appointing pastors missologically?

Ok, I’m quite sure there’s plenty of conversation to be had in lots of directions about this, but here are a few thoughts under the heading: “What would it look like to appoint pastors with a missiological approach?”

First, let’s agree that one central goal of establishing churches in the “mission field,” that contributes to the long-term health, and therefore missional faithfulness, of a congregation is to transition to indigenous leadership as early as is healthy to do so. If we can agree on that, we’re at a good starting point for some of my thoughts, as what I’m mulling over begins with that assumption.

Second, let’s consider that, anecdotally at least, and perhaps in studies (I’ve heard them referenced, but haven’t tracked it down to quote here), many or most of our present incoming clergy (in the UMC, perhaps others as well?) are from metropolitan and suburban congregation backgrounds. But the career path of most clergy includes, if not begins, in small towns and rural areas, or even in moderate-sized towns, but not in places like the suburban and metropolitan areas from which they came. In this scenario (played out many times over), the assumptions about and picture of ministry in the church differs significantly from one’s background to the place one is sent to lead.

Now, on the one hand, we can talk about the need to equip our metropolitan and suburban new clergy for ministry in many, many of our churches that are far from the culture of metropolitan and suburban life. Perhaps (anecdotal experience backs this up) we look down upon the person who is ill-equipped for a smaller town church experience that the present career path assumptions to them to because their ideals were poorly paired with a set of different realities in the smaller city. This seems to me to be the tack we as a denomination (at least those who have thought about and spoken to this dynamic).

But there is another angle to this issue. Two thoughts come to mind.

1. If we are working from the first assumption and applying it to North American Christianity–assuming a missological approach that does not take for granted cookie-cutter Christendom churches, then we might acknowledge that indigenous leadership of congregations is arguably not happening when “city folk” are sent to smaller-to-medium towns, and vice-versa. Now, it is important to acknowledge up front that sometimes persons discover affinities for places that are unlike that in which they grew up. That said, affinity for place is closely related to being “indigenous” in my view.

2. If it is, in fact, true that we currently have few persons entering the clergy from churches serving rural and smaller-to-medium sized towns, then we would be wise to ask ourselves, “What is it about our denomination, that we find this dynamic to be the case?” I assume here the addage that an organization is designed to get the results it is getting. While both of these two thoughts are germane to our present situation in American Protestantism in general and the UMC in particular, this one is the more disturbing in my view.

So, we appoint numbers of persons with an affinity for metropolitan, suburb, and ex-urb areas to rural and smaller-to-medium town areas, presumably for two reasons. One, fewer of the former congregations that the number of persons with an affinity toward that sort of place. And two, the economics relative to career path trajectories typically works in that direction as well.

Another thought to consider is the increasing value on longer tenures would seem to suggest that matching persons with a natural affinity to the place they are sent to lead would contribute strongly to that desired end. But back to my main point in this post. 

Might we live into our future in a stronger place if we worked toward this missiological concept of raising up indigenous leadership for our churches in the clergy ranks? One element of this would include solving the riddle concerning the relative lack of persons in rural and smaller town areas responding to a call to ordained ministry. Is a “culture of the call” lacking in these places? Is there something about our denomination’s organizational culture that works against this? A second element of this would involve a commitment to creative thinking about opportunities for ministry that we are not seizing because we are sending persons with a metro/suburb affinity away. What if they were invested in the place of greatest affinity? We are a shrinking denomination, so surely there are opportunities we would do well to seize in the metro/suburb context?

Answering a few potential objections:

1. “You say this because you have an affinity for metro/suburb places. This is really pretty self-serving.” Suppose that’s true. So what? Is my thinking off base? Do I have a point or not?

2. “You’re putting down the rural/smaller-town church.” I’m not taking sides. I’m looking at the direction things are going in the present reality. If it went the opposite direction, that the lion’s share of our new clergy leadership were coming from smaller and medium towns, thus producing a situation in which clergy leaders of our metro/suburb churches were persons with strong affinity elsewhere, the point to be made would be the exact same.

3. “I’ve got a story about how I didn’t want to go somewhere, but the bishop/cabinet sent us and we discovered we loved it.” That’s great. I acknowledged that sometimes we do discover affinities for places we didn’t expect to. How many anecdotes do you have about persons who lack that experience? The anecdotal evidence is valuable, but I don’t think it adequately answers the problems that we see these days in the church. Seems to me that we face a balancing act here. On the one hand, we never underestimate the possibility and power of that sort of blessing. It is wonderful and quite worthy of celebration. On the other hand, we do not succumb to old thinking that says, “All we need to do is whip the people doing it now into shape and have them try harder and things will turn around/work out/improve.” Realistic thinking says, “We don’t need to try the present, ineffective methods harder. We need new, creative methods that are true to the substance of the faith and mission of the Church.”

