On the pastor drought and the Presbyterian Church of Australia

Eternity ran a piece today on the ‘pastor drought’ not simply being a phenomenon within the Sydney Anglican Diocese, but also within the Presbyterian Church of New South Wales; anecdotally (and I could give firmer evidence) the situation facing the Presbyterian Church of Queensland is similar.

I am a Presbyterian (minister), and the son of a Presbyterian (minister). I have a list of thoughts from my own experience (as one ‘likely’ to be in the sort of stream that produces Presbyterian ministers) that might explain the pastor drought, both in terms of the front door ‘in’ to Presbyterian ministry, and the doors ‘out’ of Presbyterian ministry, and I offer them for the consideration of those who are interested in such things; I suspect there are analogies between our denomination and others in the same situation.

Before I give my reasons, I do not think the issue is that we have upped the theological value of forms of work other than Gospel proclamation, or that we have stopped proclaiming the Gospel (see Philip Jensen’s claims on The Pastor’s Heart, and my response).

I do not think the issue is that people prefer team ministry settings (though I am in the process of moving from being employed to pastor a campus of a multi-site team ministry to being the pastor of an autonomous church plant within the Presbyterian Church of Queensland.

Some of these issues will be a bigger deal for some people than others. Some will feel ‘worldly’ and those who have a pious response to these ‘worldly’ factors are welcome to quit their jobs and move into ministry to practice what they preach for others…

