A few days after the news that Augsburg Fortress was canceling its pension program, I was at text study with colleagues more senior in ministry than I. There was no complaining or self-pity in the room, but there was palpable somberness. No honest, sane person has gone into Lutheran ministry with the expectation that it will provide great wealth. But for a long time pastors and church professionals reasonably expected that a life of faithful and modestly compensated service to the church would be capped with a secure retirement. Augsburg’s announcement was an unusually ominous sign that such an expectation is no longer reliable for anyone.
It is painfully tempting to commute the big challenges we face into lesser ones: bad management, institutional culture, lingering (and to me entirely baffling) resentment over the merger. At bottom, however, most of us realize that a combination of demographic decline, economic downturn, and turmoil in the church are in the process of fundamentally altering the ways in which we experience the Body of Christ and in which our lives as pastors are defined.
As someone with only a slight connection to the church’s better days, and as a relatively young and very new pastor, I am in a way fortunate to have embarked on my ministry career without any expectation that it will provide even the modicum of security and status that it once did and in some places still does. In a group of people mourning — quite rightly — the transformation their vocation has undergone, and looking anxiously to their own long-term needs, I was perhaps obnoxiously upbeat. “I will never have any reason to assume that the church will provide for my retirement,” I said. It’s not exactly a pleasing thought, but it is helpfully clarifying. The job of being a pastor will look very different on the other side of this upheaval than it has in the era that shaped the church we now serve.
We were the moral voice of democratic capitalist America.
In a way, as these large professional and bureaucratic structures dissolve before our eyes, we see our assumptions laid bare. We were a Christendom church, counting on the legacy of mandatory participation from Scandinavian and German communities. We were a middle class church, tied to the gradually but perpetually rising fortunes of America. We were a church led by educated professionals — men (and later women) trained in theology, Scripture, history, and later the basics of psychology and counseling, people whose specialized labor in preaching, teaching, the priestly arts, visiting, and pastoral care should be regarded similarly to the labor of doctors and professors. We were the moral voice of democratic capitalist America, partaking of its privileges but speaking out with authority on matters of race relations, war and peace, and basic human welfare.
But we learned once again, “God hath made man upright, but they have sought out many inventions.” The legacy churches found out we couldn’t take any surnames for granted. The expansion of the middle class stalled out in the 1970’s, striking at the foundation of the educational and professional status of our pastors. The center of American culture drifted one way, we drifted another, and now we release position papers and social statements that are mocked even by half of our dazed little flock. Americans wanted something different — maybe many different things — from their churches than what we had been educated, spiritually formed, and guilded to provide. I strongly suspect that this disjuncture between how we were trained and what the world wanted from us runs deeper than our familiar theological, political, and liturgical battle lines.
Educated to Make Buggy-Whips
In the weeks following my ordination, as I contemplated the struggles faced by so many of my colleagues, it occurred to me that I was in the position of someone given a gold-plated education in the manufacture of buggy-whips, circa 1915. I was trained extensively in curating a tradition that is today only one of many narratives available, and even then not known nor treasured even by many of the people who nominally embrace it. I was educated deeply in a liturgy whose central symbols are no longer transparent to the culture. I was taught the power of an authoritative, centering Word in a world of eclecticism, a profound and coherent worldview in an age of pastiche. I was apprenticed in the exercise of an office amidst a society that, while hungry for guidance and even absolution, is suspicious of anything smacking of authority. I was raised up to be a middle-class professional (with mercifully few educational debts to match) in a church that would be supporting fewer and fewer such people.
I was educated deeply in a liturgy whose central symbols are no longer transparent to the culture.
I sense that our institutions and our mindsets have only just begun to catch up with this reality. Our seminaries are still primarily designed around the young full-time residential student — someone who can afford a few years of negligible income and mounting school debt, incurred in pursuit of a kind of job that may not be there when they graduate, or look to buy a home, or save for their children’s education. Our parishes still seem to expect full-service ministry professionals of the old school while offering salaries that barely purchase the steeply discounted labor provided by our altruistic seminarians.
