Thursday, May 26, 2011

My Experience with the Invisible Denominational Ladder

On several occasions over the last 10 years, congregational members would look at me and my growing young family on a Sunday morning and say "When are you going to get a real church?"

On a good day, I would use that question to talk about vocation and calling with the inquirer. I was called to interim ministry for 10 years. I believe I worked faithfully and skillfully. I attended interim ministry meetings and conferences as the often the youngest person in attendance by 25-40 years. It didn't matter that I was not a part of that ministry with my generational peers (though I sometimes longed for their companionship)--that's where my gifts were. I am a strong believer in the Parable of the Talents (Matthew 25: 14-30), therefore I attempt to faithfully use what I have been given. Even in the midst of questions from colleagues, peers, denominational representatives, and even members of the congregation I served.

"When are you going to get a real church?"

Several church denominational systems create an unintentional invisible ladder for the vocational development of clergy. Many seminary graduates have five-figure student loans to finance their theological education. Many congregations who take seminary graduates to serve their congregations cannot afford to pay a wage that will realistically pay off the debt so that pastors can save money for retirement or pay for the education of their own children. Therefore after a brief tenure, the pastor moves on to larger congregations and/or more specialized positions in large metro areas with thriving suburbs. The congregations in rural South Dakota even recognized this dynamic. They sometimes encouraged me to leave so that I may thrive in ministry in a "bigger and better" place. Many people lined up in my life to give thanks for the opportunity to serve together, but the same question always arose:

"When are you going to get a real church?"

After completing my most recent transitional ministry in Port Orchard, Melanie and I affirmed what we learned early on in that period of service; this 10 year season of interim ministry was over. It is too logistically challenging to be good pastors and good parents to our two daughters. Melanie and I considered many congregational opportunities, and some reflected a denominational ladder. I have experience as a lead pastor in larger congregations and supervising staff. I have experience in congregations with large budgets that give a lot of money to denominational ministry (both in Lutheran and Presbyterian congregations). Without saying so, the system's message is that I should be in a larger congregation--that's the message of the pervasive question about my status with a "real church."

After a meeting last night with a small urban/suburban congregation in significant decline, we studied our body language toward each other and wondered if God was present in this discussion. Even though it is likely I will be their called pastor, people will still ask me the question, "when are you going to get a real church?" I don't really want to address the real church question.  We recognize the Invisible Denominational Ladder together, lose any fixation with that and behave in a manner that God may be doing something with us. We don't need to articulate a bromide to assure ourselves that we are the church regardless of the congregational size. We don't need to give ourselves a pep talk. Collectively we will give thanks to God for Jesus and the blessing of being a community. We will gather and ask the question, "how can we serve our neighbor?"

The Invisible Denominational Ladder is of our own creation in what we know as "Mainline Protestantism." Some ladders look a little different in each denomination. It's not something that someone else did. It's there and part of who we are, like the wind, or atoms, or molecules. Maybe the ladder needs to be torn down, and maybe someone is called to tear it down. Calling and faithful use of gifts carries the day--which is what ignites my memory and action.


  1. Thanks for posting, Erika! Is there anything in particular that resonates with you?

  2. Sure miss you HERE! I am trying to be patient, BUT!

  3. Mr. Curmudgeon, it's good to be missed. It beats the alternative. Thanks for being a faithful reader. The writing is picking up. Thanks to reminders from you and Seth Godin. Have you read him yet?

  4. Just stumbled across this, Joe. Really good stuff to name here. I wonder, however, how we dismantle that ladder. Do we subsidize smaller congregations, so that they can afford to pay a salary equal to larger congregations? How do we acknowledge that there are different skill sets / callings within ordained ministry, in a way that helps to take down the invisible ladder?
    Did you catch my convo with Bp. Rinehart on twitter the other night? He is a big advocate for pastors having longer tenure, which helps some in this regard. Settling in where you are at, rather than keeping an eye on the horizon for the "next thing."