Dear God, please stop calling pastors

Dear God,

I know we talked earlier, but I have something important that I’d like to ask you so I thought I’d send you a letter. I usually do better thinking through thoughts when I write them out. Don’t think that you need to give me an answer right away, but I’d sure love an answer sooner rather than later.

So, here’s the deal: I’d like to ask you to stop calling “pastors” to the ministry.

As I understand it (from that awesome book of yours) the word “pastor” is drawn from the word “shepherd.” The purpose of the shepherd is to protect and provide for the sheep, to feed them well, and keep them healthy. To be sure, sometimes this means that the shepherd needs to make the sheep do things they’d rather not do, and sometimes it means applying some preventative medicine, etc. But, mostly, being a shepherd means that the sheep are well cared for. You know – that whole “still waters” and “green pastures” thing?

So, the reason I ask is because I think we’ve got enough of these people, and I was wondering if you had noticed. In my own denomination we have somewhere around twice as many “shepherds” as we have “flocks” available. Normally, I wouldn’t worry about that because I know that many of those pastors aren’t “out of work,” they’re just keeping their options open.

But what bothers me is the number of new pastors that seem to be flooding the market every year, and the fact that a lot of congregations don’t want a first time pastor. Seriously?

Again, have you noticed this?

Look, Almighty Creator of Heaven and Earth, I am fine with you calling the shots. I’m down with you being the one in charge of calling people to service in the church (you can bet I don’t want the job), but I’m wondering if you’ve fallen asleep lately. I mean, I trust that you have a plan and everything, but this is getting ridiculous. Let me tell you what I think you should do about this.

1) Stop calling pastors. I think we have enough for right now. Let’s let the ones we have get into circulation. I’m sure a lot of that will even itself out. Some of the older pastors are going to retire evenutally. It’ll be a bit tense for a few years, but I think we can manage. However…

2) Please start calling EVANGELISTS instead. Seriously. A lot of these newer folks seeking to be pastors are thinking about your church in crazy new ways and it would be a waste of their energy to ask them to go maintain a system that is gonna wrap up in a few years.

Maybe you’re already aware of all this. Look, I know where I was when you laid the foundations of the world. Okay? I get it. I’m not suggesting you’re not good at what you do, but this is getting out of hand. Maybe you actually did call some of these pastors as evangelists and they got the signals wrong. Maybe the Church in general misinterpreted. Whatev. I’m fine with it all. But could you give an indication of what you’re up to.

Okay. I think that’s enough. Thanks for listening. Thanks for considering.

Wanna do brunch after worship on Sunday? I know this great kosher deli.


25 thoughts on “Dear God, please stop calling pastors

  1. I say quit calling church “CEO’s.” if you want to lead an organization, their are plenty of corporations who could use people who have leadership and management skills AND have values to lead businesses into more mora land ethical ways of doing business. Lord knows we need that! When pastors expect to be or are expected to be chief operating officers of the church, they get mired in things like budgets, and building campaigns, and program development instead of being teaching elders and yes, pastors and evangelists. Seminaries are right in keeping their focus on bible, theology and pastoral care, for every congregation has untold talent to lead and manage the organizations if pastors would get out of the way. The church is hungering for pastoral leadership focused on spiritual growth and development.

    • I agree with you very much, but I’m very interested in going beyond what the church is hungering for in order to focus on those not in the church. What are your thoughts there?

  2. Now, Landon, are you saying we want “new” people to come to church. Because I don’t know if that’s such a good idea. “New” people might not like doing things the way our church has “always” done things. And we’d have to process them and integrate them and put them on the rolls…

    Ooops, sorry, the inner-cynic got a hold of my keyboard. I kind of agree with Prairiespirit about the “we don’t need more CEOs” deal. I can tell people are attempting to push me through that “pastor as CEO” mold and I’ve resisted. But I’m also not real great at evangelism. Because I’m already not very cool. And evangelizing will probably make that even more evident. God wants me to be a little bit cool, right?

