National Congregations Study: Church Size and Clergy Age, Part 2 (the Church of Christ preacher shortage)

The Christian Chronicle and the preacher shortage

The Christian Chronicle just ran an editorial on the shortage of Church of Christ ministers.

But here in the U.S., our assessment of the pulpit deficit tends to be grim. Across the nation, churches seek to fill empty pulpits. Many small congregations struggle to find enough money in their budgets to attract and retain a talented minister. 

Now, before I read this, I didn’t realize we had a preacher shortage. My church has filled several positions, including the pulpit, in the last 3 years, and we had gobs of applications — often from men not then employed in ministry because they were working on their M.Div. I mean, I’ve personally listened to sermons from over 30 men applying for our pulpit position. We started with an even longer list.

But then, we’re a big church (attendance of 550 or so at the time, 680 now). And we’re progressive — which helps, I think.

And I recently attended a presentation at the ACU lectureships about the difficulty new M.Div. graduates often have getting hired. Churches don’t want to hire new graduates with no experience — especially if they don’t have a wife. If there’s a shortage, why aren’t these guys being snatched up?

And so I figure what we have here is not a preacher shortage so much as a mis-allocation of resources. Our universities are producing men with excellent educations (and large school debts) who want to go straight into the pulpit. But the big churches want a man with some experience, while the small churches don’t want anyone from ACU or Lipscomb and can’t afford to hire a preacher with the large school loans that come with a university education.

I mean, if the median church size is 75, well, how many churches can pay $30,000 for a minister (the average starting salary for a pulpit man according to the latest ACU salary survey)? How many will complain if his wife works? How many will allow him to preach a progressive theology?

Dealing with the absence of a preacher

How many ministers can afford to take a job that won’t let him support his wife and family — and pay off school loans? How many can afford to preach without a working wife?

In short, our problem is that we’re producing great preachers for the handful of churches that can afford them and that are willing to hear what they have to say, but many of our churches want a great preacher who will work cheap, be married with a stay-at-home wife, and teach legalism. 

The Chronicle’s website includes an editorial by David May suggesting ways to deal with the absence of a preacher.

If you have a good minister, keep him.  

Buy him and his family presents.  Give him bonuses.  Be sure he has good health insurance.   

Let him take off to go to lectureships and go home to see his family and take the kids camping or to Disney World.  And tell him how much you appreciate him — not once, but over and over.

Amen. Some elderships (and congregations) think the way to oversee a minister is to squeeze him for all he’s worth. Far better to treasure a good man and trust him to reciprocate with great service.

We tend to think of having a located preacher as a “must” for a growing or stable congregation.  Without one we feel that we are somehow incomplete.  But this is not the Bible picture.  Acts 14 describes the approach Paul and his missionary friends took to grow churches.  …  There is no indication that the missionaries helped the new church find a preacher or raise the money to support one – or that the congregation ever had one.

I encourage churches to view being without a preacher as a blessing and an opportunity.  When a church has no preacher the responsibility for the health of the congregation falls on the congregation and on God.  

Hmm … I don’t know. Some churches can do very well without a preacher — if God has given them the talent to lead without professional help. I’ve been part of a church that grew while undergoing a 2-year preacher search. The members filled the pulpit and ran the ministries, and we did pretty well. But we had gobs of talent.

I’ve also seen churches that were destroyed by a bad hire. But I’ve seen churches thrive beyond their dreams when they made a particularly good hire. 

And so, let me add a thought or two to May’s editorial —

* If you’re too small to hire the quality of man you need, find another church to merge with. Most churches of less than 200 are in towns with other Churches of Christ. The Churches are typically separate because of splits that occurred years ago for reasons that shouldn’t have mattered. Merge.

Or merge with a local Christian Church. Have an instrumental service and an a cappella service, and do God’s work together. This has actually happened in several towns, and when it does, it’s a powerful testimony to God’s power to heal division — if we’ll let him.

For that matter, merge even if you’re big enough to support your own minister. We shouldn’t require economic motives to merge. Love and faithfulness to God should be enough.

