by Loren Seibold  |  25 February 2021  |

When I graduated from college and seminary, it was pretty much a guarantee that if you were a halfway presentable human being, you would find a job as an Adventist pastor. You could, depending on your talents or lack of them, end up knocking around small church districts for most of your life, but you would have a calling, and be paid like every other pastor working for the church. 

But a lot has changed. In spite of many pastors of the baby boomer generation retiring, opportunities are disappearing just as fast. 

As I said in the previous piece in this series, as small churches fade, so does the model of ministry that we’ve used for 150 years. Not only are congregations shrinking, but a lot of sharp young men and women aren’t willing to put up with what my generation put up with from either congregations or conference leaders. 

I’m not saying there’s never going to be a place for the traditional minister in a traditional church—Loma Linda University Church isn’t going anywhere—but such jobs will continue to diminish. And money will not be as abundant as it once was, either.

Furthermore, I’m not expecting congregations to get easier to work in. In the more opinionated world we live in, churches will increasingly become the places for the like-minded and the stubborn, which means it’s going to get harder to lead a tolerant community and a broad church.  

False starts

I once thought the term “servant leadership” might be the key to good pastoring, but that phrase is bankrupt, too often used and too rarely practiced. I’m now convinced that servant leadership is made impossible by the training, expectations, definitions and especially the ambitions of a professional ministry. I’ve concluded that we can’t make servant leaders without fundamentally changing the ministry, and perhaps even changing what it means to be a church. 

Others say that the key to good ministry is a strong spirituality of the pious “relationship with Jesus” type. I find this greatly over-simplified: I’ve seen no particular correlation between people who claim that sort of affective relationship, and practical skills and abilities for solid, honest ministry success. Furthermore, not every personality adapts to that kind of spirituality.

Nor do I believe that if every pastor preached grace and acceptance, all our problems would clear up. We have long been a rule-following church with some distinct prejudices, and many congregations don’t have an appetite for grace and acceptance.

What follows are a few ideas. You may not agree with me, but I want to at least start a conversation.

Drop the education requirements 

So a pastor studies ministry in college. Then he sacrifices to go to seminary. If he’s in a progressive conference, he gets encouraged to do a Doctor of Ministry degree. All this training raises his expectations: he will change the world. And because of the “one true church” he’s a pastor in, he has to start by winning all, or most, of the inhabitants of Possumville, where he’s been assigned. 

But Possumville is indifferent to his evangelistic blandishments, and the congregation is suspicious of his theological airs. Is it any wonder disenchantment sets in? 

We may be overprocessing our pastors. Many of the small congregations I was in would have been just as happy—perhaps happier—with a high school graduate who was warm, had a modicum of common sense, and preached a semi-coherent sermon. In one district I never mentioned that I had a doctorate: it would have been an anti-recommendation.

We have pretended that Adventism is somehow more intellectual across the board than it is. Visit the average small church on an average Sabbath, and you’re going to discover that the common denominator isn’t high. Preachers, lay and sometimes professional, are preaching the sermons of a half-century ago, with a smattering of new prophetic paranoias tacked on. Sabbath School “Bible study” is word-for-word from the quarterly. And that may be fine: reassurance of “the truth” is all that many congregations aspire to. 

Besides, in multi-point districts, which are necessary if you have full-time full-salary pastors, most of the sermons are preached by laypeople, or by Doug Batchelor on video feed, because the pastor can’t be in more than one place at a time. 

You should also know that the notion that every pastor has to have advanced education isn’t being followed anyway. I know a couple of conference presidents who never went beyond college, and many pastors who never went to college at all. They’re doing fine for the settings they’re in.

So let’s quit pretending. Drop the educational requirements for small churches. Leave the M.Divs and D.Mins. for congregations that need them. 

Which is to say, one size doesn’t fit all 

The Loma Linda University Church requires something quite different from Possumville. 

This diversity isn’t officially celebrated. In terms of what the denomination publishes and produces in media, there appears to be a fairly narrow definition of a “proper” Adventist church, and that would look like the congregations of mine and Elder Wilson’s childhood: we meet as complete, never-divorced-or-remarried families (stay-at-home mom, dad, two or three kiddies sitting between them) at 10 AM on Sabbath with other jewelry-less vegetarians, study the Sabbath School Quarterly, sing from the hymnal, and have an hour-long sermon on prophecy that affirms all 28 Fundamental Beliefs.

We need pastors who can minister to such congregations, of course (if they still exist.) But we need other kinds of pastors, too. There’s a much wider span than church leaders admit. I know a place where one congregation thinks Doug Batchelor is the be-all and end-all, and is even willing to add some additional beliefs unsupported by our pioneers, such as headship theology and last generation theology. Yet a few miles in the other direction there’s a congregation that has a female pastor, a gay Sabbath School class, and follows the lectionary and worships liturgically. 

It seems to me we need to make it clear, without casting shade, that all of those are legitimate Adventist churches, and officially prepare and embrace pastors who can cover that diverse span. 

End the “everyone gets paid the same” policy 

Laypeople appear to love this notion. Not only does it not work, but it isn’t even true. 

First, in our system all good pastors leave churches and go into an office, where the pay is marginally higher, and their travel allowance is large and equipment and books are free—and they simply have a less stressful job. I’ve said it many times before, but it remains true: you’re not a top pastor in this denomination until you are promoted out of parish ministry. 