  3. Personally, I like first time ministers. They a enthusiastic and fresh. They have yet to become bored with their material. I certainly hope that my church calls another first time minister.

  4. Wow, Landon. I have to say this leaves me kind of alienated. I’m sorry to hear I’m just adding to the already excessive unemployable masses. How about if I promise to make sure everybody who finished before me gets a call before I accept one? Or should I just go back to being a stay at home mom right now and save myself a lot of time, money, and effort?

  5. Umm… I kind of agree with Megan. And I kind of agree with you. Guess I’m equivocating a little, but that’s because maybe we need God to ask God to help us hear our calls differently. Maybe we need a better vocabulary for calls…

    I trust that God is calling me to something in this wacky church. Right now the best word I’ve got is pastor, but I’m open to being called most anything if it glorifies God and brings us closer to experiencing God’s vision for a reconciled world.

    I mean really- if there can be 50-100 words for snow, couldn’t there be at least that many different ways to be called to ministry within and beyond those 2 big categories you named? I think it would be great fun to hear the dreams that God is laying on the hearts of other candidates and inquirers and – like Adam checking out all the cool new critters God made, give names to the diversity of work God has for us in this new day for the church.

    • I agree that there can/should be more names for the things being done, but that’s not my point.

      My point is that the church is at a place where there is a particular kind of activity that is needed and we’re not stepping up to the plate and addressing it. Meanwhile, a crapload of you go into debt in order to do a job that likely won’t pay well enough to cover that debt. And this is beside the point that there may not be a job anyway.

      Theologically speaking, if God is the one who calls, I want to know what the plan is, cause this seems messed up.

      What I’m also trying to name is that everyone thinks they are a pastor, but we have waaaay to many of those right now as it is. I was told I was called to congregational pastoral ministry (no mention of style, just place), but I now think that the wires got crossed a bit on that. I’m betting there are more like me than not. Everyone of us thinks we’re the exception and that we are actually the ones that the church is looking for. We need a better diagnostic tool.

      I’m not trying to make a judgment call on that, but I am trying to point out that we’re not talking about who’s responsibility is it to address that?

      • OK- let me back up because the dots that connected my thoughts to yours must have been in invisible “ink” (pixels, whatever). What I meant to say was that I think part of the problem is a lack of imagination. An ecclesiastical version of the old “hammer can only see nails” thing.

        The way I understand this process, God endows women and men with gifts to edify the church. These gifts are seen and developed and encouraged in the community. Some women and men are gifted *and* called to specific ordered ministry; their calls are also affirmed, developed and encouraged in the community.

        The way we understand the why (to edify the church) is where I think we get tripped up. We can read that to mean we are to love and care for one another within the gathered body. OR we can read that to mean we love and care for one another in order to be part of God’s work to heal, restore and reconcile the world.

        If we tend to believe the former (which seems to be the case a lot of the time), we are going to see the need for people gifted to lead in the effort to care for one another… pastors. And if that is all an emerging leader has ever seen or heard about, when they hear God saying, “I have work for you” what else can they imagine being?

        Those churches that are more fully engaged in outward-focused ministry and significant evangelism, who are committed to mission locally and globally are much more likely to have eyes to see emerging leaders who are gifted and called to be missionaries, evangelists, chaplains, and yes, pastors.

        So the responsibility for all of this (with a nod to the sovereignty of God) seems to be on all of us as gathered believers to be open to engaging in and naming ways of faithfully responding that don’t limit those who hear God’s call on their lives to the same short list we’ve worked with for the past several decades.

  6. The imbalance certainly doesn’t make sense to me. And trends are only accelerating in a new direction. I rather hope I’m not called to a church. The best I can hope for is either a tentmaking ministry as I freelance as a hike leader or a food truck evangelist!

