The Future of Ministry?


Isaiah 66:10-14
Psalm 66:1-9
Galatians 6:1-16
Luke 10:1-11, 16-20

Prayer of the Day: O God, the Father of our Lord Jesus, you are the city that shelters us, the mother who comforts us. With your Spirit accompany us on our life’s journey, that we may spread your peace in all the world, through your Son, Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord.

“See, I am sending you out like lambs into the midst of wolves. Carry no purse, no bag, no sandals; and greet no one on the road. Whatever house you enter, first say, “Peace to this house!” And if anyone is there who shares in peace, your peace will rest on that person; but if not, it will return to you. Remain in the same house, eating and drinking whatever they provide, for the laborer deserves to be paid.” Luke 10:3-7.

As a life-long member of the clergy, I find it hard to read this text without contemplating the current state of protestant ministry of Word and Sacrament in the United States. To say that we are facing a crisis is a tad hyperbolic. Nevertheless, our vocation is facing some significant challenges. The church and the culture in which we minister is changing. For reasons too numerous and complex to discuss in a short article, our churches are growing smaller, poorer and older. According to a recent article in the Christian Century, 37% of the congregations in my own Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) have an average attendance of fifty or less on a Sunday. “What Pastors Get Paid,” Christian Century, June 19, 2019, p. 25. Unless these churches have a substantial endowment to fall back on, they find it nearly impossible to support a full-time minister with a living wage and benefits.

Our vocation has also changed. In the church of my youth, seminarians were all young men, most of them single. They discerned their call early in life and began their ministerial training at colleges with programs designed to prepare them for advanced seminary training. For the most part, these young men grew up in the church, many of them in parsonages. They had a clear understanding of the expectations of ministry having seen it from the inside. There was also a general consensus within church and society concerning the role of ministers and what was expected of them. Unless they chose to become missionaries or mission developers for new church starts, ministers in the church of my childhood were not expected to concern themselves overly much with growth and innovation. For the most part, seminary grads entered into well functioning churches run by a council of experienced church leaders and working committees that handled the work of running the day to day operations.

The ministers graduating seminary in the church of my childhood knew they would never earn more than a living wage and they accepted that fact. They knew they would spend most of their lives living in houses that belonged to the church-a notoriously capricious landlord. Their cars would always be second or third hand and in need of constant repair. Any woman willing to marry one of these young men was given to understand that she was marrying a role as well as a man. Often these hapless women did as much or more ministry than their husbands except without pay and with little recognition. The quid pro quo for all of this was a special bond of love and loyalty toward the pastor on the part of the congregation. However much my folks may have criticized the pastor’s sermons, shook their heads at the way his wife dressed, looked with dismay on the conduct of his children, he was, after all, our pastor. He was the one present when grandma breathed her last and he walked with us through the difficult grieving process as no other person did. He baptized us kids and put up with our antics in confirmation class. We knew that we could call him at any hour of day or night and he would be there for us. For that we loved him, warts and all.

By the time I entered seminary in the late 70s, that paradigm was on its last legs. Like the rest of the country, the church was caught up in the turmoil of the late 60s. Pastors were having to confront hot button issues like the Vietnam war, feminism, civil rights and changing attitudes toward sexuality. They were assailed by conflicting voices. Some urged them to hold the line against the tidal wave of change. Others challenged them to engage directly with the issues on. Pastors were increasingly expected to become experts in marriage counselling, addiction treatment and spousal abuse. The once well-defined role of parish pastor was becoming increasingly broad, blurred and conflicted.

Seminary life had changed as well. Women made up at least 30% of my seminary class. A good many of my classmates were older individuals with life experience, skills and maturity I lacked, but without the solid grounding in theology and biblical languages with which I came to seminary. Many of these students were married with families, struggling to balance the demands of their class work with the needs of their loved ones. The faculty’s response to all of this was mixed. Some professors worked hard to draw out the contributions of women, older students and the few people of color among us. Others went right on lecturing to young white men just as though no one else was in the room. One thing had not changed, however. Seminary was affordable. I was paying about $800 per quarter at Luther Seminary in St. Paul, Minnesota in 1978. College costs were not insignificant, but still within reach for blue collar workers like my parents who wanted to give their children the education they lacked. Consequently, I graduated seminary penniless, but debt free.

Today a college education alone is increasingly beyond the reach of anyone unwilling to assume substantial debt. The cost of seminary education has similarly skyrocketed. It is not uncommon for seminarians to graduate with a student loan liability of $100,000 in combined seminary and college debt. In view of the staggering cost of preparing for ministry and the diminished ability of congregations to provide even adequate compensation, it is not surprising that seminary registration has dropped off significantly. Of course, declining enrollment strains the finances of seminaries leading many of them to close or merge with other institutions. Clearly, the current model of ministry is unsustainable unless something unforeseen changes the trajectory of our churches.

How does our gospel lesson speak to all of this? Jesus does not give us a silver bullet. He never does. But I think there is some valuable guidance here. “Carry no purse, no bag, no sandals.” Luke 10:4. It is useful to remember that the church doesn’t need much in the way of material wealth to fulfill its mission. Give us a Bible, a bottle of wine and a little water and we are open for business. Everything we have that isn’t one of those three items is disposable wealth. From that perspective, we are crazy rich. We just have to get over our attachment to ivy covered buildings with bronze plaques bearing the names of ecclesiastical patriarchs, pews engraved with family names, institutions that live off the affection of their alumnae and lots of other stuff that could be put to better use. Scarcity of resources is not the issue. The resources are there. It’s just a matter of priorities.

