By Patrick Scriven
A few years ago I wrote about a tactic many churches engage in as they seek to manage decline in membership and giving. While it is sometimes born out of necessity, some churches habitually defer maintenance on their buildings so they can carry on as if nothing has changed. Like tax cuts without changes in spending, deferred maintenance is borrowing upon the promise of the future for the sake of the present.
Several recent conversations resurrected these thoughts though they have now found a slightly different application. Just as we often defer maintenance of property as a way of avoiding tough decisions, let me suggest that we also divest from our clergy leadership in a number of ways to do the same. Here are a couple of examples I’ve heard discussed by clergypersons recently.
Renewal Leave & Vacation
I was recently talking with two clergypersons, one of whom had completed a renewal leave the previous year. The other expressed that they had never been in a church that would support such a thing. This isn’t the first time I’ve heard someone say this.
The United Methodist Book of Discipline (¶350.2) states that each clergyperson is entitled to at least one week a year for a program of continuing education and spiritual growth. In the Pacific Northwest Conference, we’ve increased this minimum to two weeks per year. In addition, once per quadrennium “full-time clergy shall have at least one month” for the same. These weeks of renewal leave are non-negotiable expectations a church needs to plan for, and it has been collectively discerned that their absence is to the detriment of a pastor’s ministry.
Clergy are also entitled to four weeks of vacation (including four Sundays) per year, which is entirely distinct from the aforementioned renewal leave. The atypical schedules of many local churches also makes it essential for pastors to proactively schedule 1-2 days off each week for self-care. Just like the rest of us, time spent away from work is actually one of the best things we can do to provoke creativity and improve productivity.
And on top of this, United Methodist clergy are required to be in attendance at some events that may take place over weekends (like Annual Conference) and to be supportive of connectional ministries like camping which may also take them away from time to time. Trust me, while each may have enjoyable moments, such things are not vacation. Some of these opportunities may be required while others may require some conversation between the pastor and the Staff/Pastor/Parish Committee about missional priorities.
Taken altogether, part of the package of having a real, fully-functional, spiritually healthy and grounded clergyperson in the local church is planning to not have that person in leadership anywhere from 6-10 weeks in a given year. In some churches this means budgeting for pulpit supply. In others, it may be a fantastic opportunity to remember, nurture and lift up the gifts and talents of lay leadership. Few of our churches have the staff to simply absorb this without some thoughtful planning.
I had another conversation recently with a younger pastor serving a smaller church in our conference. There were some issues with the parsonage that the church wasn’t eager to address despite the fact that the clergyperson had small children living with them – not that it should take the presence of children to address health concerns present in a home.
A growing number of congregations no longer have parsonages to offer to clergy asked to relocate to serve in their community for an uncertain amount of time. The reasons for this are multifaceted and complicated. Some of those churches sold their parsonages when the housing market was hot, hoping to be good stewards while responding to a trend where clergy were eager to buy homes and build some equity of their own. Other times, however, parsonages were sold because their maintenance was too much of a burden, and some of the sale might be repurposed to address other issues with property, and even program.
In contrast to this trend, we have churches like Sumner UMC that very recently invested in a future pastor by building and dedicating a new parsonage. Supported whole-heartedly by the current pastor, Rev. Pam Osborne, the church will rent out the home until it is needed.
This isn’t to say that a church without a parsonage can’t support its clergyperson and their housing needs. It is absolutely the case that some clergy even prefer an appointment with a housing allowance, but care needs to be given to seeing that this allocation is adequate to allow the pastor to find housing that meets the guidelines established for a church-owned parsonage in your community.
A Better Way Forward
Many churches are absolutely fantastic in their support of their pastors! That needs to be said. But it is also true that clergy are often caught carrying the cross of United Methodist decline in ways that are both unfair and debilitating. This is not a recipe for successful ministry and will likely undermine any efforts toward revitalization.
Clergypersons should be proactive in identifying the basic expectations named here in the churches they serve, particularly if they have reason to believe that these expectations may stretch church resources. The local Staff Parish Committee should be aware of these things but it’s always better to arrive at a shared understanding before conflict arises. Also, while some flexibility in the short-term may be strategic, foregoing these expectations is a rejection of common wisdom and a disservice to those who will follow you.
Local churches that are really struggling to understand how they can meet these expectations might take it as a sign that they are no longer in a place where they can support a full-time elder. Despite our own expectations, neither the Bible or The Book of Discipline require a full-time ordained clergyperson, or a building for that matter, for us to gather together as the Church. If this is where you are, talk with your pastor and district superintendent about possibilities to take action.
No one benefits from ignoring the impacts of church decline. As individuals, we learn that our bodies require more care as we age. There is often a price paid when we pretend to be younger than we are and fail to stretch before exercising, for example.
The same is true for the local church. Being real about our capacity is a good first step toward doing all the good we can for as long as ever we can, without doing harm to those called to help us.
Patrick Scriven serves as Director of Communications and Young People’s Ministries for the Pacific Northwest Conference of The United Methodist Church.