  1. We have normalised a pathway in to ministry that is financially difficult for those who might otherwise train. In NSW we have “MTS” or Metro, depending on your denominational tradition, in the Presbyterian Church of Queensland we have MTN (the Ministry Training Network). Ministry apprenticeships have become an established part of the pathway to ministry, and while they almost certainly help people clarify their call, these two years make the training pathway into ordination in our denomination a 6 year process of not earning a full time salary for those who are typically tertiary educated (so qualified to work in other areas), and often (though not always) married and starting to have children (though not always). We expect candidates for ordination to move, often from rural or regional areas, to capital cities and to live (in our context) in non-subsidised accommodation for a four year period, where they will be expected, as a candidate for ordination, to change church communities after the first two years.
  2. We sold manses. This one relates to the above in that it’s about the financial side of ministry, but the financial sacrifice caught up with transitioning into ministry continues beyond entry into ministry; where, in the past, churches made taking a call to a new parish possible through the provision of appropriate housing in the community being ministered to, now, ministers are encouraged to purchase or rent their own properties using a ‘housing allowance’. This is all well and good for those with sufficient capital pre-ministry, or a working spouse, who can afford to live within the vicinity of their church’s footprint, but it does make calling a minister, particularly to an urban area, very difficult. Signing up for a denomination means signing up to being uprooted over and over again over the course of six years, being part of up to three church communities, living in up to three houses (with all moves paid for out of your own pocket, probably), and then placed somewhere not of your own choosing, where you’ll have to find your own housing (and pay for it), having spent six years spending your savings in order to live week to week. Signing up to train from an independent church, or as a non-candidate, aiming towards a specialised ministry role within your existing church, or to plant a church in a place of your choosing still involves housing costs, but much more stability and autonomy in the process (and in setting the timeframe, and the flexibility of working arrangements before training is finished).
  3. We have a cultural moment suspicious of institutions, and have done nothing in our culture and governance to make partnering with an institution attractive rather than a burden. Very few ministers in our denomination say positive things about the mechanics of our denomination (the courts, etc). We don’t see institutions as strategic, and champion the ‘local church’ and then wonder why, for example, so many people find ministry in, for example, the Fellowship of Independent Evangelical Churches so attractive. We have not undertaken significant institutional reform in response to this cultural moment, and the legitimate causes of distrust in institutions (for example, the Royal Commission, and even, debatably, the political stances adopted by the institutional church in public debates) both within the body of believers, and in the community, in such a way that makes presence within an institution desirable or plausibly better than alternatives. It is hard in this context for a person passionate about the mission of the Gospel to justify fishing from an institutional boat.
  4. We have a church culture that limits the role of senior pastor to the ‘privileged’ — typically those with undergrad tertiary training who approach theological education at a post-graduate level; we are increasingly ‘white collar’ both in our leadership and congregations, and the delivery of training content, to justify and sustain a funding model, is geared around those who can navigate tertiary education with a degree of independence. Some of this might be necessary and connected to how we conceive of the nature of pastoral ministry.
  5. We have a shaky theological anthropology, that comes out of modernity, that produces a shaky pedagogy both in our training institutions and in our churches – our methods for ‘forming’ people as disciples rely heavily on information, not practice, or relationship, or imitation, and so our training models are biased to a certain type of ‘thinker,’ who we then seek to reproduce and plug into a particular pathway, and we have a particular model of discipleship that only really works for that sort of person, limiting those who might be plugged in to the pathway to church ministry.
  6. We have not grappled with the changing cultural, moral and philosophical landscape that help people make meaning and arrive at understanding. Our institutions are thoroughly modernist and fighting a vanguard action to defend the goodness of modernism; while our world is a contested multi-cultural mix of modernism, post-modernism, and post-post-modernism (maybe meta-modernism), and unless our institutions can accommodate different meaning making structures with a shared theological center, we will not attract anybody from outside the status quo culture.
  7. Precisely when we should have been sending wagons out to explore new frontiers, positioning the church for adventure and ministry as an adventure, we’ve circled them. We’ve marked out theological boundaries within institutions to halt and resist ‘progress,’ rather than robustly establishing a theological centre. For Presbyterians this is part of our narrative and a deep suspicion of any of the culture that produced church union; we are institutionally suspicious of anything that sounds ‘progressive’ or of ‘social justice’ or of any statement that doesn’t line up with a conservative theological (or political) status quo. Our public political pronouncements have made it quite difficult for anybody left of Tony Abbott’s version of the Liberal Party to feel welcome in our church communities, let alone to become office bearers. Where the Presbyterian system, in particular, and enshrined by our Confessional standard, deeply values conscience, and liberty of opinion, and where our Basis of Union and the declaratory statement makes it clear that Scripture is the ‘supreme standard’ and that conflicts between our understanding of Scripture and the Confession could conceivably emerge, increasingly the declaratory statement is treated as a gateway to liberalism, and any disputable matters or areas of freedom or conscience are being eroded with black and white documents framed by ‘theological experts.’ We Presbyterians are increasingly operating as though Biblical studies and exegesis were closed by the magisterium now called the Westminster Divines, such that historical Reformed theology sets the boundaries for faithfulness, rather than a theological centre — the Gospel and a commitment to God’s revelation through his word — being the basis from which we explore and engage with the world. In theological institutions, not just in Australia, but around the world, the doctrine/historical theology departments are increasingly brought to bear as authorities over the Biblical studies departments. Our national institution, the Presbyterian Church, is increasingly ‘Reformed’ rather than ‘reforming’.
  8. Our most vibrant church communities are broad and evangelical; whether that’s churches in regional areas that are faithful outposts for the Gospel that attract those from other Reformed, or evangelical, traditions, or churches in urban contexts that have been attractive on the basis of Gospel preaching and programs, and so the ‘pathway’ in to our institutions is not necessarily a ‘reformed’ pipeline, but a broader, evangelical pipeline. The narrower we make our institution, the narrower the pipeline from these vibrant ministries becomes.
  9. Often, the theological training institutions of such denominations have tightened up the faculty so that theological ‘breadth’ gives way to a certain sort of platform or theological vision. The interesting thinkers who challenge the status quo have often been removed, or left these narrowing institutions in response to such movements. This is probably truer in Sydney, in my observations from my time as a prospective theological student assessing my options, than it is in Queensland Presbyterianism. The competition for students amongst such institutions has led to, I think, institutions adopting distinct theological visions or flavours, rather than seeking to give good and broad educations, training people who might hold diverse positions, with a robust theological centre (that arguably should centre on the Gospel of Jesus in its fullness). I would suggest we also have too many theological colleges, and, if I were constructing an ideal educational pathway (assuming a head based pedagogy), I’d pick and choose faculty members and subjects from all over the country (which is increasingly possible with centralised accreditation and decentralised (online) models of teaching). When we make structural and cultural changes to make our institutions narrower we should not be surprised when they attract less people to the pipeline, especially for those people born after a turning point in the culture who can, and have, established a robust Christian faith built within the philosophical conditions of post-modernity, or whatever comes after, and even with an intellectual toolkit created by critiques of modernity (including aspects of Critical Theory, or post-modernity) who are being confronted with institutions that suggest such moves are unfaithful, or implausible.
