There is an elephant in the room.
The stark truth is that far fewer men are coming forward to train for the ministry than there are pastors coming up to retirement. This is a big matter for the future of evangelical churches, but I am not hearing many conversations about it or plans to try to deal with it. Generally speaking, theological seminaries in the UK are far from over-subscribed.
As an indication of the situation, I heard a leader speak not too long ago about hosting a conference for around 100 male and female apprentices in churches. One of the reasons apprentice schemes were originally set up was to provide an initial path into future ministry. On this particular conference there were four seminar tracks linked to possible options for ministry. I’m speaking from memory, but I think they were counselling, youth work, leading worship and preaching. Of the 100 apprentices only 12 chose the preaching track. Setting aside for the moment the issue of women preaching, it nevertheless seems to indicate that the role of pastor/preacher is not highly sought after by the rising generation.
Are we okay with that?
Many reasons for this dearth of pastoral candidates, spring to mind. Here are a few:
- Pastoral work for the non-celebrity pastor is hard work and not usually well paid. Men hesitate to expose themselves and their families to a life of relative poverty and spiritual battle.
- Many congregations do not really get behind their pastors, but almost treat them as hirelings, forever on trial. They are only as good as their last sermon. Men do not relish such a prospect.
- The advent of political correctness and pastoral ‘best practice’ (often informed by secular ideas) has made the work of a pastor a minefield for many. ‘How long would it be,’ a young man thinks to himself, ‘before I fall foul of someone I am trying to help and am accused of “spiritual abuse”?’
- The idea of a clear call from the Holy Spirit to pastoral ministry has been so denigrated and attacked in recent decades that maybe men now have great difficulty in even recognising God’s call.
For gifted men with good hearts, it is understandable if they conclude that to help Christ’s cause simply by remaining as a lay preacher is the best way forward for them. They don’t feel able to launch out in faith and live by the gospel.
The lack of competent men coming through Bible colleges spells bad news, especially for smaller churches. Gifted seminary graduates who have had a season of experience as an assistant are in great demand and are often able to pick and choose between churches.
Rather too predictably it is the larger churches which land these men. Usually, they are in more affluent areas of the country, and offer better accommodation and higher salaries to their staff. Further, quite frequently the new man will be joining a pastoral team where he will only be expected to preach once a week at most. I am aware of a number of such churches, with nowhere near the size of congregation of the Metropolitan Tabernacle in Spurgeon’s day, who insist ‘we are now a ‘two-pastor church’. Some churches have three pastors. Meanwhile smaller churches and congregations in less well-off locations struggle to interest any one in becoming their pastor.
In my last blog I explained how market forces operate when it comes to Christians choosing which church to attend. But the market also seems to have a huge part to play when it comes to young men choosing pastorates. The ‘best deal’ usually wins the day. It appears that we think and choose in a way that unconverted and worldly people would have no difficulty recognising.
If what I have described is anywhere near the truth it must raise questions. It seems light years away from the apostle Paul’s Star Trek approach to ministry ‘to boldly go where no man has gone before’ (cf. Rom 15:20). It is not even in the same ballpark as pastor Epaphroditus who ‘almost died for the work of Christ, risking his life’ to help Paul (Phil 2:30). It doesn’t seem even to harmonize with those of the household of Stephanas who ‘devoted themselves to the service of the saints’ (1 Cor 16:15). Yet it was such folk as these that Paul encouraged the churches to ‘honour’ and ‘submit to’ (Phil 2:29; 1 Cor 16:16).
If the larger wealthier churches have little problem in finding candidates for pastoral positions while the smaller poorer churches can hardly attract a reply to their advertisements, does that indicate that it is marketplace considerations that are governing the thinking of potential pastors?
As it stands, it looks like yet another nail in the coffin of ordinary local churches. What can be done about this? Here are a few suggestions.
If you are a pastor of an ordinary church and you are nearing retirement, perhaps you should think seriously about who from within your congregation might make a future pastor. Maybe you should talk the situation through with them and, with their permission, begin to train them (2 Tim 2:2).
If you are a pastor of an ordinary local church and you are coming up to retirement, it might be good to explain the situation to the church. Once you go, your church is likely to face a long interregnum—which may never come to an end. It might even be appropriate to begin to reorganise and to teach the church how to survive as a congregation without a pastor.
If you are a pastor coming up to retirement it would be right to get your congregation praying. All is not lost. Thankfully we have a living God who does hear us (Ps 34:4). He is able to operate above and beyond the dead hand of the market. He is able to change minds and by his Spirit to raise up young men and families who think differently from the general mindset. A young man can find that the hand of God is on him, and he is constrained by the love of Christ to come and pastor your church. And if he does come, make sure you treat him well.