I’ve recently come across three different congregations which are facing the same problem. All of them are located in small-town, rural America. All of them are relatively small. All of them have members who are quite affluent. All three have recently lost their preachers. The question is what to do about it.
In the case of church 1, the preacher died. He was very up-front about his preexisting disease when the church brought him on. If I heard correctly, he lived longer than the doctors expected but was only able to serve for a few years. In spite of his brief ministry, he was able to unite the church and restore its reputation in the community. Outreach he began is still being carried forward. He is deeply missed and remembered with fondness.
In church 2, the preacher retired. It was one of those situations where he was asked to fill the pulpit temporarily and ended up staying 17 years. He and his wife developed close ties with the people. There was some growth during those 17 years, but not much. Since their leaving, tensions within the body have surfaced and some people have left. On a good Sunday, perhaps 30 people will show up.
Church 3’s situation is a little different. In its case, the preacher was called elsewhere to plant new churches. The congregation of conservative farmers heaved a sigh of relief to be shut of someone with big city attitudes and a surfer-culture background. Though there was some growth during the preacher’s tenure, he never really fit in.
Though the circumstances in all three congregations are different, they all face the same problem: How are they going to fill the pulpit? Who will lead the Sunday services?
Congregation 3 decided to hire an interim preacher while they search for someone to fill the position permanently. A retired Bible college professor happened to move to the area and they asked him to fill in. The congregation loves him and what he’s doing. From what I’ve seen, the man is doing a wonderful job. He’s unified the congregation. He goes out of his way to work with the Elders. He’s brought new life to several of the ministries. The problem is that he’s fairly elderly and doesn’t want the responsibility of a full-time position. He asked me to keep my ear to the ground for potential candidates. “The pool of qualified people who are willing to work in a rural environment is pretty small,” he said.
Church 2 has chosen a more innovative route to fill their empty pulpit. They’ve been inviting speakers from congregations in other towns to come in each Sunday. A retired preacher from another state is in the process of re-locating to their town and he speaks fairly often, but they still want outsiders to fill the majority of the slots.
Congregation 1 went still another route. The Elders have set up a speaker rotation where they and other men from within the congregation do the majority of the speaking and teaching. Only occasionally will they ask someone from the outside to bring a sermon.
Three congregations with three different solutions to a common problem. But something which intrigues me about the situation is how strong the pull of church tradition is. All three congregations feel the pressure to conform to the “pulpit minister” system we are all so familiar with.
I get the impression that church 3 cannot envision anything else. They would find it extremely difficult to function without an appointed preacher who also functions as the chief decision maker and spiritual guide. Though the church has Elders, it seems to me that they primarily function as business managers. Most, if not all of them, would feel extremely out of place delivering a sermon.
Church 2 is considerably smaller than the other two. They have a few men who can teach a class and/or prepare a sermon but, I readily concede, the church does not have the depth of talent as the others. As one of the leaders put it to me, “I have a business to run. I can’t give the church the time and attention it needs without neglecting the business. I can’t give the business the attention it needs without short-changing the church. It seems to me that you can’t be an effective Elder unless you’re retired.” That dilemma increases the pressure to hire a full-time minister. It’s causing tension within the group. A majority seem to like hearing from outsiders, but others want the stability of someone full-time. The retired preacher who is moving into the area came with the specific understanding that he would help out by doing some of the speaking and teaching but would not become the pulpit minister. In conversations with me he freely acknowledged that the one-man-band model isn’t biblical. Yet, recently, he seems to have changed his mind. He wants the church to put him on full-time. He apparently said that without a pulpit minister the church won’t have legitimacy in the eyes of society.
Church 1 seems to be flourishing. From what I can tell the speaker rotation is bringing depth and variety of insight to the congregation. The Elders are growing closer to those under their care as they actively shepherd the flock. As a result, people are growing in Christ. Yet, the pressure to hire a preacher is still strong. The Elders are seriously considering doing so. Fortunately, there is push-back from the congregation. As one man told them, “Don’t you dare hire someone to do your job!”
That statement raises an interesting question: Why should a church hire a preacher or minister, anyway? Why do we need them? I think the answer is in what we used to call them. Preachers and pulpit ministers used to be called evangelists. Now think for a moment what a difference it would make if churches hired evangelists, not to fill their pulpits, but to do what their title implies! Let’s leave the pastoring to actual Pastors (that is, the Elders) and require our evangelists to get themselves out of the four walls of the church building and actually start evangelizing among those who need to hear the Gospel. If only Elders would ‘eld’ instead of expecting the preachers they hire to do the speaking and teaching! It would revolutionize and re-vitalize the church.