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.