Alaska’s clergy turnover problem

I recently revisited a local mainline church I’ve attended off and on for the past eight years. A new team of clergy — including people I’d never met — was leading. During the service, I began remembering different faces I’d known and heard in years past at this church; three permanent senior pastors, and two interim pastors who each served a year during the transition. Five pastors in eight years is not a great track record. Admittedly, the first of the five pastors to leave had been there for a few years prior to transitioning into a new role in local governance, but tragically this church averaged 1.6 years per pastor for the years of my attendance.

Church researchers say five is the magic number of years for a pastor to start becoming effective, and five to 14 years is the period of their greatest effectiveness. Lifeway researcher Thom Rainer, addressing pastoral tenure, writes, “Pastors generally don’t stay long at churches. The average tenure is between three and four years. But, as our research has shown consistently, longer tenure is needed for church health. Longer tenure does not guarantee church health, but a series of short-term pastorates is typically unhealthy.” (http://tinyurl.com/ntero4w) I believe this is a serious issue demanding attention from many of the churches I visit.

It’s also typical for many churches to use interim pastors for 12-18 months while a pastoral search is underway. Not all interims are good for churches stressed with the loss of their pastor for one or more reasons. Sometimes congregations discover their current pastor isn’t meeting their needs, ultimately asking them to move on. Their interim may or may not meet their needs before a new pastor is secured. Often interims have a difficult task of keeping things steady but not committing to programs and projects, which may impede a new pastor. As a case in point, I developed a consulting report at no expense for an interim pastor addressing a number of key deficiencies. They did not begin to address these issues until the new pastor arrived, even though a number of them were hurting the church, and still do. I fear most good church consulting is buried before it can do much real good.

I reached out to several church administrators to get a handle on the difficulties of short-term pastorates. It’s not an easy issue to solve. Sometimes the issues are beyond their control. For example, one evangelical church organization head said the average tenure in his statewide group is four years, saying it’s a problem with his denomination, but especially in Alaska.

Another church administrator, Rev. Carlo Rapanut, superintendent of the Alaska United Methodist Conference, notes three dynamics at play in Alaska.“United Methodist clergy are appointed for a year at a time. Even long-term UMC pastorates are yearly reappointments; The United Methodist Church also believes in pastoral longevity and subscribes to the outcome of the research that pastoral effectiveness is between years 5-14. Relating this to my first point, if pastors are effective in their settings and there is not a ‘greater need’ for them elsewhere, they are ‘retained’ in their appointment. However, this decision is revisited on a yearly basis; All our clergy appointed to churches here are from elsewhere in the Lower 48 and hold their clergy membership in annual conferences outside of Alaska. The Alaska Conference, being a missionary conference, does not have clergy membership. In layman’s terms, one might say that the clergy here are ‘on loan’ for missionary service from their home conferences. When their home conference Bishop deems it necessary for them to go back home and take a church in their home conference, then they move. When they feel like their time in Alaska has come to an end, then they ask for a move. When there is a change in family needs and dynamics (kids going to college, grandkids being born, elderly parents needing care, etc.), then people ask to move. Very few have moved within Alaska to another church.”

I appreciate Rev. Carlo’s frankness. Sometimes there are issues seemingly beyond the  control of local pastors and church organizations. A pastor friend at another evangelical church in Anchorage had difficulty retaining an assistant pastor from Outside, due to pushback on the part of his wife, who was not charmed by Alaska. Admittedly, Alaska has its strengths, but also weaknesses.

Reaching out to Dr. Mike Proctor, executive director of the Alaska Baptist Convention, I asked how retention fared among its constituency. He confirmed my understanding that Southern Baptist congregations call/hire their pastors independent of the convention or denomination. Proctor explains, “In the denominational structure of Southern Baptists, each entity (local congregation, association, state convention and national convention) is autonomous and able to make their own decisions. While we are independent, we are also interdependent and work cooperatively in areas of mutual concern.”

Commenting on Baptist pastoral longevity, he said, “Of the approximately 120 congregations affiliated with the Alaska Baptist Convention, 17 of our pastors have served 15 years or longer, and 18 have served less than three years with the others in between. I am convinced that our pastors tend to stay longer because of the decision-making being on the local level and not denominationally driven.”

Some denominations select pastors for their churches, while others allow churches to select their own. In either case, short-term pastors are not good for churches, even as interims. Unfortunately, ministry has assumed a career, or professional, status, for many pastors — a far cry from the early church. Many divinity schools across the U.S. turn out pastoral candidates by the tens of thousands, where demand is weak, creating pastoral churn. Churches must choose pastors wisely to avoid the short-term church-weakening muddle.

Chris Thompson is a religion scholar who visits local churches and writes about his experiences and matters of faith on his blog,churchvisits.com.

The views expressed here are the writer’s own and are not necessarily endorsed by Alaska Dispatch News, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, email commentary(at)alaskadispatch.com.

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