Wednesday, December 1, 2010

A Minister Dilemma

Yesterday I attended a meeting of one of the boards on which I serve.  It's a really great organization that does fabulous work in my community, ranging from food services to HIV/AIDS support to park safety and gardening for kids.  Anyway, at this board meeting, we got into a conversation about people who continue to work (and be paid) despite the fact that they are either unable or unwilling to actually do their jobs.  It's a horrible conversation to have, especially when there are specific people involved rather than just a theory, because anything you say sounds like it's some kind of judgment on the aged and infirm.  The only judgment I have about it is that it's poor stewardship for an organization to continue to pay someone who doesn't, for whatever reason, do their job.

Okay, that's not really the only judgment I have about it.  I also believe rather strongly that people need to deal with their own limitations.  If your age or infirmity is keeping you from doing your job (and therefore hamstringing an organization), you should not force your colleagues or supervisors into a lose-lose situation where they either have to be mean to you or cripple the organization, either of which will probably make them feel like crappy people.  Retire, already.

Of course, there are economic factors involved in this, along with the emotional difficulty of accepting one's limitations, and I know it's not as easy as I can make it sound when I get all up on my soapbox.  But still.  If I reach 60 or 70 or 80 and am unwell and clinging to the pulpit despite my inability to do the rest of my job, holding a church to paying me because they feel bad letting me go, please, someone, take the car keys away from grandma.

This line of thought brought us around to the large number of aging ministers who are either refusing to retire, or who are technically retired but still basically working full-time.  I'm grateful that some of them are willing to serve small, struggling congregations that can't afford a full-time minister.  If they're still physically and mentally able to serve, thanks be to God.  But I feel wary about the number of ministers I've seen who aren't really up for the job, and the churches that try to support them while struggling on without ministerial leadership.  I also know the number of qualified people coming out of seminary who are in need of positions, but can't find them, in part because churches in this area can pay a retired minister next to nothing (or actually nothing), and why spend the money or deal with a young, inexperienced minister (or God forbid, a woman) when you can get one who fits your image of what a minister ought to be like for practically free?

Around here, congregations are shrinking by the day, literally dying off.  But they can manage to keep having services until the existing congregation really does die if they have an aging pastor who will keep preaching for minimal compensation indefinitely.  Maybe that's a good thing?  I don't know, but it seems to me that it also makes it possible for churches to just continue on without ever really considering how they might be relevant in a changing world, or how to reach out to their communities, or any number of other things that I think it's valuable for congregations to deal with.

Hm.  When I started writing this post, I thought I was going to rather quickly get to another topic entirely, which is how we might support (financially and emotionally) ministers serving these small, struggling churches in a new way.  I seem to have gone off on a ranting tangent.  Oops.  Anyway, here's the deal.  The idea of these small, struggling churches being able to hire young, inexperienced ministers, even if the older ministers were to retire, is often a moot point, because they have no money.  Even people of the cloth can't live on love.  When a small church can afford a full-time minister, it's often an isolating and taxing experience that can wreak havoc on someone who is inexperienced at ministry (trust me, I've been there).  So, I've been pondering other  models of small-church ministry, such as having what is essentially a multi-staff ministry with multiple campuses (three ministers serving five or six small congregations, for example), which would relieve both some of the financial issues and the isolation issues.  Of course, it would also require churches to change their expectations of ministers, and we all know how easily that happens.

I've also been pondering a sort of socialist approach to paying ministers in a denomination, but that really is going to have to wait for another post.  

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