Evangelical Lutheran Church courts ‘at least 600’ pastors

Evangelical Lutheran Church in America
The re-election of Bishop Elizabeth Eaton, Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, was announced during the first ballot of the Evangelical Church Assembly of the ELCA on Tuesday, August 6, 2019 in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. |

Since their former pastor Darren Paulson stepped down last September as the COVID-19 pandemic raged into his second year, congregants at Atonement Lutheran Church in Billing Heights, Montana have patiently waited for their local synod to replaces.

With a national shortage of “at least 600” pastors in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America under which the Atonement Lutheran Church operates, according to lay leader Kristin LaVe, it may be some time before their wait for a new pastor is over.

“The shortage [is what’s behind the wait], that’s what they tell us from synod,” Nancy Rupe, the church office administrator who now directs the day-to-day operations of the church with more than 260 active members, told The Christian Post on Tuesday. “Our pastor resigned and took a position with another organization in September and so we have been in the appeals process ever since.”

At the Montana Synod of the ELCA, 35 pastor positions remain vacant, LaVe told KTVQ. As they wait to have a full-time pastor again, Rupe said the church has had to get creative to find Sunday preachers. The church now regularly contacts a list of 10-12 retired and lay pastors to see who might be available to preach each week.

“We have a schedule. It’s just typically a different pastor every week. It’s not always the same pastor,” Rupe said.

When asked what she thinks is the reason for the shortage of pastors, Rupe said she thinks people aren’t as drawn to the ministry as they were in the past and that the COVID-19 pandemic has been a big shock to the profession.

“I guess it’s probably because there aren’t as many people coming into the ministry and therefore not going to seminary. And then you have what they call baby boomers retiring,” she said. “I’m sure COVID had a part to play in that.”

Bishop Paul Egensteiner, who leads the New York Metropolitan Synod of the ELCA, told CP in a statement Tuesday that the denomination has been hit very hard by a “wave of retirements” and that his synod no longer was no exception.

“We too are experiencing a shortage and have been for some time. Because of this, our churches end up waiting longer than any of us would like for a new pastor,” Egensteiner said.

“The ELCA is hitting a ‘retirement wave’ where pastors ordained in the 70s and 80s have reached or passed retirement age, leading to an even greater shortage since those decades were the most recent spike in pastors entering ministry,” he said. continued, noting that there is also a “critical shortage of bilingual pastors who can serve the diversity of communities in our region, especially Spanish-speaking and Asian communities.”

Paul Egensteiner
Bishop Paul Egensteiner of the New York Metropolitan Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America |

Indeed, the shortage of pastors in the ELCA comes as a growing number of pastors in general revealed in a recent study that they were considering leaving their jobs due to challenges such as stress, loneliness, divisions politics and other concerns like the decline of their church.

In 2017, long before the COVID-19 pandemic, a Barna Group report also showed how the average age of Protestant pastors in the United States had increased by a decade over the previous 25 years, putting it at just six. years below the current minimum retirement age. of 62.

And just months into the pandemic in 2020, Vanderbloemen Search Group CEO and Founder William Vanderbloemen predicted there would be high staff turnover in churches and a demand for more priestly pastors to as the world emerges from COVID-19 lockdowns.

“I promise you that 2021 will be the year of turnover. And so this year we have prepared for it. It is going to be a storm surge,” Vanderbloemen said in an earlier CP report.

Many longtime church leaders, especially men, have accelerated their retirement plans due to the pandemic.

“I can’t tell you how many guys and girls, but mostly guys, who thought, over the next five years, I’m going to talk about succession. Well guess what, COVID has accelerated? Vanderbloemen asked rhetorically.

Recalling some of the reasons given by leaders for an accelerated succession schedule, he said: “Well, you know what? I just didn’t sign up for it and they really need a digital native and I’m not. And “It’s time to speed things up and get the next person in.” So there are so many reasons why we are anticipating 21 as a year where there will be a lot of turnover, and some of them will be really painful.

Laurie Jungling, the ELCA bishop for Montana who served as a preacher at the Atonement Lutheran Church, told the Wall Street Journal in February that the departure of pastors from their pulpits had begun to accelerate in summer 2020.

