Today is Part 9 in a series dedicated to helping readers understand the dynamics that can push a pastor out of parish ministry – and the things that ultimately keep a pastor in parish ministry.
Now that I’ve caught up and balanced my reasons for wanting to leave parish ministry with the reasons I ultimately decided to stay, I will alternate between the two. With that said, let me talk a little about a fifth reason for wanting to leave parish ministry.
If you were to ask most people on the street, “Why do local churches exist?”, they would say things like, “To meet the spiritual needs of their members” or “To provide services (or ministry) to those in need”. Those would also be my answer to the question.
Unfortunately, something happened in during the 20th Century that changed the focus of many local churches. Churches began to buy large pieces of property and build large buildings and campus facilities.
Much of the building happened at a time in the 1950s when church attendance was at its peak: at a time when the resources of local churches seemed unlimited. They had all the money they needed to build new buildings and all the volunteers they needed to maintain the brand-new facilities.
Fast forward sixty years.
Church attendance has declined over past past 60 years. The number of volunteers willing to help meet the needs of the church buildings has diminished. And the number of dollars placed in the offering plates each week has dwindled as well.
In addition to the limited resources available to local churches, the once-new buildings are now rapidly showing their age. The need for money to fix and maintain the buildings is skyrocketing. The need for volunteers who have the expertise and time to make the repairs has never been greater.
Given those two sets of circumstance, do you see where we are today?
If you go to most church council or board meetings these days, a huge chunk of time and energy is spent discussing business matters. “Where can we find the financial resources to maintain the buildings?” church leaders ask themselves. “Where can we find people who can make the much-needed repairs?” congregants are asked. More and more time is devoted to business matters; less and less time is devoted to spiritual matters.
This shift in focus has been demoralizing to everyone involved. This is especially true for lay and ordained church leaders: most of whom stepped forward to lead because of their spiritual passion and not their business acumen. Something has to give in order for our local churches to find their way back – so that spiritual matters can once again take priority.
How will that happen?
Clearly a paradigm shift MUST occur. Local churches must think about themselves in ways that are less focused on their buildings and property and more focused on their spiritual life.
New models for how worshipping community can continue to exist have been emerging for the last few decades. There are private foundations out there, for instance, who are purchasing local church buildings, agreeing to manage the buildings (including assuming responsibility for upkeep and building use), and then entering into contractual arrangements that give the worshipping community priority in the use of the facility. That’s one model.
Another emerging model is where local churches work with community partners to establish a private foundation of their own. The foundation can then take on responsibility for oversight of the buildings. It allows the campus community to seek out things like public and private grants in order to meet the needs of the campus: grants that would be unavailable for local churches. This model would put MUCH less pressure on church members to bear the burden of maintaining the facility alone.
Of course, these aren’t the only two choices out there. There are a variety of other models out there as well for how local churches can redefine themselves in the 21st Century so the life of the church is no longer driven primarily by attempts to maintain their building and property.
I have no strong feeling about which choice our local churches should make. Each community has different needs and values. Each community must make the series of choices that feels right for their ministry context. All I know is that we can’t continue with business as usual (pun intended). A shift in paradigm MUST occur.
What will it take for local churches to make this shift in paradigm?
My 12-Step thinking tells me that local churches will have to hit bottom first. I hope I am wrong. My sincere hope is that local churches can be honest with each other and begin by naming the overwhelming challenges they face. In being honest about the scope of the challenges, it might encourage church people to begin thinking outside the box and find innovative ways of being church.
Until that shift in paradigm happens, local mainline churches will continue to have their lives increasingly dominated by business, rather than spiritual matters. That reality is be a big reason why pastors like myself will consider leaving parish ministry.