By Holly McCray
A bold initiative launched this month to enhance pastoral leadership for smaller churches in the Oklahoma Conference.
The Academy for Part-Time Local Pastors seeks to recruit and equip 150 full-time working laypeople to become new bivocational clergy in smaller or rural churches. During the inaugural term, sessions will be at McAlester-First UMC. The first one was Sept. 15.
A task force developed this academy as a swelling body of U.S. church research and statistics shows ever-more-urgent ministry needs. Studies report financial struggles in smaller churches, unbalanced numbers of new and retiring clergy in career ministry, rising costs in benefits for elders—and unexpected growth in worship attendance in congregations led by part-time local pastors.
The Oklahoma team also envisions the academy as an opportunity for already-active laymen and women to extend how they live out their discipleship.
Craig Stinson described them as "a different breed."
"They already have the heart for Jesus," said Rev. Stinson, director of Congregational Development/Connectional Ministries. "We can equip them with three basic tools we think they need, and they would be deployed by the Cabinet to serve in a church in a nearby town. They’re indigenous for that area.
"The intent is to keep their day jobs. The amount of time they would be serving would be negotiated between the district superintendent and the church."
McAlester District Superintendent Darrell Cates said, "These people are always going to be bivocational."
He continued, "Some have felt a call all their lives but knew they could never serve full-time and thought that would eliminate them from pastoral ministry. I think they see this as finally a way to respond to God’s call. To serve as a pastor, helping shape the lives of a congregation — it’s an itch other things haven’t scratched."
In the first class are a school superintendent and a business owner who is a certified lay speaker and active in prison ministry and the Emmaus community. Some already serve as Supply pastors. About a dozen people are enrolled. Superintendents nominate candidates.
Stinson said the academy is "more like a trade school, like training a mechanic. If they understand the formula for internal combustion, that’s great, but what I want to know is: Can they fix that engine and get it going? We want to be practical."
Their tools will be preaching practice, Disciple Bible Study, and the UM ethos. Teachers will be Dave Poteet, Greg Tener, Ron Perceful, Marsha Purtell, Bob Long, Brian Bakeman, and others. Eighteen books are on the reading list, and the New Interpreter’s Bible will be used, said Diana Northcutt, who is director of Discipleship. Continuing study will be required after completion of the academy.
Rev. Cates said a lot of churches in his district don’t have the financial strength to afford a full-time elder, reflecting denominational reality.
One goal of the Oklahoma Conference Strategic Plan is to recuit, assess, equip, and send spiritual leaders, both clergy and lay.
"We are always going to have a need for younger, well-educated, called, full-time clergy who are seminary trained," the superintendent emphasized. In Oklahoma, 2010 statistics show worship attendance averaging 50 people or fewer in half of the churches.
"In the past, we’ve combined two or three churches to support the compensation of a full-time elder. But there’s no evidence that benefits the congregations. When congregations have their own pastoral leadership, even part-time, they tend to be better, stronger than when they share," Cates continued.
"How can we help each congregation regardless of its size? How can they best make disciples of Jesus Christ? I’m happy there is now a process and what I think is a good curriculum to help people called to this ministry and to help congregations embrace this."
Stinson said a U.S. church with total annual expenses below $80,000 cannot afford minimum financial requirements for an elder. The Oklahoma Conference Cabinet reported an increasing number of churches unable to maintain the pastor’s compensation package.
The Conference has 86 two-point charges among 525 churches, Stinson cited. There are about 50 part-time local pastors, among some 350 pastors in active service.
His research shows both churches in a two-point charge rarely thrive.
By implementing the academy, "we hope to move to every church having its own pastor and paying what we can afford to pay. We could put a cool pastor everywhere, and not just for financial health," he concluded. "If we right-size, we believe the church will grow."
The academy task force includes: four district superintendents, five members of the Board of Ordained Ministry, members of the Leadership Development Ministry Team, the president of the Oklahoma United Methodist Foundation, annual conference lay leader, chairpersons of the Orders of Elders/Deacons and Fellowship of Local Pastors, Rev. Northcutt, and Stinson.