Help me out with this. Thoughts?

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8 thoughts on “appointing pastors missologically?

  1. I always noticed the gap myself – having been raised mostly in American suburbia and then appointed to small town/rural churches where the culture was completely different than what I knew. Having moved all my life, I can adapt fairly well, but that’s not the only issue. Just because I can adapt, doesn’t mean I’m instantly effective. Sometimes the people in my churches have perceived a culture gap. They ask why a suburban-raised-academic type has been sent to them.

    Our system seems to be predicated on the assumption that there are two kinds of people: ordained and non-ordained. As far as appointments go, ordained people are all functionally alike: we can all preach, administer sacraments, and lead the congregation. Spiritual gifts and the culture, of pastor or congregation, are simply ignored as irrelevant.

    Our rhetoric on this has been changing of late. I don’t think the changes reached the level of conviction for most of our leaders yet.

    As to raising up more pastors from small town & rural areas, part of the problem is also cultural. Our model for training pastors is to extract them from their culture, re-enculturate them – usually in variants of urban & academic culture – and then send them back. Sure we have local pastors, but they often don’t get the respect or opportunities of those who have been enculturated in the mainstream system.

  2. I think part of the problem that you are describing is that we no longer offer a “McMethodist” church. I think part of the success of the itinerate system has been that there were not as many “expressions” of Methodist Churches as there currently are. We all ascribe to the discipline, have many pastors that have gone to the same school, but the way we are going about the accomplishment of our task to “Make Disciples” is very different when you look across the lines in the sand between rural, suburban, and urban settings.

    I doubt that the senior pastor of a church of 3000 would say, “It is just like pastoring a really big version of the east Texas church of 30 that I stared at.”

    I also think that there is not a whole clear vision for what the fate of the rural churches in our conference will be. The statements about “Every church, no matter its size, is a valid ministry” comes across as lip service in light of the new discussions of accountability and fruitfulness.

  3. I had a friend that was moved from one church to the next and he truly believed in the process. After he got his appointment, one of the gentlemen on the committee that moved him asked him how liked his new raise. As if that was the most important thing in this process. My friend responded that this was nice, but he was more interested in the dynamics of the church that he would be going to. But this gentleman made it clear that climbing the ladder was extremely important. Honestly, I’m not sure how much God’s will had to do with that move.
    That sickens me.

  4. Thanks for the comments thus far.

    Richard:
    I appreciate the points you make in particular… (1) About adaptability not necessarily translating into timely effectiveness. If I were making that comment, I would say that having a good attitude and being adaptable is not the issue so much as optimum effectiveness on the part of the pastor and the congregation. I would think that happens when clergy and congregations mesh well and an important component of that would seem to be like affinities regarding context and place for ministry.

    (2) The comment about the “extraction” paradigm for ministry preparation seems especially germane to the discussion. Are there ways to better interweave intellectual formation, spiritual formation, ministry formation, etc than our current approach? I have to think the answer is yes. I don’t think it’s simply a matter of getting people to have a ministry job or a student pastorate throughout seminary, though that is well and good. The picture in my mind is something more in the constellation of apprenticeship, coaching, and mentoring.

    Matt has some good interaction with my post on his blog. I recommend checking it out.

    Rick:
    Thanks for the point about the “McMethodism” of the past. This is relevant not only because the churches are not the same, thus lacking the need for the clergy cog in the right place for everything to keep the moving parts in order, but also because the context in which those churches are called to minister is not the same.

    Goat:
    Welcome to the blog; thanks for the comments. The raise is definitely a good thing, but like you say, if that’s all it is, there are better raises out there in a less stressful and complex job! The “slot the salary” approach is definitely old school. So, while provision for the family is a legitimate issue for the clergy, that isn’t the only part that demands satisfaction for us to get all jazzed up. Good stuff.

  5. My approach: Given that I’m appointed to serve a population different from the one of my upbringing, how can I as a spiritual leader empower the people in this congregation? My most “successful” ministry was one where I as a middle-class high church suburbanite educated at elitist institutions was appointed to serve small-town junior college charismatics.

    That said, my biggest frustrations and failures have come when there is a serious disconnect between my passion for ministry and a congregation’s expectations of their pastor.

  6. Hi, Susan. Thanks for chiming in. I absolutely agree with that approach for individuals, given the circumstances of the appointment/position one finds oneself in.

    What I’m thinking about is how we as a church arrive at placing persons in that position.

    The second thought, it seems to me, relates to what I’m talking about here: how to negotiate expectations from the congregation on the one hand and ministry passion/vision of the pastor on the other (in cases in which there is a disconnect). It seems to me that indigenous leadership is advantageous here because “one of my own” can tell me things that an outsider who won’t be appointed here for very long anyway can’t as effectively.

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