  7. I find it interesting that we have a pastor surplus when only a few years ago folks were freaking out about a pastor shortage. Seminaries, and the denom, went on a recruiting kick. I am also aware that many people have been “passed through” by CPMs because those serving on CPMs were not able to have a serious conversation about “calling” with folks–it is a difficult and painful, though very necessary conversation to have. Sadly, I have watched as well-meaning candidates are presented before presbyteries to be ordained, they are examined, the vote happens and they are passed by the entire presbytery, and then the conversations begin afterwards around people believing the candidate should never have been presented in the first place. Our system/culture is, indeed, broken, in many ways.

    However, I am really concerned when our own vice moderator has mentioned more than once something along the lines “it would be a waste of their energy to ask them to go maintain a system that is gonna wrap up in a few years.” I mean no disrespect here, but as one serving in one of the highest offices of our denomination I believe you have a responsibility to not just badmouth it, but seek to find ways for us to truly be the church God is calling us to be–a church full of those who care deeply about listening for what God is doing in our midst, and those seeking to then partner with God to do those things (reach out to the hungry and forgotten, welcome the stranger among us, stand strong in love against the injustices of the powers that be, seek justice, love mercy, walk humbly, etc.).

    I get that there are those who dis the Presby-system, and the other ecclesiastical systems that now exist. I believe our system is one of the more difficult ones because it forces us to interact around some of the more difficult issues that can often divide us. Our conversations are not easy. We cannot lay back and blame “those in charge”, because as Presbyterians we are all responsible. We cannot choose to merely be in lose “association” with others because our polity (our way of living this faith) forces us to be in more intimate relationships that both hold one another accountable and lift one another up. But most of the rhetoric I read and hear from all sides of the political-theological debates seems to focus more on tearing one another down and being “right” no matter the consequences.

    And the reality is that these debates and these issues of “survivability” are not new to our system or any church system that has existed. Every generation has had its issues and its potential and realized schisms. It pains me to hear that people want to break covenant with me and the denomination I love, but at the same time I wish them well and trust that God will continue to speak to them and through them. I have seen this system work well when those participating are able to let go of themselves (myself included) and, instead, reach out and seek to understand the “other”, to care for their neighbor across the proverbial aisle, and actually want to build relationships across theological and political divides. When we forget about ourselves, suddenly we see the those all around us in pain, both in and outside the churches–evangelism, pastoring, caring, and compassion happen! It does work, but it is not easy. I guess that’s what doesn’t fit in our “I want it my way”, win or lose, all or nothing culture, the fact that it is not easy.

    Though too many times I have joined the chorus of those calling the system broken, sick, etc., I still have hope that even as we shrink in numbers, we may grow in clarity, connection, and call. I’m not here to defend a system, but to seek to continue working within it to help all of us (again, myself included) recognize ever new and renewing opportunities to live into this crazy-ass thing that drives me nuts most days and we label “God’s calling.” I’d like to see a moderator/vice moderator/or any one else speak to that. Former GA Stated Clerk Cliff Kirkpatrick took a LOT of hits for his work, but through it all he always spoke with gracious humility, even to those who wanted him out and hated him personally, though they had often never met him. I didn’t always agree with how things were handled, but I was always impressed by his respectful demeanor and relentless hope (at least publicly).

    Ok…rant over. I’m just tired of being tired of being a Presbyterian and hearing such negativity all the time. God is doing a new thing, and I haven’t the foggiest idea what it is. I just hope I have not grown so jaded that I can’t hear it or see it anymore.

  8. Landon,
    Thanks for this post. For years I have been trying to decipher whether God was/is calling me into pastoral ministry. Why didn’t I just write her/him a letter and ask?

