So I’ve been thinking a lot about the PC(USA) job market recently (surprise!). It’s pretty bleak out there, and the situation gets really personal for me: I have a ton – a ton – of incredibly talented friends who are (1) recent seminary grads, but (2) still looking for a call years after graduation. We’re talking about vibrant, talented, energetic, brilliant people who keep getting close, but the numbers are stacked against them. In many cases, they’re struggling and frustrated, unsure of what to do.
Eventually, I got fed up with just sitting around complaining. So I’ve started shopping an idea around with some people. I’ve heard feedback from dozens of seminarians, small-church pastors, tall-steeple pastors, and church administrators. There seems to be some energy around this concept, and people are excited about the potential.
At first I thought about keeping the idea close to my chest and trying to work it out privately…But then I thought, naw — ideas are always more powerful and helpful when they are shared.
So here is what I’ve got. Feel free to leave comments and idea below – let’s think this through together!
First, a few things you all probably already know:
From what I understand, the PC(USA) has too many pastors — anyone can look at the CLC right now and see that. The line right now is “We could shut down all of our seminaries for five years and still have too many pastors.” Old pastors aren’t retiring, often staying in their positions longer due to the downed economy. Younger, mid-career pastors are either doing well or “stuck” in their 1st/2nd call without much mobility, meaning they aren’t necessarily eager (or able) to try to go form a ton of new churches. More pressingly, we have a ton of seminary grads vying for a very small number of jobs/positions, many whom are also saddled with student debt. They’re taking part-time gigs at churches or Starbucks to tide them over, sometimes without health insurance or benefits. Presbyteries could, hypothetically, give them money to start church planting, but they’re either out of money or using it to help keep some struggling churches alive (e.g., many of the 50% of PCUSA churches that are under 100 members). They probably see the seminary grads as a “bad bet” in terms of church-planting — they think they need someone “more experience,” and they’re worried about the risk.
Meanwhile, our denomination (like so many others) is bemoaning the “death” of the mainline. Tragically, our church is literally dying as its eldest members pass away, because there is no one to replace them — no one is joining our churches.
It is, in short, a crisis situation for the church.
1) One theory that’s been kicked around for a while is basically importing the old church-planting model. Just get big churches to start other churches. Give a lot of power to individual leaders and let them roll. Old-school, but clearly effective.
This, however, does little to resolve the issue of having too many pastors — it’s too slow. It can work in certain places, but, in many ways, it’s a slow – or even false – start.
2) The GAMC is hard at work on its “1001 New Worshiping Communities” idea, but how that actually works is somewhat unclear.
3) There is also For Such A Time As This, which, while awesome, only serves a very small number of churches.
4) There is also Judd Hendrix’s Ecclesia Project in Lousiville (it’s awesome), but it’s limited to only about 6 people at the moment. Which is great for those 6 people, but not so great for the other hundreds of seminary grads.
Or, we could try something else:
(Note: I worked in politics for two years — mostly as a staffer on the Obama campaign — before going to seminary, so I might occasionally put things in ‘political’ terms. Forgive me. )
So we’ve got all these seminary grads with MDivs working part-time jobs at churches and at Starbucks. Most of them, more than anything, just want a church community of their own — they want to create something. Instead, they are scrapping by: they’re often trying to work two jobs, sometimes without health insurance.
But what if we gave these seminary grads what they wanted…for cheap?
What if you gave these kids either (a) health insurance (b) anywhere from $5,000 (realistically) to $15,000 (idealistically) or (c) both to work 10-20 hours a week (depending on the pay) to start a “worship community.” Note: these would not necessarily HAVE to be ordained positions, at least not at the start. They wouldn’t necessarily officiate the sacraments (although they could), and “membership” would be more loose of a category. They’d meet in whatever they could find, from coffee shops to church basements to living rooms (which would drive down costs). They could be running groups that also pray, or a jam session that doubles as a worship hour; think things that go beyond traditional conceptions of “church” as something that needs a power bill and a robed choir. They could even be encouraged to move to a low-income/high-need area to try a church, a la Teach for America (or, as a friend up here put it, “Preach for America.” Get it?).
The commitment would be relatively low at the outset, with low-risk for the presbytery and seminary grad if it “failed.” But if it grew into something, it could take on a full-bodied status in a presbytery really quickly, or even just fold into a larger church. Worst case scenario: we’re right back where we started, but we’ve tried something. More likely: if only 10% of these kinds of projects worked, that is significantly more than would have occurred otherwise.
The result is, ideally, a win-win: The seminary grads get extra pay/healthcare to live on, and they get to actually create something. The Presbytery does have to trust some recent seminary grads, but they’re really getting a low-risk situation with little paperwork that only has the potential for growth. The denomination, ideally, gets more churches/church bodies. God gets new, spirit-led communities.
And for the practically minded: they get it relatively cheaply.
It could start with a pilot program of 5-15 seminary grads from across the country already working part-time jobs. We could try to get the money from denomination/presbyteries, or we could just vie for a grant from something like the Lily Foundation. We could also grab funding elsewhere; wherever we can, really. Key point: Folks would need to be trained in some organizing tactics and community/church development strategies a la Marshall Ganz and others (because almost NONE of our seminaries currently teach this), but also some new things. This could be done in several ways (a week or weekend might work), and there would be a national “chief organizer” who could check in on participants a form of accountability. It’d be a year-long project, with writing/journaling happening all the while. Ideally, there would also be a local mentor and/or presbytery involvement.
I’ve spoken to dozens of seminary students about this, and they are very, very excited about the prospect (especially the health insurance part). It doesn’t seem like a lot of help, but they’re eager for ANY help. That might be a sign in and of itself.
In political terms: instead of holding our money for a “sure” bet or propping up dying bets, the denomination (assuming the money comes from them) spreads the money around with a bunch of small, low risk bets, with the potential for a huge net gain.
It also starts taking responsibility for the literally hundreds of seminary students the denomination encouraged to go to seminary, take out loans, and eventually be shoved into a dying job market with almost NO training in how to create their own jobs.
In real terms: the church starts trusting God, their seminaries and their seminary grads to start spreading the Gospel however they can, just as they were trained to…and like Jesus asked us to.
I know there are some nuances here in terms of how to make it work polity-wise. But myself and many others are of the persuasion that the church needs to start taking some risks, and this is just a small way of doing that. Frankly, we’re not sure we really have any other choice.
So…Whatcha think? Let me know!