Thursday, September 28, 2023

David W. Scott: The Coming Pastoral Shortage as a Missional Concern

Today's post is by UM & Global blogmaster Dr. David W. Scott, Mission Theologian at the General Board of Global Ministries. The opinions and analysis expressed here are Dr. Scott's own and do not reflect in any way the official position of Global Ministries.

At the annual meeting of the Northern Germany Annual Conference this past June, conference leaders shared a startling statistic: the number of active pastors in the conference is expected to drop in half in the next eight years. In response, the conference is looking to promote more collaboration across congregations and to form "multi-professional teams" of pastors and skilled lay workers who can collectively provide leadership to United Methodist congregations.

United Methodists in the United States would do well to watch and learn from this experiment as it unfolds in Germany over the next several years. While the statistics might not be quite as dramatic as in the Northern Germany Annual Conference, there are indications that the United States is heading towards a growing clergy shortage as well. This is something that this blog wrote about a year and a half ago, and a Washington Post story from this summer drew similar conclusions.

Clergy decline is not a new trend. The number of ordained elders in the US UMC has been declining since 1990, according to the Lewis Center for Church Leadership. There are almost half as many ordained elders now as there was thirty years ago (21,507 in 1990 vs. 11,168 in 2022).

However, up until recently, this trend of declining elders has been masked and managed by other trends:

At the same time as the number of ordained elders has gone down, the number of licensed local pastors has increased substantially. The number of licensed local pastors rose from just under 4,000 in 1990 to over 7,500 in 2020, again according to the Lewis Center.

Moreover, as smaller churches have closed and proportionately more members have worshipped in larger congregations, the number of elders required to serve US United Methodists has decreased.

And as small, rural congregations have gotten smaller, the number of multi-point charges (groups of churches served by a shared minister) has increased, with some charges now including four or more churches.

Masked within the number of elders is another trend: an increasing reliance on clergy who have immigrated from another country. Without these immigrant clergy members, the decline in the number of elders would have been even more stark.

Yet, these various off-setting trends will likely no longer continue to provide adequate solutions to a decline in the number of ordained clergy from the United States. The number of licensed local pastors has itself been declining since 2019. Increased visa restrictions and issues of regionalization may make it harder for the United States to import pastors in the future. And while multi-point charges are certain to increase, there are limits to just how many churches can be served and how many miles can be driven by one pastor.

Thus, churches in the United States will need to look to other solutions and other models for clergy deployment in the next decade, which is why the Northern Germany story is so significant. It is an experiment, one that may yield models worth copying. There are others as well, including from the Methodist Church in Britain. But wherever the ideas come from, experiments will need to be tried.

Finally, it is important to point out that the question of finding models that will match the number of clergy and the number of churches is not just an administrative one, but a missional one.

In the 18th and 19th century, Methodism's model of itinerant clergy was a major factor in the growth of the denomination throughout the United States. Not all those clergy were ordained elders, but finding a way to develop and deploy enough leadership to where the missional needs of the community and the country are was part of what made Methodism a successful missional movement.

The systems for recruiting, training, and deploying congregational leadership are likely to look very different in the future than they did in the era of the circuit riders or in the recent eras of the ubiquitous M.Div.-trained elder or the rise of licensed local pastors.

But the need for called and trained leaders who can lead the church forth in mission will always be constant. May the church experiment successfully with new models for finding such leaders.

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