Several years ago, I was chair of the conference spouses' retreat committee. As we surveyed folks to find their interests, someone gave me a hand-written note. The person requested that the main speaker be someone whose spouse had failed in ministry, someone who had not successfully climbed the church corporate ladder, someone who had landed and whose ministry had remained in a small-membership church. The person felt she couldn't relate to someone who was "successful" in ministry.
As I thought about the request and the mix of wives (predominately) who attended the retreat, it began to make sense. And it wasn't a pretty picture. Some of these wives really felt that their spouses had been passed by and passed over. They felt that after sacrificing so much, they were relegated to the list of failures, those without leadership qualities or future opportunities. I almost cried and it seemed unfair.
So what counts for success in the local church? Is it the church size and salary? We may say "no,' but when our conference had a bishop who didn't pay attention to appointing clergy advance up the line to larger and larger churches, there was consternation from all sides. So our lips say "no," but our actions say "yes." Who wants their salary cut $10,000 to $20,000? And that happened to some. Then we also had some whose salary increased by the same amount.
We all know that some ministry happens best in small churches. And it better, because about 70-80% of our churches are small. But surely this can't mean that 80% of our pastors are failures if they don't move beyond a small-membership church.
While churches of all sizes have their burdens, the small church definitively does, especially if it is dying. In part, because as the church dies, so does part of the pastor's soul. And pastors and spouses tire out from doing CPR all the time, 24/7.
So what can we do? We can try to change of definition of what constitutes success, but like any platitude, that's too easy. We need our bishops and DSs be more supportive and quit shooting its wounded or perceived wounded clergy. We need to stop blaming pastors and start offering life-support, personally and professionally. We need to pay for pastors so that they can afford to take a sabbatical. A sabbatical shouldn't only be a luxury for a mega-church pastor. We need to stop wringing our hands about money and saying ad nausium that the UMC is dying. Who wants to serve a dying church? (I believe there is a book by that title.) We need to invest in Healthy Congregations. We need to invest in our clergy and stop treating them as though they are the problem.
What can we do? A lot. But it will take all of us.