The question I am asked the most is, “How is your work with CBFGA?” Lately, the second most-asked question I get is, “Where is my church going to find its next pastor?” Most of the time, my response is a garbled attempt at explaining the shifting sands of church culture, theological education, and ministerial calling. It is usually a hard conversation to have because I do not have good answers.
In his excellent book, Leadership without Easy Answers, Ron Heifetz, founder of the Center for Public Leadership at the Harvard Kennedy School, describes the tension between technical work and adaptive work. Technical work, says Heifetz, leads to action, because it is the application of known solutions to known problems. In past generations, when churches grew, buildings were built, and programs were begun, because that is what you do with a growing population within an organization: find a physical place for them and give them work or structure to keep them involved. What happens, though, when problems arise for which, there are no known solutions?
Heifetz says that leadership must become adaptive. Something is not a problem if it has a solution. Heifetz’s training as a physician helps him differentiate between a problem and a condition. Problems, medically speaking, have known, clear treatments, such as setting a broken bone. But a condition, like a chronic illness or terminal disease, does not have clear medical solutions. A condition is something you learn to live with.
In this post-pandemic, increasingly post-Christendom society, we are having to learn to live with the changing role of the church. No longer the center of our physical communities, the church is now ceding its place as the center of moral authority for a sizable number of people as well. These changes are directly influencing the hiring of pastors, staff ministers, and of filling other leadership positions within our congregations.
The COVID-19 pandemic certainly slowed the pace at which ministers are hired for congregational openings, but it also exacerbated the need for such hires in the first place. Before COVID hit in 2020, I was quick to point out that more than a quarter of CBFGA’s partner churches would experience pastoral leadership turnover by 2025 because the Baby Boomer generation had already begun to retire, and those on the backend of that generation would be nearing retirement, too. During COVID, though, some pastors found the stress and strain of church life to be far too much and retired even earlier than they planned. Some decided to wait until their church made it (mostly) through the pandemic and now have hung up their ministerial robes. The result is a lot of pastoral turnover within the last couple of years, with more on the way.
As my good friend Dean Greg DeLoach of the McAfee School of Theology describes in an article of this issue of Visions, the changing landscape of theological education means that fewer students are coming to seminary than in previous generations and even fewer of them want to be congregational ministers. In short, fast-food restaurants are not the only places which are short-staffed in this life after COVID.
So, instead of a ministerial hiring problem, we have a ministerial hiring condition. There are no easy answers. Congregations would do well to engage in conversation about vocational calling, especially within youth ministries, but there is no guarantee that students will readily respond.
Congregations and organizations like CBFGA should certainly be investing in collegiate campus ministry by having a ministerial presence on campus and in the lives of students, but that requires financial commitments that do not always see a return on investment through church membership growth or financial gains. Seminaries will need to change curricular approaches and engagement, too, but that brings a separate set of issues to the table.
On November 6-7, at our State Gathering at FBC Augusta, Dave Odom, Executive Director of Leadership Education at Duke Divinity School, will lead us in three conversations around the table exploring what congregational leadership, both laity and clergy, looks like in this new era. I hope you can join us for what promises to be a fruitful and good time together.
The signs are everywhere that church life is changing in this post-pandemic world. The churches that are adaptive in their approach and mind set will have a much better chance at surviving and thriving than those who continue to approach the world with technical eyes. Can’t you read the signs? Is your church adapting?