Since it was a Sunday, the bi-vocational and part-time pastors, who normally can't come to weekday morning meetings, were out in force. It drove home to me how many of our churches are now being served by part-time local pastors and supply pastors.* These folks have minimal clergy education, most of them, and they are almost all unordained. They do a great job, mind you. But their success brings up the inevitable question, If they do such a fine job, what is the advantage of having a fully-qualified, ordained pastor? After all, we Elders are expensive beasts to keep.
One could say that there are things we can do that they cannot. But most of us pastor aging, shrinking churches, too. And truth be told, it mostly has to do with a congregation's self-image what they think they should pay for clergy ministry. Some would feel diminished if they didn't have a pastor with all the right credentials, while others don't care.
I was talking this over with a friend this week. By what standard should we judge the value of a United Methodist Elder? Not this Elder or that Elder, mind you, but any Elder as compared to any other category of pastor. What do we add to the mix that makes us so valuable? If an unordained local pastor can be licensed to do everything that we can do, then all of us are the same sort of worker, our fancy degrees and holy rubber stamps notwithstanding.
Take two clergy from other backgrounds. Pastor A is an entrepreneurial church-planter who has started a non-denominational community church. He's grown it to hefty size, and the congregation is thriving. He may or may not belong to a body that supervises him; his congregation may or may not belong to a body whose rules they are required to obey. Whether or not, take him for what he and they have done, this is still success. Pastor A has grown a church. You can quantify his achievement. How many of us can say that we add that kind of value to what we do?
Meanwhile, Pastor B has been ordained in a church whose body of doctrine includes a belief in the necessity of apostolic succession. Clergy are a necessary part of these believers' ecclesiology; without them, there is no one to supply the sacraments which are the life of the Church. Pastor B may not have a large congregation, but every time he shows up and does what he was ordained to do, he does what nobody else can do in that place, with those people. His value is obvious.
But what about Pastors C and D, both United Methodist pastors, one ordained and one merely licensed? On what basis will we compare their work to see who should be rewarded, and who should be counseled to seek another profession? Used to be, our standards of clergy value were, at least in part, similar to Pastor B's denomination. But now, it takes very little to qualify to administer the sacraments, at least in our smaller churches. But if we are looking for effectiveness -- that is, if we are to move over to something like the standard of value that obtains in Pastor A's world, then most of us are failures, and some of the part-timers are doing a heckuva better job than some of the big name Revs.
I think I can justify, at least for myself, the value I add through my ministry. But in these times of economic stress, I am uncomfortable attempting to articulate a standard that would say what a typical United Methodist congregation gets for its money. Would they get more if they paid more? No guarantees. Would they be better or worse off if they went part-time? Nobody can say. Would they get better theology if they went one way rather than another? That's a crapshoot among United Methodist clergy, though I'd have to say the odds are better they'll hear something that resembles John Wesley's theology from the unordained, though it might be somewhat unsophisticated.
I believe that The United Methodist Church has lost its way. We no longer believe in our core processes, including ordination. We have made of it a mere union card. Those who went to the trouble of getting the full boat of credentials have certain institutional advantages over those who did not. But are they better, as clergy? Well, by what standard? And if we can't tell the people who foot the bills what our standard of clergy value is, then how can we best advise them on what kind of clergy they should desire to have for their pastors?
There are 115 congregations in the West District. 31 of them are served by full-time pastors, of which about two dozen are served by Elders. Of the other 80-some congregations, there are four multiple-congregation charges, and the rest are solo appointments for part-time clergy of various sorts.