3 culture changes that should change how we handle Christian leadership roles

Many of our models for pastoral leadership today are based on recent history. We built them within a certain kind of culture, and some of them worked decently in that culture. Yes, they’re also based on Scriptural precedent and on older tradition, but much more loosely than many people think.

Here’s the problem for us: our cultural landscape is quickly changing. It’s changing enough that I think we need to reconsider how we’re structuring ministry roles.

Three specific issues we aren’t addressing well:

1 – Christianity has been the civil religion in America, but that is quickly collapsing.

We’ve never had a formal Christendom, where Church and State were joined. But America has historically assumed that most people are Christians. And that’s how most people would have identified themselves for the past two centuries. So Presidents swear on the Bible when they take their oath of office. Pastors open the U.S. Senate in prayer. Your grandmother may have never met a Hindu or Buddhist.

That’s all quickly changing, though. A Hindu priest recently led the opening prayer for the U.S. Senate. The Ten Commandments and “Christmas trees” in public have caused all sorts of debates. Tiger Woods appealed to his Buddhist faith when he was trying to get back into people’s good graces a few years ago. Asbury Seminary President Tim Tennent talks about a lot of this in the book Invitation to World Missions (affiliate link). You should read it.

Here’s why this matters for church leadership. In a culture that assumes most people already are Christian, or will seek out Christianity, the Church can focus on preserving and expanding the institution. Build it and they will come. So we “call” or “send” pastors to serve primarily as chaplains for existing local communities. Or if we’ve gotten really into the Enterprise mentality, we make our pastors into CEOs to expand the institution with great, visionary leadership.

In a culture that is no longer Christian, those old structures won’t work. Tim Tennent says it well: “We find ourselves standing in the middle of a newly emerging mission field.” (Click here to tweet that.)

There’s a new frontier! Sending leaders around from one institution to another as chaplains or CEOs won’t reach that field. It hasn’t been reaching it. Just look at all the numbers.

Look at those who were sent in the New Testament. They don’t just move around from one existing church to another – using it as some sort of promotional system, or way to infuse new ideas or energy into an existing group. Most of what they did was on a mission field, not in an institution. A different group of locals – called elders – took care of the local churches’ daily oversight. And there’s no indication that they ever moved. Methodists can look at our own tradition and see the same thing. I’m getting ahead of myself, though. We’ll look at all of that in more detail later.

2 – Family structures are changing

This is more specific to the structures of the United Methodist tradition, although I think it broadly applies to many in the U.S. When they get ordained, Methodists take a vow to go where the Bishop sends. That often (usually?) means that they’ll move multiple times in their first decade of ministry. Some seem to move every year, or two, or three. Some get in positions where they stay longer. Perhaps ten years or more, though that’s rare.

Moving male pastors around at will wasn’t as difficult a few decades ago. As late as 1978, only 1 in 5 women worked full-time out of financial necessity. Now over half of women work full-time, and most out of financial necessity (by their estimation, at least). At the same time, we have also drastically increased the number of female clergy, most with working husbands.

It becomes a lot more difficult to move a pastor when the spouse is also working. I just watched someone’s husband get moved 2 hours away from where they currently are. She feels a need to stay in her current job, so now they’re separated for part of the week and commuting to be together.

People don’t believe it, but we’re a less mobile society than back in the 1950s. That makes sense with two spouses working. It’s harder to move when two jobs are in consideration.

Also, this quote from Robert Putnam was challenging to me: “For people as for plants, frequent repotting disrupts root systems. It takes time for a mobile individual to put down new roots […] frequent movers have weaker community ties.” Are we harming pastors in their ministry and family life, regularly disrupting life systems, making it more difficult for them to develop community ties?

3 – We are lacking leaders

Many people in the UMC have lamented the deficiency of young clergy. Some have blamed low salaries. Honestly, I don’t buy that at all. I’ll try to stay off that soap box here.

A Bishop in Illinois said during his “State of the Church Address” a few years ago, “The single most damaging variable at work among us is the absence of a sufficient number of called, committed, creative, courageous, and well-trained clergy leaders.” He challenged churches to ask when was the last time they sent someone into ordained ministry. If not, why not?

Why not? In my opinion, we haven’t realized how harmful it is that our primary leadership always comes from somewhere else. No one in any of these churches is looking around the room and wondering who will lead them next. No one is urgently trying to prepare the next leader to take that role. Why? Because instead they’re looking to the system and asking, “Who will you send us next?” Or in a Baptist church, they’re inviting people to come and preach for them and voting on who they’ll take next.