* Find two or three members with the gift of leadership and send them off for training, as I’ve described before, if not through a church planting organization, by other means. 

Send them to the Pepperdine and ACU lectureships, both, every year. Encourage them to meet with capable ministers and elderships in nearby cities and ask for guidance. Get them to network with proven leaders. Be sure they attend every ElderLink in your part of the country.

A talented man does not need a Bible degree or M.Div. to lead a church. He does need encouragement, training, and support. And if your church grows enough to later hire a fulltime minister, he’ll love being supported by a team of experienced, trained leaders. Your investment in these men will be rewarded for many decades.

You see, church growth is all about leadership. Some small churches grow and thrive and serve God’s kingdom powerfully. Some churches just barely keep the doors open. The difference is leadership.

Profile photo of Jay Guin

About Jay F Guin

My name is Jay Guin, and I’m a retired elder. I wrote The Holy Spirit and Revolutionary Grace about 18 years ago. I’ve spoken at the Pepperdine, Lipscomb, ACU, Harding, and Tulsa lectureships and at ElderLink. My wife’s name is Denise, and I have four sons, Chris, Jonathan, Tyler, and Philip. I have two grandchildren. And I practice law.
This entry was posted in Church Trends, Uncategorized and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

16 Responses to National Congregations Study: Church Size and Clergy Age, Part 2 (the Church of Christ preacher shortage)

  1. Joe Baggett says:

    I may have mis posted this comment but. There is a shortage. The number of churches in the USA is about 13,000. Most of which would fall into a traditional category with less than 150 members. No M-Div Graduate wants to go to a toxic environment like this and be paid very little and have his family put in a glass house and probably won't have health insurance. Only the schools of preaching are putting out graduates that fit the average size and culture of the churches of Christ. They aren't producing enough.

  2. jdb says:

    I really appreciated this post. I had seen some of the statistics before but appreciated seeing them again. I'm blessed to be with a smaller congregation that appreciates me. I've also preached in larger congregations as well.

    I have a little different take on what causes some of the preacher shortage. The first congregation I served was a smaller congregation in the plains that had been established in 1906. There was a very dominant family that tended to have the "power". If a preacher did not find favor with them he was not destined to be there long.

    Problem number 2 was apathy. It was hard to get them to turn out for anything. They were content to allow a larger congregation in the south "pay" for the preacher and come up and do the canvassing.

    Problem number 3 was focus. As someone who had just gotten out of school, I had a very idealistic view of what working among God's people would be like. I had studied all the brotherhood issues and had formulated an answer to each potential question. However, when the meeting began I was asked two questions. Could I live on $200 a week and would I be willing to preach and teach out of nothing but the KJV?

    Now, I understand that this is not the rule for every young preacher coming out of school, (thank God), but it happens enough to discourage many to get out of preaching and do something else. All this may be one of the reasons for the preacher shortage. (Thanks for letting me vent.) 🙂

  3. Jay Guin says:

    Joe and jdb,

    You both make good sense to me. It seems the colleges aren't producing the preachers the churches want.

    It's sad, but sometimes it works out. A friend of mine grew up in a small town with tightly wound, legalistic church.

    He came to me delighted the other day. His church hadn't been able to find a man who'd preach what they wanted to hear, so they hired a young guy from a Christian college — and the church has been transformed into a loving, grace-filled family.

    Sometimes good things happen.

  4. Joe Baggett says:

    That is great news Jay!

  5. jdb says:

    Jay,

    Thank you for the reply. You are right in that wonderful things can happen even in the most legalistic of congregations. The flip side to that is that if there is not some changes made, most of the most legalistic con- gregations will slowly "go the way of the world".

    I think one of the good things about age is that it gives you a little different perspective. I have seen great changes in the years I've been alive. There are times in a Bible class that I will get off on how good things are now compared to the way they used to be and my brethren will look at me as if I'd grown horns. The perspective that I'm trying to share with them as to what used to be "normal" among us is so foreign to them that they can't believe we would have ever taught or practiced such a thing. (Now THAT'S a sentence!)

