Reexamining the Pastoral Shortage Problem

W. Jackson Watts

In recent years Free Will Baptist leaders on the state and national levels have highlighted the need for more pastors. Their urgency is understandable. According to one article by Executive Secretary Eddie Moody, 124 Free Will Baptist churches presently need pastors. [1] That number is astounding. Take the normal struggles and uncertainty a single church experiences during a pastoral vacancy, multiple it by 124, and you begin to feel the weight of the need.

Now in reality 124 only amounts to about 5% of our affiliated churches. I suspect if we compared this to most denominations we would find that their percentage of pastoral vacancies is comparable. Yet this doesn’t really make churches without pastors feel better! [2] Moreover, this fact doesn’t mitigate the overall concern for two related reasons: (1) We have a significant number of pastors who are advanced in age who will be considering retirement in the near future; [3] and (2) We appear to have a shortage of pastors prepared to fill the present vacancies or those which are fast-approaching.

I want to reaffirm the concerns of those who have called attention to this problem. I think Dr. Moody, Dr. Barry Raper, and the many State Directors to whom I have spoken about this rightly emphasize the need for people to consider God’s call to pastoral ministry. I echo Raper’s emphasis on demystifying the call to the ministry, which means we don’t overlook the personal, subjective aspect of the call, but instead we balance it with a more objective evaluation of the needs of our local church and the external promptings of congregations. [4]

But we should add three important qualifiers to this discussion. Call them neglected, overlooked, or under-emphasized dimensions of the problem at hand.

Not So New

First, this problem isn’t new. There has been a constant need for Christian workers going back to the ministry of Jesus. When Jesus said the harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few, I don’t think he merely meant, “We’ve got a lot of work to do!” I literally take Him to mean that laborers are always in short supply. There is both a vastness to the work of Christ’s kingdom and a scarcity of people willing to take up their cross and make themselves fully available. This is why Jesus implores us to pray and to go out into the fields ourselves.

Let’s face it: pastoral shortage rhetoric is persistent. Some months ago when perusing old editions of Contact I glimpsed an article from an edition in the late 1980s that called attention to our lack of pastors. I would venture to guess that we can find articles with such headlines from every decade since the National Association’s founding. No doubt the need was greater or lesser in various periods of time, but when we discuss this problem let’s be sure to grasp the relative permanence of it.

Recognizing the enduring nature of the problem should in no way cause us to take it less seriously. Instead, it puts the problem in proper perspective. If communication in marriage is a perennial and crucial need, then it reminds spouses that they must work at it every day and never grow slack in their attention to it. But if something is an occasional problem, subject to one-time fixes (like having an emergency fund to cover an insurance deductible), then we can develop a strategy to address the issue, then turn our attention to other things (unless a crisis comes along to deplete the fund). Again, how we see the nature of a problem will shape how we think about it and respond to it.

The Hole in the Bucket

A second way of reframing or reexamining our present crisis is recognizing that one reason we have a shortage is that so many who begin the journey of pastoral ministry do not continue. Instead, they drop out or step away. Sometimes people step away for a season, thinking they need to in order to resolve some problems in their family before continuing to lead a church. Other times men have a negative ministry experience so jarring that the only solution they see is to walk away. They often intend to return in the future, but many times this never materializes. In the most tragic of cases, men make shipwreck of their family, faith, or both, and are asked to step away.

These are difficult and complicated situations. It’s one reason why the local association and strong pastoral networks are so crucial. When functioning properly, they provide the ongoing support, nurture, and care to ordained men. A healthy association comprises churches, church officers, and laymen who believe they have a vested interest in and responsibility to encourage, equip, and hold accountable those who have been set apart for ministry. When this historic and helpful system is neglected, it creates a vacuum. And this vacuum brings casualties.

In many instances pastors and their families would simply benefit from some counseling. One reason I’m grateful to serve in Missouri is that our State Association has a Pastoral Care Fund that covers the entire cost of Christian-based counseling for pastors and their families. All situations are handled confidentially, and over time many marriages and ministries have been saved.

In other situations, regrettably, men who slipped through the cracks simply hadn’t counted the costs. Their training—whatever form it took—failed to emphasize the serious and sober nature of shepherding. Anyone who enters the pastorate with the illusion that people will just follow without being loved have been done a disservice (or they simply misread Scripture!).

One way to deal with the pastoral shortage crisis is helping those already serving, who are at risk, to stay the course. Additionally, when biblically appropriate, we should restore those who have walked away. In many instances helping wounded shepherds to consider the wounds of Christ and readjust their expectations can make the difference between selling insurance or a few more decades of fruitful service.

The Solutions Around Us

The third element of the problem that we’re not giving adequate attention to is another layer to the second problem. According the 2019 Yearbook, much of the solution is already in the pew.

The number of Free Will Baptist churches varies widely across the 40+ states where we have churches. To get the best picture of the need, let’s focus on the eleven state associations with 100 or more churches, totaling 1,607. This is the lion’s share of the denomination, which totals between 2100-2200 congregations. Now consider the total number of licensed and ordained ministers across those eleven states and 1,607 churches: 2,874. I knew the number would be high, but I nearly fell out of my chair. Before we have a knee-jerk reaction, let’s consider a few caveats to put these figures into perspective.

First, typically retired pastors remain listed in the registry of ordained persons, so subtract 10% from the 2,874. Second, this figure includes persons who are licensed, but not yet ordained. Perhaps they do intend to proceed to the pastorate, but are still in a period of training, so subtract another 10%. Third, some churches have multiple staff members who are ordained, such as a Youth Pastor or Music Minister, and so subtract another 10%. Fourth, for good measure, subtract another 10% of men who are working through some health or personal challenges that require a season away from the pulpit. That leaves 1,725 ordained or licensed men—in these eleven states alone! Even if we go ahead and assign an ordained man from this number to each of the 1,607 churches (representing the pastor of each church), this leaves 118 ordained or licensed men. And remember, that’s after we’ve subtracted an artificially high 40% from the 2,874 for the various reasons above.