  10. We have not substantially changed our model or practice of church or ministry in response to the changes in our cultural architecture (our institutions, practices, stories, media institutions, art, etc), social imaginaries (the way we come to imagine the world and what shapes that as a product of both culture and sociology), political moment (the culture wars, polarisation, etc), or plausibility structures (the number of people in communities holding particular beliefs in such a way that those beliefs become plausible defaults), or, where we have changed, it has been to embrace a pragmatism or utilitarianism that does not start with our theological vision, or Christian virtue (that is, we’ve embraced the ‘church growth movement’ and its uncritical, and perhaps ‘toxic’ taking up of worldly models and metrics). Where we should be turning our attention to rebuilding plausibility for the Gospel through culture making, institution building, community development, ‘renewing our social architecture,’ or recouping some of the social capital we burned in the events of the Royal Commission into Institutional Abuse, the plebiscite, in ways that make the Gospel plausible when those who are set apart to proclaim it do so.
  11. We haven’t asked hard questions about church properties and their function, and how the church growth movement and the building of ‘Westfield’ style churches at the expense of corner store style churches have changed our allocation of resources; maybe we don’t have a pastor drought at all, maybe we have too many church communities/buildings. There’s an assumption behind the question about the pastor drought that the same number of churches we had in a previous cultural moment (or more) is the number of churches we should have in this moment.
  12. We’ve bought into the culture war and seen ourselves not as a peacemaker in those wars, or as a community that might bring people together, united in Christ, across cultural and political divides, and so our institutions throw their weight behind political causes without space for nuance or disagreement, or hospitality and are seen as aligned with one particular pole in a polarised culture. Conflicts within our institutions become about ideological purity and the defeat of the other, rather than breadth or accommodation.
  13. We have framed the ‘mission of the church’ numerically and made it about converts, rather than making it about character or deep discipleship, and measure leaders accordingly. The idea that my success or suitability as a pastor depends on fruitfulness (something like breaking through different growth barriers), other than the fruit of the Spirit being present in a pastor’s life, or the life of those in church community with the pastor, is a pressure too great for most pastors to bear.
  14. Especially because the cultural landscape we’re now called to engage with is remarkably different in ways we are yet to fully acknowledge. We keep expecting the results of the past without diagnosing the substantial cultural changes not only confronting pastors, but members of our congregation. We can have all the reviews about the ‘vitality of ministry’ or the abilities of pastors in the world, but unless we recognise that ‘growing ministries,’ in my observation, are often a reshuffling of the deck chairs on the Titanic through transfer growth, rather than the product of evangelistic growth, then those claiming vitality within a particular framework will simply be further enforcing a damaging status quo, and framing the conversation about entering ministry around the idea of joining ministries that replicate such models, or where people are trained to specialise within team contexts in large staff team churches (5Ms or whatever portfolio divisions get made).
  15. We’ve uncritically adopted structures and cultures that have created a culture where very few senior pastors are gifted or qualified to operate in the settings they find themselves, especially managing large and complex ministries and staff teams. This, coupled with unhealthy expectations, metrics, and culture has given rise to the creation of toxic, or narcissistic, systems and structures, unhealthy inter-personal relationships in staff teams, and possibly an increased rate of burnout. The status quo model of ministry, built around the idea that a successful church ministry moves through various stages of ‘church growth dynamics,’ typically led by the same individual transitioning between different functions, is almost unchallenged.
  16. There’s often hushed conversations about a bullying culture in church contexts, but it’s almost never part of the party line examinations of the pastor drought. This isn’t exclusively limited to denominational settings either, the situation around Acts29’s director last year suggests it can happen both in non-denominational ‘networks’ that exist, essentially, as critiques of denominational institutions, and in small house church settings.
  17. Our uncritical adoption of the Church Growth Movement, which is built on bringing forms, systems and practices from the business world, has formed a generation of Christians as consumers, and pastoral ministry becomes about meeting needs or demand, to keep bums on seats, or gain more, often at the expense, rather than in partnership with, neighbouring churches. The pressure to create an ‘event’ that is attractive not just to non-Christians, but to Christians, significantly changes the nature of the task of the pastor, and makes success more about personality than faithfulness.
  18. Coupled with this we’ve embraced, sometimes as a theological conviction, sometimes as a cultural or political conviction, an individualism that damages our shared commitment to institutions, and communities, but also positions the pastor as a ‘solo’ worker; this plays out also in how we view married couples where one spouse is employed in pastoral ministry. This Mere Orthodoxy piece ‘The Church of Individualism‘ speaks into this.
  19. This individualism, as the Mere Orthodoxy piece argues, has involved proclaiming a Gospel that has a “king but no kingdom,” to a secular context that wants the “kingdom without the king.” I’d argue that in the U.S, the ‘king’ part is more obvious because of the close connection between Christianity and politics; but where we have a more rigid cultural separation between church and state, and a more dramatic ‘secular/sacred’ divide (that Sam Chan argues means we operate as a de facto closed country where people only want to talk about religious beliefs in private spaces, rather than in public), I think we conservative evangelicals in Australia have particularly emphasised Jesus as (personal) saviour, not Jesus as king, let alone emphasising the kingdom (this isn’t to say we deny that Jesus is king, simply that we see the Gospel in individual terms with an emphasis on future salvation from sin, rather than present reality.
  20. Conservative denominations have not grappled with what a particular theological position on the ordination of women means for ministry in our churches, or the staffing of our churches. One might uphold the position that men and women have different functions in the life of the church and still imagine other ways to staff and manage church communities. The egalitarian response to “complementarian” denominations who raise the ‘pastor drought,’ that it’s the inevitable result of ruling out half a potential workforce, is a category error, and yet, there is something in the critique.

The author

Nathan runs St Eutychus. He loves Jesus. His wife. His daughter. His son. His other daughter. His dog. Coffee. And the Internet. He is the campus pastor at Creek Road South Bank, a graduate of Queensland Theological College (M. Div) and the Queensland University of Technology (B. Journ). He spent a significant portion of his pre-ministry-as-a-full-time-job life working in Public Relations, and now loves promoting Jesus in Brisbane and online. He can't believe how great it is that people pay him to talk and think about Jesus.

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