    Overall, I'm very encouraged with the direction the majority of churches have gone. However, there is one thing that concerns me. I'm not sure the proper way to express it, so I'll just wade in. 🙂 The majority of congregations I have served would be described as "middle of the road." I see fewer and fewer of them. Far too often there is pressure from both fronts and it has become an "us or them" mentality.

    Anyway, thank you for the comment and the blog. I believe it's things we need to hear.

  6. Jay Guin says:

    jdb,

    Middle of the road churches are disappearing. The middle of the road is disappearing. Sadly, the result has been countless church splits, largely because elderships try to compromise and negotiate between competing factions rather than leading their churches into a better understanding of truth.

    When I was quite young, the churches argued over degrees of legalism — which rules would we impose as tests of fellowship? The new issue is whether to think like this at all, which makes compromise an ineffective solution. And that's why the middle of the road churches can't survive.

    I wrote on series on how to cope as the leader of a moderate church: http://oneinjesus.info/index-under-construction/o

  7. jdb says:

    Jay…

    I would give you an "amended amen". (Being a lawyer, I thought you might like that.) 🙂 I still think there is a place for a "middle of the road" congregation, but finding them is becoming harder and harder. It only works when you have a congregation that is interested in a spirit of brotherhood. From experience I've seen it fall apart when we stopped being concerned about one another.

    Before a very divisive element took over in my previous congregation, I believe we had done a very good job of finding a "middle of the road" position. However, you are correct in that when elders are more interested in negotiating between various factions or become the tools of one of the factions, this kind of unity will be impossible. When I was a Youth Minister, my group bought me a hat for my birthday. It had two bills, both facing in opposite directions and the hat said, "I'm Their Leader! Which Way Did They Go?" Unfortunately, that is the way it is with some elderships.

    However, when I talk about "middle of the road" congregations, I'm talking about a group that has chosen to put Rom. 14:1 into practice. The fact that we have different ideas give us that ability. However, you are right in that they seem to be disappearing and I find no pleasure in that. Our motto used to be, "Everybody gets a piece of the pie but nobody gets the whole pie." That was put into practice one Sunday when an elderly sister came to me and was complaining about the choice of songs that morning. (They were too new.) I told her, "Don't worry sister, it just wasn't your week…come back next week and we'll do better."

    Anyway, forgive me for running on, but this is an issue that really strikes a chord with me. Again, thank you for your blog. It makes us think.

  8. Frank says:

    Preacher shortages are like doctor shortages. Are there enough doctors in, say, Memphis? Yep. Rural Arkansas? No. Money is a huge issue, especially since the advent of the medical emergency that can bankrupt a family. The shift from rural to urban populations is making a huge difference too. I live in the Texas panhandle where I see dozens of congregations in small towns that are barely holding on and where morale is low. If they are within a half-hour commute to Amarillo, they lose some of their members to larger congregations in the city, churches with highly-professional staff, good programming etc.

  9. jdb says:

    Frank…

    I see this as a common occurrence as well. As a preacher in a smaller congregation in a smaller town, I have simply had to come to grips with the idea that if folks are looking for a "big" church, then all we can do is smile, wish them well, and go on. However, you said an interesting thing about moral. Low moral will kill any church and I believe it happens quicker in a small church. I believe part of the answer is to stop trying to compete with the "big" church and simply emphasize the things that we can offer as a smaller church.

    Our leaders here did an interesting thing. They were absolutely honest with the preachers who were interested in the congregation. They appreciated the talents of the new man but pointed to the board and said, "You can see that we really can't afford to pay you any more. However, we will make you this promise. If the giving goes up, you will be first on the list of priorities and your salary will go up." Within four weeks, it did. Within another 8 weeks it did again. That really helps elevate the preacher's moral who in turn works on lifting the congregations moral and…praise God…so far, so good. (It's not really about money, however, it is nice to have that appreciation shown in concrete terms.)

    BTW, I've served close to the area you are talking about and have friends who have served in the panhandle. It can be a challenging work, but hang in there!