“The laborer deserves to be paid,” Jesus tells us. Luke 10:7. The work of ministry is too important to be left to whoever shows up and has nothing more pressing to do on a Sunday morning. It belongs to those who are called, set aside, trained and compensated for that purpose. Jesus took great care in selecting his disciples and those he sent out. He fully anticipated that they would be compensated for their work-at least to the extent of being sustained by it. The church must value its ministers and their work at least as much as does Jesus.

For that reason, I am not a fan of part time ministry. I understand that there are circumstances where it appears necessary and some places where it seems to work. I have nothing but respect for those enterprising pastors that are able to make such arrangements effective. But I am not convinced that this is a healthy paradigm for the church as a whole. I believe that there is value in setting aside a member of the community whose vocation is solely to study and apply the Word of God, preside at the Lord’s Table, welcome members into the Body of Christ through baptism and bury the dead. To do these things “half time” is, in my opinion, to do them half assed. Whether a congregation worships twenty-five or twenty-five thousand on a weekend, it needs a pastor who is deeply into the scriptural text, attentive to the ebb and flow of congregational life and connected to all facets of the surrounding community. That is more than a full time job. The quantum of pastoral responsibility is never determined by the size of the congregation, but by the magnitude of the congregation’s mission.

Still, it remains true that the existing road to parish ministry is increasingly difficult for people of ordinary means, to say nothing of those coming from circumstances of poverty. We need a different way of preparing people for the ministry of Word and Sacrament. I think we can all agree that an eight year educational commitment ending in a master’s degree from an accredited institution is not necessarily the only way to prepare individuals for ministry. It also seems clear to me that an overhaul of seminary curriculum is long overdue. But I believe that seminary training and experience is critically important, regardless of whether it is credited or unaccredited, preceded by a college degree or not. We don’t help ourselves by short circuiting that experience. Here is what I mean: conference call discussions, skype lectures and e-mail interchanges are an inadequate substitute for true community. Saving money, accommodating busy schedules and reducing overhead are poor excuses for eviscerating person to person contact that is at the heart of what the church is. “Virtual community” is a gnostic myth that should have no place in Christian education, least of all seminary. There is a reason the Word became flesh rather than “virtual.”

The most valuable education takes place when teachers and students sit at the same table and discuss issues over lunch. Spiritual growth occurs when students argue, discuss and joke about the Bible, church history, our confessions of faith and life in general in the hallway, in a coffee shop or over a beer. Whatever form seminary may take in the future, I hope it has a physical local where seminarians live together in community in some measure. Living in community is essential to preparation for ministry. That is, after all, the way Jesus trained his disciples. I am aware that this might require prospective seminarians to make some sacrifices. Some might well need to be told that they are not yet ready to pursue a call to ministry of Word and Sacrament. They might have to be led to the understanding that their calling lies instead with caring for their families, fulfilling obligations within their respective jobs and serving the communities in which they live.

Ideally, I would like to see my church reduce its numerous seminaries to one single seminary. I would like to see all our increasingly diverse seminary demographic living together, eating together and playing together just as they are learning together. In such a community it becomes possible to do the hard work of confronting our inbred racism and sexism, overcoming our blinding stereotypes and learning to hear one another’s stories. Such a seminary setting could prepare the next generation of pastors to lead our church into a new day of witness in a nation increasingly polarized along so many fault lines.

Though it has nothing much to do with the above, we will observe the 4th of July holiday this week. Pastors often feel the need to acknowledge national holidays in some way, shape or form. Here is a poem by Allison Adelle Hedge Coke. It is a fitting meditation for Independence Day and a reminder that this day marking the birth of our nation is, for the Americans who were here before us, the beginning of the end of their nations.

America, I Sing You Back

for Phil Young and my father Robert Hedge Coke;
for Whitman and Hughes

America, I sing back. Sing back what sung you in.
Sing back the moment you cherished breath.
Sing you home into yourself and back to reason.

Before America began to sing, I sung her to sleep,
held her cradleboard, wept her into day.
My song gave her creation, prepared her delivery,
held her severed cord beautifully beaded.

My song helped her stand, held her hand for first steps,
nourished her very being, fed her, placed her three sisters strong.
My song comforted her as she battled my reason
broke my long-held footing sure, as any child might do.

As she pushed herself away, forced me to remove myself,
as I cried this country, my song grew roses in each tear’s fall.

My blood-veined rivers, painted pipestone quarries
circled canyons, while she made herself maiden fine.

But here I am, here I am, here I remain high on each and every peak,
carefully rumbling her great underbelly, prepared to pour forth singing—

and sing again I will, as I have always done.
Never silenced unless in the company of strangers, singing
the stoic face, polite repose, polite while dancing deep inside, polite
Mother of her world. Sister of myself.

When my song sings aloud again. When I call her back to cradle.
Call her to peer into waters, to behold herself in dark and light,
day and night, call her to sing along, call her to mature, to envision—
then, she will quake herself over. My song will make it so.

When she grows far past her self-considered purpose,
I will sing her back, sing her back. I will sing. Oh I will—I do.
America, I sing back. Sing back what sung you in.

Source: Streaming (c. 2014 by Allison Adelle Hedge Coke, pub. by Coffee House Press). Allison Adelle Hedge Coke (b. 1958) is an American poet and editor. She is currently a distinguished professor of creative writing at the University of California, Riverside. She was born in Amarillo, Texas and grew up in North Carolina, Canada and on the Great Plains. Hedge Coke dropped out of high school and went to work sharecropping tobacco and working fields to support herself. She obtained her GED at age sixteen and went on to study photography, traditional arts, and writing in community education classes at North Carolina State University. Hedge Coke is of mixed heritage, including Native American. She frequently addresses issues of culture, prejudice, indigenous rights and the environment in her writing and poetry. You can read more about Allison Adelle Hedge Coke and sample more of her poetry at the Poetry Foundation website.

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