What does this mean for the future of ministry? The proclamation of the Word and the celebration of the Sacraments will endure, but we should prepare for the eventuality that they will look very different than they do today. Large parishes and megachurches, with professionally paid staff clergy, will no doubt endure and perhaps proliferate as smaller gatherings dissolve. Small and moderately sized congregations will have to accept leaders who earn some or even most of their income in other ways. Unless health care reform delivers access and stability, insurance premiums alone will make the full-time pastor a rarity.
This means that we need to be more intentional about preparing students from the start to be bi-vocational. To some extent this has already happened with second-career candidates who arrive entangled in jobs, mortgages, and critical benefits. We should adapt this model for the young pastor as well, perhaps modifying seminary programs and yoking them to other kinds of vocational and professional education. We will need to prepare people for careers as teachers, medical professionals, tradesmen and women who perform pastoral duties part-time. Pastors who work at other jobs probably end up telling more unchurched people about what they believe and what they do than a full-time pastor spending her days running a parish from an office. This may mean that pastoral duties need to be divided among clergy and laity and theological competencies divided among multiple part-time or volunteer pastors.
We need to . . . prepare students from the start to be bi-vocational.
None of these proposals is especially radical. Pastors who earn their living outside of the church are a mainstay of african-American and immigrant churches. Bi-vocational ministers and part-time schooling are pillars of the Diakonia program. Roman Catholic parishes rely more heavily than ever before on lay and diaconal ministry to supplement the labor of overburdened priests.
Many evangelical and charismatic churches dispense with lengthy academic preparation. All the same, they would signal a major cultural change in our particular tradition. We will need to prepare pastors for a more aggressively public ministry — not so much to target souls and wallets as to understand ministry as preaching, teaching, and serving “out there” rather than “in here.” Most of all, we need to break the vocation of ministry free from its middle-class identifications and assumptions. We will need to do a better job of raising up leaders from wider backgrounds. Parish pastors in the future will have to travel light and be exposed to the same economic insecurities as their communities. We will no longer be the semi-official religious specialists of the civil order.
A Different World
I write as only one of several first-call pastors in the Metro Chicago Synod who are serving part-time, drastically below salary guidelines, or in a position with a short expiration date. My fear is that our response to the decay of our traditional parish ministry model will be to throw our effort into propping that model up, by essentially challenging new pastors to work themselves into the kind of job their distant predecessors had when the church was full. I hope that works, and I’m sure in some cases it will. But a saner course is to prepare for a different world and a different way of being a pastor.
It is not wise to engage in magical thinking about transforming our humble servants into church-revitalizing super-pastors.
To be clear, I loved, positively adored, learning to make buggy-whips. Taking a whole course on Calvin’s Institutes, no fewer than three courses on liturgy, an independent study of Gerard Manley Hopkins and another on community organizing — truly, it was a joy. But in its cost (borne, largely and mercifully, by the institutions that educated me) and duration, it was out of all proportion to the price my labor can fetch in the church. Add to that a bachelor’s degree and a criminally underfunded internship requirement and it’s clear that, all too often, the new pastor is left holding the bag, with nothing but buggy-whips to redeem the debt. It is not fair for us, as a church, to do that, and it is not wise to engage in magical thinking about transforming our humble servants into a crop of church-revitalizing super-pastors.
Likewise I love the tasks of parish ministry — poring over my commentaries and literature for a sermon, meeting with a handful of kids for confirmation, visiting people in the hospital. May God grant me, and all of us so engaged, many years of doing just such things. “O feel-of-primrose hands, O feet / That want the yield of plushy sward,” wrote Hopkins of the priestly order; “But you shall walk the golden street, / And you unhouse and house the Lord.” That golden street will, as the world sees it, veer a little closer to the cross. So much the better, perhaps, for those who yet walk it.