Local pastors fill major gap for UMC
(Note: this column first appeared in the Oct. 5, 2012 edition of the United Methodist Reporter. The author is Michael A. Riegler, pastor of Faith United Methodist Church and Chair of the John Wesley Association in the West Michigan Conference.)
The September 7 Reporter included a fine article by the Rev. Jay Vorhees. If present trends continue, the article reported, The United Methodist Church will no longer have adequate numbers of ordained elders to serve all of our churches by the year 2032. Simply put, we are retiring elders faster than we are ordaining new ones.
Mr. Vorhees also reports that the UMC's General Board of Higher Education and Ministry held a summit meeting this past August to address our need to be intentional about identifying, helping, encouraging and recruiting young people to choose a path of college, seminary and ordination, to increase the supply of new ordained elders. I enthusiastically agree ... as far as it goes.
Called to serve
As a licensed local pastor (recently turned associate member) and as the chair of the John Wesley Association of Local Pastors and Associate Members in the West Michigan Conference, I notice a lack of consideration for the role of the local pastor. Firstly, we are not about to have too few ordained elders to serve all the churches. Rather, we are already in that position and have been for some time. Nearly one-third of United Methodist pastors are local pastors. We have more than 100 in the West Michigan Conference alone. The gap between new elders coming in and retiring elders going out has been, and will continue to be filled by the local pastors. Additionally, we must recognize that this trend is accelerating.
Some may contemplate this with despair. I do not. The local pastor track offers The United Methodist Church access to a tremendous pool of talented, experienced and highly motivated Christian disciples, called by God to serve God's Church. Many have been active in the church and successful in other fields for many years. Many have "paid their dues" through years lay leadership and lives of discipleship, as well as through acquiring professional experience and higher educaiton.
We already have adequate history to prove to us that this works. Local pastors are successful in our churches. Every one of them? Of course not. However, check the records. Churches served by local pastors are doing well. Ask around. Talk to people from churches that have local pastors. As with elders, the reports will be mixed, but many will be surprised at the positive reports.
We are already aware that education level is a poor predictor of performance as a pastor. Yet we make seminary education the key differential component of our clergy ordination process--not call, not ability, not devotion, not results, not even knowledge. Does that make sense?
And, by the way, local pastors receive a significant education. In the Licensing School and Course of Study required of all local pastors, I read 96 books and wrote 760 pages of papers on those books. I spent approximately 1,750 hours doing that. I attended 480 hours in 24 classes, taught by 13 different seminary professors and nine different district superintendents or elders.
Is this the same as a Masters of Divinity degree? No. But neither is it an insignificant theological education. I am all for creating as many seminarians and ordained elders as we are able. But we must also avoid the trap of thinking that we must keep doing what we have always done, because we have always done it. Perhaps most especially, the ordained elders within the power structure of our denomination must avoid the temptation to believe that "it must be done this way, because it is the way I did it."
If our leadership can stop looking at the local pastor track as an unfortunate but necessary way to fill empty pulpits, and start seeing it as a positive, rich, fruitful source of talented and capable clergy--a way to infuse the UMC with faith, fervor, devotion, talent, vitality and enthusiasm to "get out there" and serve God's kingdom--then we can confidently move into the future with plenty of vital pastors to serve plenty of vital churches.