There are at least two significant and alarming trends confronting American church bodies in general, and mainline Protestants in particular.
One is the developing clergy supply crisis, and the second is the aging and upcoming precipitous decline of most of our congregations.
Both of these trends are related, to some degree, to the generational issue of aging Boomers. The single most eye-opening statistic—reported on repeatedly by PEW Research—is that less than half as many Millennials are attending church than was the case for their Boomer parents back in the 1980’s and 1990’s. I still remember a particular cover story of Time Magazine back in 1993. It was the April 5th issue. (I just Googled it.) The quote on the cover of that issue was “The Baby Boom Goes Back to Church.” Needless to say, there has been no story, in the last decade, reporting a similar trend among Millennials.
Of course the decline of mainline Protestant churches is also due, in large part, to the on-going and accelerating secularization of American culture. And that reality is taking a toll on all national church bodies. But the more generational realities of our future are not simply about an inflated view of my own generation’s importance. This is about demographic realities helping us to see and clarify the urgency of what is before us as the Body of Christ. And to put it bluntly, the reason why the clergy supply crisis will be upon us sooner than the dramatic, precipitous decline in overall church membership is this: Most Boomers will, like me, have the good fortune to be retiring before they make the transition to assisted living and/or death.
Clergy Supply Crisis
What’s going on in the ELCA gives us a convenient window into what the LCMC and NALC will be facing. As I shared in previous articles, the ELCA is facing a major crisis with both clergy supply and their projected membership decline in the very near future. And aggravating these largely demographic realities is the rapid secularization of ELCA organizational culture. The ELCA’s Department of Research and Evaluation projects —based on the aging of their membership and the decline in baptisms — that by 2041 there will be less than 16,000 members worshiping — nationally —on a typical Sunday! That compares to 864,000 worshiping as of the end of 2018. And the issue of clergy supply for the ELCA? That crisis has already arrived. As of June of 2019 there were 2,776 empty pulpits out of a total of approximately 9,000 congregations.
With Lutheran CORE’s Congregations in Transition (CiT) ministry we are focused on both a short-term and long-term strategy to help LCMC, NALC and orthodox ELCA congregations address both of these daunting challenges. And let’s not deceive ourselves. Our commitment—as orthodox clergy and congregations—to a Scripture-focused and more evangelistic worldview does not make us immune to the challenges the ELCA is facing. Somewhat more insulated perhaps, but not immune.
1st Century Model for Ministry
The CiT approach to congregational ministry is, overall, the empowerment of the laity. First, because it is the biblical, 1st century model for ministry and outreach; and second, because an unhealthy dependence on the availability of ordained, full-time clergy will not even be a future option for many of our congregations.
Our mission, with CiT, is inspired by texts like 1st Peter, chapter two, verses 4-5. Writing to the laity of his generation, Peter declares:
…You also, like living stones, are being built into a spiritual house to be a holy priesthood, offering spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ.
Gifted Transition Teams
The three congregations (all LCMC) I am currently coaching are all facing the retirement of their only pastor. While each of these rural/small-town churches are just large enough to still afford a future full-time pastor, they are all rapidly aging worship communities who are very aware of their significant membership decline over the last twenty years. But here’s the good news: Their three transition teams are comprised of incredibly gifted and committed lay leaders. And these lay leaders are very invested in the current and future ministries of their congregations. My role is to insure that these members (of the priesthood we all share in Christ Jesus) will be motivated to step forward and lead their congregations even if the search for their next pastor takes longer than anticipated.
I had many short-comings in my 40 years of ministry as a parish pastor. However, being a gatekeeper was not one of them. In fact my greatest joy in ministry was enlisting, equipping and motivating members to use their God-given gifts and abilities to serve their congregations and surrounding communities. This is now, more than ever, the best hope for the Body of Christ: to facilitate the ministry of the laity in the face of significant challenges faced by today’s church. This will require both faith and creativity on our part. But let us never underestimate what God can accomplish, despite any and all obstacles, through the incredible gifts of our (non-ordained) brothers and sisters in Christ.