Jesus said: "Follow me." Matthew 9:9
The statistics of decline in membership in American Christian churches, Roman Catholic as well as Protestant, have been well documented in journals both sacred and profane. The consequence of diminishing rolls, however, can best be appreciated not in an annual report to the denomination but from the vantage of those who live and pray and daily struggle with this attrition.
In 1956, while still a student in seminary, I accepted the pastorate of a church in blue collar Brooklyn, populated by, among several ethnic groups, Scandinavian immigrants and their children, living in railroad flats in row houses carefully maintained. My first Thanksgiving there five congregations - one Reformed, one Presbyterian, one Baptist, and two Methodist - joined in ecumenical worship around corn sheaves, pumpkins, a cornucopia, and other artifacts more at home down on the farm than next to city asphalt. Each church's pastor participated and choir members from each congregation combined to bellow Psalm 150 in an ecclesiastically popular rendition. But by 1972 only one church with one pastor remained to serve the same constituency. The Borough of Churches still numbers in its skyline more cathedrals per square mile than Rome, but the arks of brick and stone are largely empty.1
A student of demographics could probably marshal data to explain this emptiness, that Protestant and now Catholic constituencies have fled to the suburbs and their places taken by Southern Black and Spanish-speaking immigrants who find the milieu of established churches inhospitable to their religious sensibilities.
A second explanation for church decline is eagerly offered by those dedicated to the demise of Christendom, that is, the church as a societal institution enamored with power and its uses. These critics herald the appearance of a new generation who could not care less about popes and annual conferences, presbyteries, consistories, and councils, but who will follow the Galilean once he is divested of these institutional trappings.2
I believe there is a third explanation, one that accepts the probability of the other two, while containing a prescription for the very malady it helps diagnose: leadership, the lack of it, in the ministry must also be blamed for the church's disarray.
At this point it would be only proper for me to enter some disclaimers. My viewpoint is conspicuously parochial. My life and ministry have been spent in metropolitan New York, an area described in my hearing by a pastor from the Convention of Regular Baptists as "a spiritual wasteland." Although I occasionally visit the Interchurch Center and have been a trustee or director of church agencies, I do not know denominational bureaucracy from the inside and, therefore, do not have the advantage of its overview.3 Furthermore, it is conceivable that the ministry in other traditions and other regions may suffer not from an absence but a surplus of overzealous leadership. Nonetheless, I have neither read nor heard reasoned opinions which contradict my premise that the local church's ministry will only be as effective as the pastor who leads it. John the Baptist surely is right, that "God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham": but in His providence he has so far always chosen more fleshly material and that with seminary degrees and ordinations, for recruiting and equipping faithful witnesses. If the church fails, the clergy must accept much of the blame.
In recent years the vogue in pastoral models has been passive. (On social issues - peace, poverty, the Vietnamese War - the clergy have been anything but passive, as they have actively led and participated in demonstrations, and even been arrested. I refer in the present line of thinking, however, to the pastor's relationship to his people through the traditional duties of congregational life.) To be more specific, those seminaries which prepare pastors for the larger denominations have fostered, often unintentionally, an academic or scholarly ideal for the pastorate.4 This notion has worthy and ancient credentials in Reformation churches: the wearing of academic gowns in the pulpit can be traced to Dr. Martin Luther. To this day Presbyterians designate their pastors as "teaching elders."
At my alma mater, Williams College, now a very preppy member of the "Potted Ivy League," where the Haystack Monument commemorates the birthplace of American foreign missions, many of the graduates during the first half of the Nineteenth Century entered the Congregational ministry. A goodly number of the professors in those earlier years taught Greek, Hebrew, Latin, Rhetoric, and Bible during the week. On Sunday morning many of them could be found in pulpits of area churches declaiming on the Gospel of Jesus Christ to mill owners and workers and other townspeople in western Massachusetts.
But during the succeeding century this direct communication between classroom and sanctuary has, like many of the thoroughfares in the modern metropolis, became a one-way street.5 Candidates for the ordained ministry who in an earlier day would have sat at the feet of several moonlighting clergymen along the route to their own pulpits, now might meet only one or two practicing pastors teaching in a seminary, and then usually teaching a course in practical theology. The composition of the seminary faculty shapes the expectations and attitudes of the ministerial student, giving him a predilection to deal with the church primarily in terms of ideas and issues; and, in the process, disequipping him for the demands of the modern pastoral ministry. For the parish is an arena of people who are not principally moved by ideas, but by loyalties, political pressures, personal ambitions, ethnic identity, all of the mixed feelings commonly labeled "heart," and then only by ideas. No wonder when I returned twenty years later to the seminary from which I had graduated, I discovered among my classmates only one other local church pastor. Teaching was the preference of most, then counseling and institutional chaplaincies; while half had returned to secular vocations.
Fifteen years ago6 Daniel Day Williams and H. Richard Niebuhr documented in a book on the pastoral ministry what they perceived to be a new model for ministry, "the pastoral director," the catalyst or enabler in the life of a congregation. The pastoral director, in his study/laboratory would design programs to be implemented by the laity after consultation with and revision by them. This model is to many pastors most appealing not only in the status it confers but in the blessing it bestows upon their training to handle ideas. I do not question the accuracy of the report of Messrs. Williams and Niebuhr. Indeed, they corroborate my experience of my colleagues in the pastoral ministry: that many clergy in the larger denominations no longer choose to think of themselves as the parson, that is, "the person," leader of the people and shepherd of the flock, but as their resourcer.
By way of illustration I cite my experience as an officer in the Council of Churches of the City of New York. A frequent topic on the agenda for the committees on research and planning was the vanishing Protestant and what to do with all the empty churches. That concern was White in origin, just like most of the conferees gathered around the table. A moment's reflection would have reminded us that the Protestant constituency in New York City is larger than it has ever been in the last century, in numbers or in percentage of the total population; only the constituency is Black. Large institutional-type churches, rivaling any in Dr S. Parkes Cadman's Brooklyn, flourish now in Bedford-Stuyvesant. