My home congregation is in some ways emblematic of the dilemmas facing mainline Protestants. Bethel Peniel Presbyterian Church is located in a small town in upstate New York where Presbyterians were dominant in the 18th century and numerous in the 19th. A century ago, one of its predecessor churches had more than 300 members—as many as the building could hold.
After a decade-long clergy shortage in America’s pulpits, Christian denominations are now experiencing a clergy glut—with some denominations reporting that they have two ministers for every vacant pulpit.
My contract as “intentional transitional pastor” or interim with East Bay Community Church (not its real name) had expired, and I was working on a month-by-month agreement. By the grace of God, the church and I had moved through five developmental tasks proposed by the Intentional Ministry Network. Healing had taken place, and a sharpened vision statement had been communicated. I was feeling affirmed by the church and knew that its leaders valued my expertise and contribution, as well as me as a person. Then one morning I heard the news: the pastoral candidate would preach the next month, with a congregational vote to follow on the same night.
“You are not equipped.” The preacher seemed to be looking straight at me. Across the worship space, in this room festively decorated in red and filled with the heady scent of flowers, I could see some uncertain faces. In a few minutes, we would go forward to be ordained as Lutheran pastors. Yet as the preacher set before us the charges of ordination, he continued to follow each one with the same stark pronouncement. “You are not equipped.”
My last sermon at Covenant Baptist Church was on February 7, 2010. It was 20 years after the first sermon I preached for our community. I was the youth minister at the time, and the pastor was away. The only memory I have of that first sermon is a vague one. In my mind I can see the Duckblind Lounge, where we were meeting at that time.
What kind of personal pain would cause a 42-year-old pastor to abandon his family, his calling and even life itself? Members of a Baptist church in Hickory, North Carolina, are asking that question after their pastor committed suicide in his parked car in September.
Over the past eight years, I had the privilege of serving as program coordinator for the Lilly Endowment’s Transition into Ministry grants program. This work has helped me to see the fruitfulness of attending more closely to those who are in their earliest years of ministry. When the program began back in 2001, “transition into ministry” was little more than the name of a program.
The articles in this issue on funerals set me to thinking about my own experience and the changes I have witnessed in funerals. In my first two congregations I never conducted a funeral in the church itself. Every funeral was held in a funeral home, and every funeral was followed by a graveside interment and committal.