring money into town through business related to it and housing for workers there. The other sees it as an environmental threat because any waste water would drain straight south to them. Tell me again how rural congregations are all the same! Oh btw my parish is multi-racial. It is best seen when the Sunday School is putting on a program. Consider how many of our nations “Indian Reservations” are in rural areas.
    Then there is the problem of low salaries. I would suggest we need to rethink the role of these congregations as “Mission outposts.” Of course first we have to get rid of the stereo-type of these congregations being nothing but gun loving, conservatives. Reality is many progressive folk live in these areas and are looking for leadership. When Minnesota legalized Same sex Marriage, the Deacons of my congregation organized the only opposition to the proposal of a Constitutional Amendment defining marriage as between a man and woman. Two of my congregations were the only ones to hold biblically based studies of the issue of same sex relations. When speakers were being brought into the area to proclaim Islam as a religion of violence, I was asked to lead a discussion on the truth about Islam as a religion of peace twice in my parish and I continue to be the only clergy in the area speaking against the hate. Again the only one in the area. Now I admit we may look at the Dakota & Keystone Pipeline issues differently because we currently have trains carrying Canadian Crude oil approximately three blocks from where I sit now and only 200 yards from one of my churches, often at speeds of over 50 mph but we agree totally on the need to reduce reliance on oil and go to sustainable power and the reality of climate change. People close to the land and water see it every day. Who will speak up on these issues if there are not progressive clergy willing to serve in places like this? (six hours North of the Twin Cities) I served a middle sized congregation just south of Dakota Pipeline and drove through that area often. Throughout Iowa and Wisconsin are places where immigrants try to work on Dairy farms and meat processing plants. Racism, poverty, immigration are not just urban issues. Loggers and fishing guides don’t get paid big bucks. Unless we have dedicated and quality clergy willing to serve in these places, the voices of justice will go silent. But then I’m convinced in my most cynical side that for many it is easier to “curse the darkness”, rather then keep the lights of justice glowing. I mean small struggling congregations are one of those dieal problems that if ignored will just go away. Before we criticize income inequality on Wall Street, perhaps we need to look at how we can deal with it in our own denomination. Perhaps we need to be a witness of economic justice, not just talk about it.

    John Tschudy-Pastor Rainy River Regional Parish United Church of Christ-United Congregational Church Birchdale, Minnesota, First Congregational United Church of Christ, Baudette, Minnesota and Pilgrim Congregational United Church of Christ Williams, Minnesota.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Well said, Rev. Dilley! I appreciate the statistics and the analysis. The world needs clergy more than ever, but in a variety of settings that include traditional churches and those “out on the street”. Thank you for re-framing the conversation.

    Liked by 2 people

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