Might we view the need for 124 pastors differently if we realized that we don’t have a pastor shortage problem, but a pastor availability problem? To put it another way, we have a shortage of men who have answered the call to preach who are also willing to pastor and serve Christ’s church wherever the need may be. [5] There doesn’t seem to be a lack of opportunity, given the widespread vacancies across our denominational geography. There is a lack of willingness.

Moving Forward

This is a hard subject, but it raises valid theological questions about how we understand what the call to the pastorate is, means, and requires. We need a good dose of New Testament ecclesiology to bring clarity and solutions to this crisis. Even the old hymn “Wherever He Leads” inevitably comes to mind whenever we consider this dilemma. The simple truth is that we would view this problem differently if we not only focused on men answering the call on the front end but also on those who do answer, but quit or don’t follow through. The problem isn’t merely men answering the call.

So while concurring with the helpful things others are saying, let me offer some suggestions that would demonstrate and support a serious, practical theology of the pastorate.

  • A Renewed Commitment in the Local Church to Explain the Call to Ministry, Pray for Workers, and Encourage Gifted Men to Consider the Work;
  • A Concerted Effort to Demystify the Call to Ministry and Balance the Subjective Aspects of the Call with the Objective, External Aspects;
  • A Renewed Commitment of Local Associations to Forsake Careless, Hasty, or Thin Licensure and Ordination Procedures;
  • A Renewed Commitment of Local Associations, and Especially Presbyteries, to Support, Care for, and Encourage the Progress and Perseverance of those Licensed and Ordained;
  • A Refusal to Maintain the Licensure or Ordination of Pastors Who Fail to Demonstrate a Tangible Commitment to Shepherding the Local Church.

_______________________

[1] Edward E. Moody, Jr. “Everyone’s Problem,” Everyones-Problem.pdf (nafwb.org).

[2] There is probably also less sympathy for churches who seem to have a revolving door in the pastorate, who have internal problems and expectation issues that need to be resolved.

[3] According to the Committee on Denominational Research, at least 55% of our pastors are over the age of 50. A significant percentage (25%) are over age 60.

[4] Barry Raper, Answering the Call to Ministry – YouTube.

[5] I realize other factors may alter the picture. For example, a few dozen of our brethren who serve national agencies in some capacity are in full-time roles, yet they are ordained ministers. It could be reasonably said for the majority of them that their present ministry roles (and situatedness in a specific community) preclude them from meeting the need of a random vacancy in Alabama or West Virginia or Arkansas.

3 Comments

  1. Great article.

    THIS ARTICLE partly addresses some of the challenges for our churches in the north.

    Many of the ordained are simply unwilling to go and stay in the north for any length of time. And by “any length of time,” I mean at least a dozen years and longer. Or, if they should actually come, they run into “some problem” and justify it as an excuse to leave. And we continue to see churches closed or lost to other groups because there is not a man to go and stay and lead through tough times.

    THIS ARTICLE is why I knew when I came to Chicago in 1991 that I would be here pretty much the rest of my life. How many churches have we started over the years in the north just to watch them die once the church planter leaves and no ordained men are willing to go and pastor that church?

    Please don’t respond to my comments with accolades or compliments to me. I am just a forgiven sinner following the course I believe God has for me. And I have been unbelievable blessed in following that call.

    Instead, I hope the response is that those called to preach would answer the full, uncomfortable call, and be willing to go wherever, instead of the partial, comfortable call that keeps you close to “home.” Be willing to go where it’s cold. Be willing to go where there is greater hostility to the Gospel. Be willing to go where the cost of living is higher. Be willing to go where you and your family are more likely to be a victim of crime. Be willing to go where you are a minority. Be willing to go where the schools aren’t the best. And when you see the need – consider that SEEING THE NEED “IS” the call – and GO! And when you get there – STAY!

    I am not a writer and I am not good with putting my thoughts on paper. So, yes, I probably could have worded some of this better or nicer. But I stand by the gist of it.

  2. These are insightful suggestions. May I add a comment about solving the problem? First, pastors who retire at or about age 65 should consider continuing to minister, even if in smaller (country?) churches that need quality preaching and teaching. Maybe I wasn’t “burned out” as a pastor when I retired from FWBBC, but I have found myself wishing I had sought out a smaller church to serve when I still had many good years left to preach and shepherd others. And my guess would be that most of the churches that need pastors are smaller and less demanding. There are a lot of churches that could benefit from the teaching of an experienced preacher.
    Second, if worst comes to worst, two of the smaller churches in the same general area could easily combine their resources under one pastor. Yes, as in the old days, but with a better understanding of the broad ministry of a pastor. For example, by adjusting times, each church could have preaching every Sunday and teaching every mid-week. Some imaginative arrangements could lead to innovative ministries and church vitality.
    By the way, we’ve always had lots more ordained or licensed preachers in our associations that churches! I remember, once, when Ronald Creech became aware of that fact and stated publicly, “A preacher is one who preaches!” Robert Picirilli

  3. I think something you are overlooking is that a fair amount of licensed people are only a part of the FWB denomination out of a misguided sense of loyalty to their dying church, and to this dying denomination. Only God can make the dead alive. And how many people did the denomination disqualify from leadership because they chose the wrong wife when church leadership was telling them they HAD to have one to get a job? It’s good that giving bad advice isn’t disqualifying. Really seems like it’s a problem with the denominational leadership, not the layperson, that is causing the corpse of the Free Will Baptist denomination to shamble around like a zombie.

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