Who is providing pastoral leadership in United Methodist Churches?  Many of us think that seminary educated elders are providing the pastoral leadership for United Methodist churches, but here in the Tennessee Conference and in many other conferences, the majority of United Methodist churches are not being served by seminary educated elders.  Instead, pastoral leadership comes from a variety of sources, including full-time and part-time local pastors and supply pastors.  In fact, in every conference that I have looked at in the Southeast Jurisdiction, the majority of churches are NOT served by seminary educated elders. In the Tennessee Conference, for example, only about 170 of the 600-plus churches are being served by seminary educated elders.  I want to suggest two very different ideas about how to address this issue, while still understanding that – without local pastors and supply pastors – our denomination, at least in the Southeast, would find itself without pastors for the majority of its churches.


Extension ministers as part-time pastors

I find it fascinating that we expect lay people, who have full-time jobs with minimum education and training, to pastor churches part-time, but we shy away from asking elders in extension ministries – with the best education and training we can provide –  to take on the part-time pastoral duties at churches.  Wouldn’t it make more sense to ask those elders in extension ministries to pastor churches part-time as part of their commitment to the United Methodist Church and to help fulfill their ordination vows rather than lay people who are also working full-time jobs?  I know when I have been asked to pastor part-time on top of my “job,” it has reinforced my calling and enriched my extension ministry position.  (The author has been an ordained UM pastor since 1976, been in extension ministry since 1983, and has been asked to provide pastoral leadership on a part-time basis on over six occasions.)


Going younger in pastoral leadership

We have heard a lot about the aging of our clergy and the need for younger clergy (see Lewis Center for Church Leadership among others).  In fact, we have begun a Young Clergy Initiative through GBHEM for the next quadrennium.  While no one has the exact numbers between 6-12 percent of our churches appeared to be pastored by retired folks.  Here in the Tennessee Conference, the number is between 8-9 percent, and I may be one of those folks in the near future as I draw closer and closer to retirement (so this is not an attempt to get rid of retired folks serving in pastoral leadership).               

I recently attended an event designed to help clergy become more effective in their preaching.  Two assumptions became dramatically clear to me at this event.  First, most of the pastors, if not all of them, thought they were effective preachers (see Call to Action Plan to demonstrate the importance of effective preaching for vital churches as well as how few preachers are effective); and, second, the folks they were looking to help them in their preaching were all over the age of 60.  While Peter Marshall, Fred Craddock and Tom Long were effective preachers and may still be for us “older” folks (all quoted at the gathering), the context of preaching continues to change and evolve.  No one talked about using video or live actors to tell stories and illustrate points.  Illustration and stories were supposed to come from books that most folks under 30 have not read and probably aren’t going to read unless they are English majors or from our own “older” experience.  We preachers, as we age, seem to continue to preach to churches whose population is aging with us or ahead of us without using new ways to tell the old, old story of Jesus Christ, to younger generations, such as video, twitter, texting, etc.  This seems to be part of the problem of an aging church and not reaching a younger generation. 

So why not tell/ask every Wesley Foundation and every UM college to identify at least one person whom they think have the gifts of ministry and assign them to churches currently being served part-time by “retired” folks, and assign those students a mentor/coach to work with them on a weekly basis?  This might begin to help those churches see that the world continues to change and give younger folks an opportunity that otherwise is not available.  Historically we seemed to have done this 40 and 50 years ago, but as “retired” folks lived longer, healthier lives, we seem to have moved in that direction for pastoral leadership rather than looking to college students.


Dr. Ed Trimmer

Executive Director of the Cal Turner Jr. Center for Church Leadership


Martin Methodist College

433 West Madison St.
Pulaski, TN 38478