Almost no one is assuming that their next leader will need to come from within! I think that’s wreaking havoc on our leadership development. Where is the urgency to develop good leaders when we never have to eat our own cooking, when we can always hire someone from somewhere else, or get someone sent to us? This is a model we have to change.

I think there are better ways to structure our understanding of ministry roles. Ways that take into account that we live on a mission field, that it may not be best for pastors to be uprooted and repotted every few years, and that we need to be raising up our own leaders. As I keep going in this series, I’ll begin making some proposals about those structures.

What do you think? Do the current leadership structures of our Church match the situation we find ourselves in? Are there any major issues I’m leaving out?

Next up: What the New Testament actually says about ministry roles.

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15 thoughts on “3 culture changes that should change how we handle Christian leadership roles

  1. I think that you’re on to something here Teddy! That’s where #dreamumc seems to be headed … To jump off your #3, real change should be happening at the local church in the UMC, you can’t wait for top-down fixes. And good ministers cultivate leadership in the local church to carry out the work of ministry. I would say lack of leaders = lack of true disciples.

    1. Jarrod, I’m glad to hear that DreamUMC is heading in some of the same directions. You’re absolutely right about local churches needing do do what they can rather than waiting for big change from the top.

      All of the disciples became apostles (or betrayers). I wonder if the best way to evaluate our discipleship processes is to see what leaders (pastors, evangelists, apostles…) we have coming out the other side.

  2. I think number two is the most interesting in the list. Made me think of Wesley’s desire for his itinerant preachers to be single. He continually found that married ones found it too difficult to do both and eventually left itinerant work.

    Being in the itinerant system with a family is extremely difficult. I’m single, which has been a blessing through the appointment process since I haven’t had to think about a spouse’s job, my kids schooling, etc.

    I once had a girl on a date say to me, “So if one wants to be ordained in the UMC they not only have to feel called to pastoral ministry, but also to itinerancy? And I guess their spouse has to feel called to itinerancy too?” That about summed up the current situation and why I feel many don’t currently seek ordination in the UMC.

    1. That’s a great summary, Jonathan. I think you’re right about itineracy scaring off several people from seeking ordination. And that’s a problem, especially given point three above.

      So the question: should itineracy be a requirement of anyone who orders the life of the local church and administers sacraments?

      For everyone else, Jonathan has a great blog post examining some of the history of itineracy that I haven’t covered. See it here: http://www.jonathanandersen.com/itinerant-umc-pastors/

  3. I’ve wondered about itineracy if we begin to understand the US as a mission field. To be successful in international missions do we expect to be more successful with missionaries who move all the time or who set down roots and get to know the people? I think it’s clearly the second. I wonder if an unconscious presupposition of itineracy now is that we don’t really expect to reach new people?

  4. Teddy,

    Number 2 and 3 are most interesting to me. As you know a big challenge for me was itinerating and it still scares me a little, but I’ve found in move one that it was easier for my girls than it even was for me. Moving opened up new opportunities and relationships that they would not of had if we had not moved. In opened up new business opportunities for my spouse. My step-daughter has been able to become involved in more than she would have at our last place. I realize that I moved to a major metropolitan area, but itinerating has made me trust God in a way that I never have before. It has also made me trust leaders. On that note, so many times we as pastors like to tear down the appointive cabinet, but as I look at that group of people I know that they are godly men and women providing the best leadership they can. Is it perfect? No, but I think it also receives a lot of unfair distrust from pastors.

    I also believe that the best churches still develop strong leaders within. Currently I do nothing unless I have laity doing it with me. Then when I am gone they can continue to carry the torch. I learned about this style of leadership while at Centenary. Mark was a leader that encouraged laity to lead. He has moved on now and I don’t believe that Centenary will skip a beat b/c he empowered leadership. Is the pastor risen up from within Centenary or St. Matthews. No, but it is risen up from the connectional church. Someone can come in with a fresh perspective and help build on what has been established.

    1. Good points, Derek. There’s no question that itinerating has worked out well for many Methodist pastors. And there’s nothing to tear down about the appointive cabinet. They have been commissioned to move pastors around, and that’s what they do. And they can’t send everyone exactly where they want to go. It worked out for you to move to a place where your daughter and spouse had more opportunities, but there are certainly other moves that have created more hardship than opportunity for families. That’s not the fault of the cabinet, but a fact of our system.

      The bigger question is whether anyone who is gifted to perform the duties of an elder must be willing to itinerate. Itineracy doesn’t fit the ministry or family values of many people, and it creates legitimate hardship for them.

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