A few pastors in some big churches, especially those in hospital communities, can be paid a bonus salary by the hospital—under the table, of course. (In one I know of, it’s a double-salary plus an astonishingly expensive golf club membership, so he can golf with his millionaire church members.) Pastors in some black churches, I am told, take home substantial cash “tips” for especially good sermons, and charge people for additional services such as weddings and funerals. 

Consider, also, those pastors who have three or four kids in college. Their compensation in educational subsidies is enormous! Is that a fair system? Equal pay for equal work?

And then there are the real winners: those who leave church employ for Adventist Health, still as ordained ministers, but now with pay well up into six figures. Ever heard of anyone turning that offer down?

However, there’s another difficulty to this all-one-pay thing.

A few years ago I talked to a skilled, well-educated mid-career pastor who one day realized that his big church, where he was very popular, was wearying him. It occurred to him that he could live in the mountains and travel around to three little churches and visit their members (a break-apart fly-fishing rod in his hatchback for a stop here and there along the way) and make the same amount of money. Why put up with the bother? 

It amazes me that more don’t make that choice.

So let’s quit pretending that paying everyone the same is a great success. It’s not—and it’s not financially sustainable, either.

Break up the multi-point districts into congregations with part-time pastors

Once we’ve eased the path into ministry by limiting the educational requirements and salary expectations, we can let pastors emerge who are in sync with the local community. In Ohio they were for a time called “bi-vocational pastors.” Yes, there were problems. There are difficulties from a labor law point of view, and it requires firm oversight. But if the problems can be addressed, it makes a whole lot more sense than a pastor with a doctorate shuttling around between four small churches, each of which he sees once a month while Doug Batchelor covers church services the rest of the month.

Create more house churches with lay leadership

A church of five attendees doesn’t need a building. The training materials to do this are already out there. 

Teach pastors people skills, management skills, and give them emotional support

There’s little new in our theology. As hard as we try, our theological median is going to be somewhere at the Mark Finley level of sophistication. I’d settle for that. 

But there’s a lot to learn in how to manage people. And how to manage one’s own life and family in the constant crises some congregations throw at us. 

I think conferences have sometimes done more harm than good. They’ve acted as though their job is to monitor theology and activity. At least in the old days, they rode us pastors mercilessly. The only “guidance” we got was criticism of our work, our wives and families. I remember as a young pastor thinking, “I get it from above and below. Who do I turn to?” 

I think the conference’s real job should be to keep pastors and their families from imploding under the stress of the job. Teach them how to manage the congregations so they’re not destroyed. Tell them they’re OK even if they don’t respond to every threat from the church.

But of course, those conference folks are awfully darn busy attending committees all over the country—not sure they have time for this. And besides, that guy from the conference office who’s the pastor’s pastor and with whom you can relax and let it all hang out and tell all your secrets and frustrations? Yeah… no. If you believe that, you deserve how it’s going to end for you.

Not every congregation can choose a pastor

They all want to. But they can’t. Unless they can raise a pastor from within the congregation—and some do—little churches will have to learn to live with who they can get.

More online gatherings may be the future of the church

Someone suggested to me recently that we should plant online churches. That hadn’t occurred to me, but it made a lot of sense. That opens up lots of ministry possibilities. It takes a different set of pastoral skills. It gathers people in different ways other than merely by geography. It’s a whole lot less expensive. It doesn’t require real estate. Lay people can do this ministry, too. And our own experience with it at Adventist Today Sabbath Seminar is that it can be an extremely satisfying community!

Finally—and this is probably impossible, but it’s where our conversation should start in earnest—we need at least begin to think about changing the whole model of pastoral ministry. 

My thoughts here are still vague. What I’m trying to say is that maybe it’s time to reshape completely the traditional set-aside-for-God leadership role.

The traditional ministry idea starts with a charismatic person (still, usually, a man), a performer, trained for a single dedicated position, placed on a pedestal, from which perch he can do much damage if he wants to exercise his authority (over, for example, vulnerable young women)—or, alternatively, off of which the vicissitudes of congregational life can throw him in such a way as to be fatal to his career or family. Mount up on that plinth, and you’re liable to despotism or scapegoating—the entitled hero, or the guy to blame. 

Some, for self-protection, choose mediocrity. Don’t rock the boat. Do the essentials, but nothing that upsets anyone. I’ve known pastors who have divided their lives into private life (where they retreat into loneliness) and public life (where they act the part everyone wants them to).

As it is structured now, the pastor is at the mercy of the denominational expectations pressing down on him, and locally by those who love him unquestionably and those who hate him unquestionably. Perhaps, instead, we can find a way for accountability to be built into the job rather than imposed. Where the power and peril in the role is somehow self-correcting, or at least self-limiting. Checks and balances that keep the pastor off the pedestal and functioning as a care giving pastor.

How? I’m not sure. I’m looking for a way to give spiritual leadership a new form, one that is organic to the group, less formal, that doesn’t depend upon position, hierarchy, or personal charisma. Is ordination the problem? Perhaps we need a lay leadership model. Is it education? See above. Or perhaps it’s money? Could we, like the Mormons, have lay pastors only? I don’t have many answers.

I would like to know if any of these ideas seem plausible, or at least could fuel a conversation.

Loren Seibold is the Executive Editor of Adventist Today.

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