Are local pastors the future of the United Methodist Church?

January 5th, 2016

One of the more interesting trends in The United Methodist Church is the explosion of local pastors. Since 1985 the number of local pastors has almost doubled from 3,804 to 7,464 while the number of elders has decreased about 30 percent from 21,378 to 15,019. The number of local pastors includes both full and part-time with part-time local pastors comprising slightly over 60 percent of the local pastors. So the national average in the UM Church is two elders for every one local pastor. In 1990 there were five elders for every one local pastor. 

According to the data the Lewis Center has provided, there are a couple of annual conferences that now have more local pastors appointed to churches than seminary-educated elders. Whether this is good or bad depends on one’s point of view but certainly it is worth reflecting on. The top six conferences in percentage terms in use of local pastors compared to elders are in order: West Virginia; Tennessee; North Alabama; Kentucky; Missouri; East Ohio.

The four conferences using the least amount of local pastors as a percentage of elders in the conference are Oregon-Idaho; New York; Northern Illinois and New Mexico.

I sent my work study students to explore the numbers in the Tennessee Conference by checking the 2015 Tennessee Conference Appointments “book.” They found 185 elders appointed and 11 retired elders appointed as well as 60 full-time local pastors appointed with 133 part-time local pastors appointed and 30 retired local pastors appointed as well. In other words more local pastors than elders appointed and more part-timers than the national average.

Many believe the trend of more and more local pastors will continue, as do I. If this is true and we are headed to a time when we have more local pastors than elders, is it time to reflect those changes in our organization structure? For example: is it time for a local pastor to be a district superintendent? This would, of course, require a change to the Book of Discipline (see ¶417) but it would reflect a significant signal to the way pastoral leadership occurs within The United Methodist Church.

Should we begin to include more local pastors on conference committees and national boards and agencies? For example if the Tennessee Conference is essentially a one-to-one ratio of elders to local pastors, should every conference committee have a local pastor for every elder on the committee?

If local pastors (especially part-time local pastors) are going to become the primary way churches have clergy leadership, do we need to radically rethink how we educate them?

Is the trend toward more local pastors a reflection of the increasing difficulty of becoming an elder, especially in conferences with additional requirements beyond the Book of Discipline? Or is this trend reflective of the pay package that elders require?

Another trend worth reflecting upon is the gender of local pastors. While the trend among UM clergy is for more female elders than ever before, the number of females as local pastors is decreasing, at least among those local pastors 35 or younger. So has the office of local pastor become a default way to try and avoid female clergy, especially for those males who do not believe in female ordination or for those churches who “decline” a female clergyperson?

Is the explosion of local pastors a reaction against the “professionalization” of clergy who may be seen as more concerned with minimum salary, pension, health care benefits and running the “organization” of The United Methodist Church than they may be perceived as attempting to win people for Jesus Christ? Or is it simply the reality of churches who can no longer afford a full-time seminary educated elder as pastor?

Questions such as these need to move more to the forefront of The United Methodist Church and Boards of Ordained Ministry as we contemplate, plan and pray for our future. What do you think?

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