Feature

The Other Exodus

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When even Wikipedia has “leaving the ordained ministry” as a subheading in its “Pastor” article, we must acknowledge that the exodus from pastoral ministry is now as well documented as the Exodus from Egypt. Dr. Walter Kaiser, former president of Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, estimated that 18,000 evangelical pastors exit ministry every year. Sources suggest that 80 percent bail within five years of graduation from seminary or Bible college. The average tenure of a pastor in ministry is just 14 years. One researcher suggests that “the number of ex-pastors is roughly equal that of serving clergy throughout the Western world.”

Many factors are said to contribute to this high attrition rate: burnout, stress, marital problems, sexual misconduct, loneliness, organizational factors and conflict—all of which are the subject of various studies. I would like to suggest another theory.

Fifty years ago—when I was a 10-year-old living in Chicago—my family settled into South Park Church, a solid, evangelical, missions-minded congregation of about 550 people. The ministry was community-based. The pastoral staff was one man, Rev. H. Leroy Patterson. (An associate pastor would come later, replaced by an associate pastor/youth pastor.) There was a full-time church secretary, a part-time custodian, a paid organist and a part-time choir director. Patterson preached—quite well, in fact—twice on Sunday morning and again on Sunday night. He visited the congregation in their homes and the sick in the hospital. He married. He buried. He lived in the parsonage, next door to the church. For 20 years—long enough to become “beloved”—Patterson was by every measure a successful pastor in a successful American church.

South Park Church, by God’s curious design, was the place where Son City and then Willow Creek Community Church were incubated during the tenure of a youth pastor named Bill Hybels in the 1970s. By the 1990s, through the influence of Hybels’ megachurch model, the idea of how to do church in America had changed from a true community-based ministry to the regional church.

As the church-growth movement changed church culture, the marks of a successful pastor changed as well. Any local minister now had to preach as well as the high-profile megachurch pastors who were flooding the airwaves. He needed to be as focused on the family as Jim Dobson and as able a counselor as the call-in psychologists. He needed to be as skilled an administrator as a Harvard MBA and a charismatic leader as well. Do I need to go on? The office of pastor went from being a position of great honor to a job requiring a remarkably diverse skill set that no one person could ever perform quite as well as the “composite” quilted together in the minds of consumer-oriented church shoppers.

I served 28 years in pastoral ministry followed to date by 8 years of “other” ministries—seminary professor, consultant, coach and author. I never had a dramatic “call” to the ministry or mission field. My journey into pastoral ministry came because I believed that God’s gifting in my life overlapped with pastoral ministry skills but now overlaps quite well with my current “assignments.” As a result, I never engender my ministry with a romanticized sense of vocational call that would set me up for easily quashed idealism.

Although the era of the megachurch is not yet over, the luster seems to be fading as many are turning (or returning) to a different mindset—the missional church. The recent REVEAL project at Willow Creek was accompanied by an honest confession that the megachurch movement significantly missed the mark and needs to be rethought. Being “missional” rather than “mission minded” is nurturing a new paradigm in which the pastor is not the multitalented superstar, but the shepherd who equips the multigifted congregation—where all believers comprehend their “mission.”

True “Kingdom thinking” will spread. I believe that in the future we will see more and more churches with new models of staffing and ministry as the missional paradigm bears fruit. It is unlikely we will return to the pastoral models of the 1950s or again see lifelong careers in the secular world—all of which will reduce some of the expectations and the pressure that accompany pastoral ministry.

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