    With regards to my “calling” there’s no doubt that I’ve been called to ministry but I’ve also been called not to rack up debt, I’ve been called to seek justice, I’ve been called to shepherd my family and friends and others God puts in my path, I’ve been called to love, I’ve been called to try and change this world from the way that it is, to the way that it ought to be. And I’m getting confirmation daily (such as this letter you wrote) that my calling is to happen outside the walls of the church. Good thing too, cause I hear this is all going to wrap up in a few years anyway:)

  9. Landon:
    Immediately thought of your post when I read this:
    from Sojourner’s online.
    and Adam Copeland’s article in the current Christian Century.
    Interesting that these all came together about the same time.

    As a 50-something PCUSA pastor, er I mean, “teaching elder” I agree that changing the names of things is not the point. Neither is changing the way we do things if we’ve not paid attention to the underlying stuff whether it be theology, call process, systemic issues, etc.

    “What the heck does it mean to be church?” seems to me to be a question we have carefully sidestepped in all of this. If we could begin to address that well on a local level maybe we could have better conversations as a denomination.

  10. In many respects I agree with you, Landon. Too many people going through the system (and being encouraged to do so by CPMs), who are not realistic about what’s available in the way of existing church-based calls (pastor or associate), and where those calls are. Too many people pursuing the ministry (teaching elder) with a narrow vision of what it means and imagining themselves in the same setting they grew up in. Too many CPMs not asking inquirers how they view their future role (where, doing what), making sure they understand the realities, and encouraging them to think about entirely new models of ministry. Too many churches unwilling to take first-call pastors, even though they’re not able to pay very much and have a shrinking under-100 membership. Too many churches stuck in the past models and ways of doing things who can’t see new possibilities for being church. Too many churches who can’t accept what might keep them alive and vibrant because it would require too many changes and welcoming too many people who are different. Too many denominational barriers to ordaining people to non-traditional forms of ministry (or even traditional forms that don’t fit stringent rules).

    But I also wonder why you seem to have such a narrow view of “pastor” yourself. No one who’s a pastor has to be as limited as you describe it; people who are working start-up communities in coffee houses and household basements could also be considered pastors of churches – new kinds of pastors to new kinds of church communities. I also don’t know for sure what you mean by “evangelist,” and you don’t explain it – it’s not a self-defining terms in today’s world of, e.g., televangelism. Maybe I’m wrong, but I’m assuming you aren’t using it simply in the traditional, narrow sense of “saving souls,” “ bringing people to Christ,” etc. I’m hoping you mean the vastly broader sense attributed to Saint Francis: “Preach the gospel at all times; if necessary, use words.” In the latter sense, evangelism is going on all the time — even by pastors and even in ordinary churches! And often by people in forms of ministry that the denomination declines to validate and ordain. .And if “evangelists” are just those who get people initially excited about church, who does take care of them after the evangelist “leaves town” if we don’t have anybody who’s a pastor once a flock is gathered? When you say the old order is on the way out, do you mean there will be no more communities where many of the same people gather regularly, where they get to know each other over a period of time, where they can learn to build trust and feel safe in vulnerability and can count on help in times of need or weakness? Will the church of the future be an endlessly fluid something where nothing is fixed and reliable from one week to the next?

    So I’m not sure what I think about this post because I’m not quite sure what you’re saying. I don’t know what you mean by evangelist or what your vision is of the new church, except that apparently it has absolutely nothing in common with current churches.

  11. Around half of pcusa churches don’t have a pastor, because they have less than 100 members and not enough money to pay one. Lots of job openings for churches that have been killed by the previous generation of teachers who were not CEOs. Now open for progressives who don’t know how to evangelize. Poetic justice.

  12. Okay so I don’t have a PCUSA Seal tatoo, but I love the church. I am propably one of those you wish would retire- I begn, in my late teens, in a church held in a park.. I or we did not join the PCUSA until thew 80’s. I think that the PCUSA has no idea how to do evangelism or talk about the good news. All we get is how to increase membership or whatever. The goal is to reach out to those unchurched, although I find many in the church to not know who God CAN be in their lives. God lead me to this church and until God totally uses another vessel, I am in.

