In our case, at least half our active parishioners are over 70 years old, I'd say. They are, by and large, very consistent attenders (weather permitting) and also very consistent givers. But they are reaching the age where they just can't or won't do all the leadership stuff and the committees any more. One fellow even said he didn't want to help usher any more because he was too tottery on his feet and didn't trust himself to do it. Take away another ten percent or so who are too young to take on too much, and what you've got is maybe 35% of the congregation who are of an age to fill jobs, volunteer to help with programs, etc. It's a fairly small group we're all trying to develop as leaders, and burning people out too soon is a real fear. So that's just life.
But while we're moaning about the burden of trying to do ministry in our locale -- and fretting over our budget and giving -- it would be helpful to consider this: The average small- to medium-sized congregation is no more organizationally complex than a large and successful Kiwanis Club -- except the church has paid staff and owns property.
This is not to say that the church and the Kiwanians are otherwise the same sort of enterprise, or of the same order in the kingdom of heaven; rather, simply considered as two social organizations, they are remarkably similar in their organizational processes. Both meet once a week. One takes up an offering; the other has everybody pay for a meal. They both hear a speaker as part of an otherwise rather unvarying program agenda. They emphasize friendliness, with greeters and such. They promote various good works and take up the occasional special offering. They both have officers and committees that take up extra time beyond the weekly get-together and the community good works. But the Kiwanians don't have paid staff, nor do they own a building they have to keep up.
Now, there are churches that don't have buildings. New church starts always have to borrow or rent a place to meet. But the pull of the place-of-our-own is very strong. Not just for convenience' sake, either; we desire to inhabit a place which will become our holy place, a place where we will meet God and where we can come back, time and again, to mark the major transitions of our lives in his presence and amongst the gathered community of the faithful. So sooner or later, almost all congregations tend to wind up owning property. And as the property ages, the risk is that it will wind up owning you.
Some congregations reach the point where they can no longer keep up their buildings. Sometimes, they can relocate and get a fresh start with less overhead; sometimes, they just die. The truth we must always remind ourselves of is: The Church is immortal; our church is not. And all of us must sometimes face that most difficult of truths that Jesus said, that we must die in order to live again. But given that we are probably not going to go out of business right away -- and that we don't want to give up our real estate, however difficult it is -- what about that other thing we spend so much money on? Why do we need paid staff?
Well, many churches don't have any paid staff other than the pastor. And if you're fine with volunteering to do all the stuff that secretaries and nursery workers and organists and custodians do, then you don't need them. Oh, you don't have time to do those jobs? Well, then, I guess we're going to have to pay people to do them.
As for the pastor, let's understand that almost every church spends a staggering percentage of its budget on the pastor's salary, housing, benefits, and expenses. Which is embarrassing, if you're a pastor, but it's just reality. Am I worth that much? ask some pastors; others think, I know I'm worth more than that. Me, I long ago realized that pastoral salaries tell you more about the congregation's self-image than the abilities of the pastor. We have a pastor worth X is a point of pride with some people. We've never paid a pastor more than Y, is a point of pride with some others. I've pastored both of those churches, and worked as hard and conscientiously for one as for the other.
But still, the idea of a volunteer clergy is attractive in some ways. Could it work? Years ago, I was attending a Conference meeting about clergy salaries and benefits (again). Before the meeting took up, I said to a colleague, "Why do we keep talking about this? If they didn't pay us anything, wouldn't we still do this job? I mean, God called us to do it." Now, both my friend and I were old Scouters, and we had seen many a Scoutmaster work very hard at leading Scouts; that model of sacrificial volunteerism was attractive to both of us and we could both see that as a viable model for ordained ministry. But my fellow pastor just said, "No, Art. [If we were volunteers,] we'd just do the parts we like."
I saw immediately how much sense that made. The denomination requires me to fill out Check Day forms -- because they know they can make me do it. It also requires me to chair the Lay Leadership Committee in the local church (what we used to call "Nominations and Personnel") -- once again, because they know they can make me do it. In fact, if I were just giving my services away, I can think of a lot of things I wouldn't bother much with. Oh, I'd still preach and celebrate the sacraments and visit the sick and teach confirmation class and do funerals and stay up late with that person stricken by grief or fear or guilt. I'd still offer my body as a living sacrifice. But I doubt I'd do near as many meetings. Local church meetings, District and Conference meetings, community meetings . . . Which is why I tell people I attend meetings for a living (that, and fill out forms). You gotta pay me to do that; the rest of what I do is my gift to you and to God.
Well, paid or volunteer, clergy or laity, all I know is that I love Jesus and I want to serve him with everything I've got for as long as I live. If you do, too, then let's do that, whatever other people do or don't do. And if we look like we're enjoying the experience instead of grumbling about it, more of them might come help.