Friday, May 24, 2013

Rectors (Pastors): The Odds are Against You!

by Gary Gilbertson
The Church expects her parish clergy to be successful in leading congregations that grow spiritually, numerically and financially: congregations whose servant ministry reaches near and far.  Clergy that are successful are rewarded with additional opportunities as rector or pastor:  unsuccessful clergy are fired, forced to resign or encouraged to seek a vocational change.  Its the American way, its the Episcopal Church way to track growth or decline in:  (1) active membership, (2) average Sunday attendance, and (3) income.
So each year we turn out tons of new clergy - of all ages - some with seminary degrees or increasingly the home-schooled who are seeking a "call" so they can be successful (employed.)  But!  Mainline Christian congregations are in decline; that's a fact.  There are fewer and fewer full-time clergy positions each year.  In the American Episcopal Church over 40% of our 6,736 congregations are not able to have full-time clergy.  Less than 2,500 of our congregations provide for a single full-time rector; but wait - more than half those congregations are in decline.
The chances of a declining congregations being turned around is dismal.  Most church researchers, like the Barna Group, state that trying to revitalize a declining church is probably a wasted effort; the death of that church is usually unavoidable.  Clergy who don't value being recognized as successful leaders and who are unconcerned about their next position are well suited to these 3500+ congregations in the Episcopal Church or in a similar pastorate in their own communion.
Parish clergy, do you want to improve the odds?  Then discern carefully where God is calling you.  Try to avoid congregations on prolonged plateaus.  It may be helpful to understand some of the many factors that destroy a congregation's momentum:  (1) inadequate prior leadership and management, (2) demographic changes, (3) capital campaigns and building costs, and (4) judicatory interference and incompetence.  These problems are often compounded by a membership that is too self-absorbed and resistant to change.
Again the question, "Parish clergy, do you want to improve the odds?"  First, you must be a strong leader.  Barna's studies found that churches that "call" caretakers, healers, managers, administrators, teachers or consensus builders fail to gain ground.  Good intentions coupled with the title of Pastor or Rector is not enough.  Barna states, "toughness is requisite for leadership in making decisions that disturb the status quo but benefit the body."  The point is that leadership is not about being loved by everybody.  It is doing what is best for the parish even though it may stir up some complaints or disturb tranquil settings.
Another way to improve your leadership odds is to be filled with energy and enthusiasm plus a commitment to work hard.  Being a person of prayer who can share a quality sermon also raises the odds. Enlist a core group that will assist, support, and be honest with you.  Expect to be a workaholic rather than getting comfortable on cruise-control.
Unfortunately, many of us have friends that failed to beat the odds.


  1. Really excellent essay, Gary, thanks.

  2. So, you're saying "pick a winner" and "be tough."

    And forget about the 4,200 congregations that can't afford a full-time priest; they're clearly losers.

    Just want to be sure I'm hearing you correctly.

  3. Roger, your comment is very shallow and flippant. Gary was looking that the deployment situation in the church, which is bleak; the persistent decline of the mainline churches, and the leadership skills required to revive and renew near moribund religious institutions.

    1. I found the advice about avoiding congregations in long plateaus disturbing. Perhaps it was what prompted Roger's comment. I found it out of place, especially after the advice about discerning God's call. God calls clergy to such places, some to use their gifts to change things dramatically, others to care for people in a place where numerical growth is all but impossible.

  4. Roger, what he's saying is that if you're called to a congregation in decline, then you can't expect it to grow without working hard and shaking the apple cart. You can't expect a declining church to coast into growth. Church leaders who want their churches to grow have to set a vision and work together with the parish for that vision. If leaders are complacent in church growth then there won't be churches around for the leaders to minister to and in.

  5. Single, simple reality: an average church building in The USA costs $50/60k to stay alive. The average full time clergy package for one parish priest full time is at minimum $80k. Utilities, music, minimal supplies. . . . Nothing more. Average pledging and other giving units. . . 60 to 100 x $1,500. . . Looks like red ink to me. Leadership of a reasonable quality for pastoral care. . . Really?

  6. Interesting read. Somehow having the odds "against you" sounds like a sound biblical principle. In fact, it may be a prerequisite!

    I also resonated with the importance of leadership. But, it's not easy. I've lead in the church that has been roundly criticized and misunderstood. It's a lonely place when even one's colleagues think that I've walked away from the tradition. Ultimately it doesn't matter because God has blessed me along the way.

  7. My apologies for joining the forum late, but this is a good discussion. Simply put, our society gives little "value" to the Church these days. We speak poorly in most historical references to the Church of the Dark Ages, but then, the institution was a hospice, a hospital, a library, courthouse, a mall, a center, basically for all activity. Now there are options. We have abdicated everything out and now we are at risk of losing any moral authority we once held.

    I had an unpleasant situation where I was called to lead a Church in Louisiana to grow once again. She was experiencing a ten-year plateau and drop. With application in my preaching and a loving tone in my reaching, the Church grew in less than six months. There were 20 children ages 5-7 who received their first communion on Easter Day and another twenty, sixth and seventh graders who were confirmed on Pentecost. There were many great lay leaders who simply needed a good leader who believed in them and cast a good vision. The problem I ran into was with the School. There was a good bit of intermarriage of relations between the Vestry and School Board with each drawing their own line in the sand. With my children expected to be enrolled there were several encounters between myself and some teachers about the lack of reinforcement of Christian values. These were verbalized and in writing by the founders of the Church School. What I discovered was that you can put a cross on the door and require daily morning prayer, mass one day a week, but that doesn't make you a Christian school. The level of self-propagation for the sake of power and downright nastiness towards one another made our school's reputation legendary in the greater community. We were known as the wealthy snobs who take what they want, and a minority ran the whole place. It eventually led to my dissolution when I challenged the practice. Too bad the Vestry got caught up in the lies and had to create their own to justify how they treated me and my family. Now we are in a better place waiting for what God has in store. Everything I hear in this blog is mostly true. The odds are against any clergy that dare to stand up for the Gospel and call a spade a spade. You don't have to be political to succeed. You have to exercise patience, love and self-control without changing your core belief in God.

    What I've learned is that it takes a while to build trust with your congregation. The problem there, is that the expectations are usually so great, you may not have enough time. My advice: Speak the truth, speak from your heart and let them know it's their Church and you love 'em. Lastly, consider being bi-vocational.

  8. The Rev. Pamela Mulac, Ph.D.August 22, 2013 at 7:06 AM

    I am currently the vicar of an Episcopal Church that was "in decline," after several years of poor leadership. I have found the apex of my 38 year career. It depends upon what you call "growth." Yes, our numbers are slightly up in attendance and definitely giving--most obviously in a balanced budget. But our outreach, community involvement, preaching, spiritual growth, transformed lives has really taken off! It was a great challenge, and I fit your "willing to shake the boat" image. But i would be bored without the challenge and finally have a ministry that uses all of my pastoral, clinical, and liturgical gifts. But please do not measure us by the label part-time, or retired priest. All of my years of experience with the top professionals is exactly why I am NOW able to take off with daring but caring preaching and informed management.
    Again, the challenge is the prize. All are invited; some come; and some stay. Again--we are not in decline, but more vibrant than when going to church was the standard activity on Sunday mornings. Those who come are actively involved, even if it is only in the worship service. The days of passivity are over, though the hard data on attendance cannot reflect this.