    BTW, Jay…sorry if I took this off course…I tend to get "wordy". 🙂

  10. Joe Baggett says:

    jdb & Frank:

    I have been in the Texas Panhandle and in Rural Arkansas. It is as you say. I don't think people are looking for a big church per se but rather an open and hope filled church. We recenrlty did a stint in MS and we drove an hour from Vicksburg to Jackson to go Meadowbrook cofC. It had nothing to do with the size but rather the theology and attitude. We tried to help some of the smaller churches in the Vicksburg area but they were dead already and nothing could be done about it.

  11. jdb says:

    Joe

    That's a very good and interesting point. Our congregation runs in the 60-80 range on most Sundays. If you were to put a map down on the table and take a compass and chart how far our members drive, it would be at least an 80 mile radius. We also have folks, like you, who drive at least an hour to get to us. I agree that it is about attitude and grace.

  12. Charles McLean says:

    Stumbled across this two-year-old entry and just have to say, Jay, that when I do get to meet you personally, I fully intend to greet you with a holy kiss. Bless you! You used the "M" word– "MERGE"!

    This may sound strange coming from a person with a definite bias against religious institutionalism, but few things warm my heart as to see two local religious groups come together as one. If God does not have to accomplish this at economic gunpoint, so much the better! I have been blessed to be involved in not one, but two, such mergers. It takes a true servant's heart to make this work, but the witness among the community can be wonderful.

  13. Profile photo of Jay Guin Jay Guin says:

    Charles,I’ve been part of one successful merger and one that was tried but didn’t get off the ground. In both cases,  the merger was the way to go. I know of many mergers that have been very successful, bringing a new energy and vision to both churches. We need many thousands of them.

  14. Clark Raulerson says:

    What concerns me is what appears to be the very strict traditional churches of Christ are being strangled spiritually by their own legalism. Who goes there? I mean I visited a congregation which happened to be “anti” or believes kitchens in church buildings “institutionalizes the Lord’s church.” Out of a handful of saints not one person was under 50 except for myself. Who would want to preach/teach at a congregation like that even if it had 300 people with no mortgage. You must think you’re tongue tied and must conform to the traditions of the elders. This is so denominational it’s sad and I felt like I was in a Methodist church. And according to them they alone are faithful. How sad, I will stay with an organic house church since I live in a small town.

    I’m glad to hear progressive Churches of Christ are rising up to put it that way. I was with Crossroads CoC back in the day and left during the whole Boston Church “reconstruction” thing. But prior to that I was fascinated by leaders of the Restoration Movement from the beginning in the 1830’s.

    If a young minister feels threatened by a group of legalistic men who have not grown then just preach expositionally…book by book…context by context.

  15. Mark says:

    I came across this from a number of years ago. if it is still the case, why don’t some of these churches get seminary students to preach and be the minister for 6 months or a year? Some seminaries (Lipscomb and ACU) require this of D.Min. (and perhaps M.Div.) candidates but the students went to big, established congregations. (Yes, the very moderate congregations got the females and let them preach much to the dislike of the conservatives.) As an example, there are small temples in the South that can’t afford a rabbi and get a 4th year rabbinical student from the seminary to serve for a year. The student gets to see and learn practical ministry, which was just mentioned in a recent post. The congregation gets a rabbi and the costs aren’t anywhere near those of a salary.

  16. Profile photo of Jay Guin Jay Guin says:

    Mark,

    I’m not familiar with the current practices of our colleges for Bible majors, but there is a long tradition of Bible students volunteering to preach at small congregations in areas near their colleges, providing a free preacher at the local church in exchange for much needed practice and experience — and a home-cooked meal.

    My own church used to participate in a program with Lipscomb where we’d provide a two-year internship for ministers while they worked on their M.Divs. It took a great deal of the time of on-site staff, and we had to help the ministers raise some of their own support.

    The youth ministers wound up greatly preferring summer interns only — as this is when they really need the help. The other ministers had mixed results. Some students were extraordinarily gifted and they became valued staff members. Others not so much. It’s a big commitment for a church taking on interns. Then again, it’s likely one of the best means of training. I don’t know, but I imagine it greatly helped these guys get full-time jobs when they finished their internship. I know that in other fields, such as law, an internship is one of the best ways to be qualified for employment after school.

Leave a Reply