  13. As one who is called by God to *something* within the church, I must say that I agree with you. I see a need for those called to ministry to be willing to do what God wants, not what WE want. I have heard many people, myself included, say “I want to serve God, but I don’t want to do this, that, or some other thing.”

    I’m certainly still in the process of discerning where in the church God wants me. But I’m certain that it means ordained ministry. I understand that there is a need for fewer pastors in churches. But ordained ministry doesn’t just have to be about leading a congregation. It can mean being a chaplain or religious educator or any number of other things. One thing it definitely does mean is that the person is a leader in the church universal, and THAT is the one thing I’m absolutely certain God is calling me to be.

  14. Wow, I want to write about ten things in response to what I have read here but instead I will write this. Simplistically, it is about how many people will form a faith community so one person can have some sort of liveable income and maybe even health insurance. The answer I have seen in the PCUSA over the last ten years is very few So, evangelists is one possible answer as long as the evangelist does not expect income for the first couple years.

      • As a first-call pastor in the ELCA in my 7th month of ministry, I have been wrestling with all of these issues. I am struggling to find out how to be faithful to God’s call as pastor when I see so many things wrong with the current model of church and with my congregations. And yet, God HAS called me and led me here where I am, in a dying church, to be a shepherd to take care of the people at my congregations, which-yes is an outdated model of ministry, and does not model what I think Jesus called for when he said “go make disciples of all nations.” Yet I believe it is still ministry with people in need of hearing and experiencing God’s grace and love, which as an evangelist and pastor, I am called to share. I trust that this is a stepping stone to God’s continuing path for my calling and for the members of the congregations that I serve. Our presiding bishop, Mark Hanson, has said: “Maintain high expectations of the Holy Spirit.,” and I pray that God helps me trust in these high expectations. I know that my ministry won’t look like this for long, but it does now and I trust that God has brought me to this place and trust where the Holy Spirit is leading me, the Church and these churches that I work with. I really appreciate and agree with many of the comments that you said in your blog, Landon. The church is an institution that calls and struggles to bring pastors to shepherd congregations that are, I believe, part of an institution that must die everyday to be reborn in Christ. At the same time, the Holy Spirit still moves and touches lives through the current the institution in Christ’s name that pays me, gives me needed health insurance, money that is daily bread and that is used to repay loans that I incurred following God’s lead, at least as it made sense in the bit of light that was shed on my path at the time.
        I am now following your blog, so I look forward to further conversations, including the “salaried religious professional” one. One brief thought on that: I am sure that I will have to find another way to receive my daily bread in the not-too-distant future, and I pray I am brave enough to take that step when I feel it is before me. But I don’t think this conversation means that we should stop recruiting people to go to seminary and become first-call pastors, because gradually the Holy Spirit is creating something new for us to be part of. And hopefully the things we learn in the first years of ministry within the institution can be used to be the evangelists in whatever new God is creating amongst us. So, if I joined you in you prayer that started this blog, I would pray instead that God would instill in us such hope, peace, and patience while we experience the frustrations of assignments, the journey of waiting for an opening or of being in a frustrating 1st call, that we would endure until the new things are revealed. Thank you and God’s grace to all!

      • I like how you’ve noted that the willingness to trust God’s leading is really the core issue here. Thanks for that.

  15. As an ELCA Pastor of 25+ years, I still await the “great clergy shortage” that was promised in the early 1980s while I was in seminary. Currently, I am part-time pastor who works two other part-time jobs. A synod staff person tells me I might be the “new normal” in mainline churches. I am told that I am too old to interview for many churches [I am 58]. And I am told most churches want a younger pastor who is high energy, Type A personality and is willing to work for less money. Sadly, insteaed of ushering the Kingdom of God, I fear the church is mirroring the latest trends in the global marketplace. Probably a great Christian persecution similar to the time of Nero or Domitian would thin out the ranks of true believers and leaders in the church.

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