The Pastorless Church

Rev. L. Gail Irwin has served UCC and PCUSA churches as a settled and Intentional Interim Pastor. She is a freelance writer and author of Toward the Better Country: Church Closure and Resurrection (Wipf & Stock, 2014). Her blog can be found at

This appeal appeared in a recent church newsletter:

The Worship Committee is stretched really thin and needs help to provide meaningful content for worship services. This could be a sermon, but it doesn’t have to be. It could be…anything that gives attendees something to think about. Please let the Committee know any ideas you have to share.

At a recent installation service, Rev. Franz Rigert, Wisconsin Conference UCC Minister, shared that about a third of the churches he oversees have been through some form of pastoral transition in the past 20 months of the pandemic. This is a spike that parallels the “Great Resignation” happening around the country. 

Source: (Photo by Diana Polekhina on Unsplash). Image: a person with a short haircut and grey blazer is at a pulpit facing a congregation wearing masks.

Accelerating retirements of clergy is one factor, but younger clergy are also experiencing burnout from both chronic and new stressors, including isolation, political tensions, and the steep learning curve of doing worship online.  A recent Barna poll found 38% of clergy seriously considering a career move, a significant increase in just the past year. 

Rigert observes that some clergy are changing professions entirely, while others are moving to chaplaincy, where they can avoid the hassles of institutional leadership. 

Amid the clergy burnout, vacant pulpits can be difficult to fill. Interim ministers are in high demand. And church budgets may be stretched as fewer people choose to give

But recent inquiries have led me to some creative churches continuing to engage in ministry without an ordained pastor in place.      

  • New training models for lay leaders have made it possible for people without seminary degrees to utilize educational platforms like Convergence and The Damascus Project, that may lead to various forms of authorized ministry. 
  • Some churches are finding ways to share a pastor with another church (here’s a podcast I did about that)
  • And some adventurous churches are simply going it alone!

In the summer of 2018, First Congregational UCC in Cornwall, Vermont contracted with Interim Pastor Marjorie McNeill who led them through a series of Interim conversations. McNeill shared supply preaching at the church with other clergy and lay leaders. They also contracted with an area pastor for pastoral care and funerals as needed. They attended neighboring UCC churches together on Communion Sundays. And on fifth Sundays, they organized work parties to do volunteer ministry in lieu of worship services. 

One lay leader named Donna related, “At the end of the summer…we knew what we wanted, and it was not a new called pastor. We wanted variety.  We wanted many different viewpoints and styles.  We wanted to be engaged in our own spiritual growth, and we wanted to do some of the work of “Doing Church” ourselves.”  

This arrangement worked well for 14 months until a settled pastor unexpectedly became available. 

Source (Photo by Chris Montgomery on Unsplash). Image: a desk with a laptop showing a Zoom gathering. Next to the laptop is a green mug.

Another congregation that found itself without a pastor during the pandemic agreed to have their Deacons select other church’s online services for viewing each week. All their members would watch the same service, then gather by Zoom and discuss the message. 

Some churches have engaged pulpit supply by Zoom, so the preacher didn’t have to travel to be heard. 

Some have become more open to hiring seminary students or recent graduates. 

Retired clergy have come out of retirement to serve when they are given more freedom to take a few weeks or months off in the course of a year. In one setting, three retired clergy are sharing the preaching load in an interim setting, while one of them leads the interim work needed to prepare the congregation for a settled pastor. 

In one church, the governing board has divvied up the lectionary readings and asked each board member to present a Sunday morning reflection.

It’s important to point out that these churches come in a variety of sizes, though worship attendance in most has dipped to under 50 during the pandemic.

One lay leader wrote, “I found that while we were between pastors, the congregation was more like a family working together to keep things running smoothly. The year we spent without anyone leading, the whole church worked as a team.”

Of course, filling the pulpit on Sunday is not enough to keep a church fully operational. Staff needs to be supported. Buildings need to be maintained. Pastoral care and counseling are needed now more than ever. While the doors may technically be open on Sundays, it’s unclear how long this resilience and creativity will last before lay leaders experience the kind of burnout pastors have. 

But along with those open doors, these churches are opening minds and raising new questions about what it means for God’s people to be in ministry together. The shape of authorized ministry is being tested, in more ways than one.    

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