“Pastors are tired,” she said. “They give a lot of themselves to help people deal with the trauma of the pandemic. They have had to deal with polarization in their own congregations, people’s anger and frustration about masks and vaccines, whether to have a cult or not.

LaVe, who works full-time as a chaplain outside the church, agreed that many pastors she knows have been forced to make the difficult decision to retire or resign due to the upheaval created by the pandemic in their ministries.

“I had friends in ministry who struggled during the pandemic because they didn’t know what the church was going to be like after the pandemic, and they really lost their will to continue pastoring because for a while time there, churches were closed and then they gradually opened up and they were trying to navigate masks and vaccines and how to safely support members and the congregation. So there was a burnout,” she said.

“If you want to go to seminary and you’re looking at closing churches, what kind of future is that? There are so many opportunities outside of the church to continue doing ministry, like chaplaincy, which is my day job in a retirement nursing community,” she added. “There is a lot of stability in other areas of the ministry. There are ways to find a new life outside of the church when the church feels like it is no longer thriving.

The ELCA had more than 3 million members and nearly 9,000 congregations at the end of 2020, but as it now struggles to replace pastors it has lost, LaVe said it won’t happen overnight. on the next day.

“It will take time to train people. I know seminaries get creative with giving people full scholarships. The verification process is still very intense… but they make it much more affordable and [accessible through] distance learning programs,” she said.

Egensteiner noted that the New York Synod is also investing in a variety of training programs to quickly respond to the shortage of pastors in the denomination.

“We are fortunate that New York remains a desirable place to do ministry, so there are pastors ready to transfer here,” he said.

“ELCA has developed an “accelerated program” to allow members of BIPOC communities to receive seminary training and be ordained within a shorter timeframe to serve BIPOC communities. We also have an educational program for our laity (Growing in Faith) to prepare them to become synodal deacons who can meet some of the ministry needs of our communities of faith,” he said.

He further noted that some small congregations cannot afford full-time pastors, so the synod is working to create opportunities for two or more churches to share a pastor.

“We emphasize inviting members of our communities to consider becoming pastors. In cooperation with United Lutheran Seminary, we offer those interested the opportunity to obtain more information and to attend retreats where they can be discerning. We also have a staff member who is having exploratory conversations with people who are considering ordination,” Egensteiner said.

An opportunity to decentralize church leadership

In his 2011 book, Pastors move: make room for the rest of us, Glenn Newman, who founded the Convenant Life Fellowship and the Heartland Bible Institute in Texas, argues through scripture and other evidence that the structure of church government with a single pastor at the helm is unbiblical and deprives church members of good pastoral care.

“Ephesians 4:11, 1 Corinthians 12-14 shows a clear system of all believers serving one another and worshiping from house to house. of ministry,” Newman explained in an earlier statement to CP. New Testament church there were no ‘CEO’ type leaders and in fact there were several pastors within the flock ministering to those in need.”

Newman’s book attributes the origins of the senior pastor model to the fourth-century Constantinian era and notes that it was later adopted as part of the Roman Catholic tradition. The Protestant movement simply retained the model as a method of governing the Church.

“We’ve been conducting our church services incorrectly since the fourth century. In fact, with the one-pastor model, you have one man doing all the ministry and everyone is just a spectator,” Newman said.

Rupe told CP that since the shortage of pastors began to affect the Atonement Lutheran Church, members have stepped up to help lead the church in a more decentralized way.

“The church takes people and so we all have to participate. You have the church board, the executive committee, the committee leaders and the presidents and everyone just has some sort of [been] step up and make sure the groups, bible study, sunday school, youth group confirmations, those things keep happening and everybody step up and make sure the ministry keeps going produce,” she said.

She argued that in light of changing American culture, it might be a better way to do church.

“I think where we are going as a culture in the United States is not so much to depend on a pastor as to take ownership of the ministry and use our talents because we all have gifts” , she said.

“We all have a role to sing in the group. We must do what we are called to and when everyone answers their call, you can continue to minister,” she added. “We have to think outside the box even in the ministry that we do because of the changing atmosphere and I think COVID has been the catalyst for that. You can’t minister like we did 10 years ago.

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Barry F. Howard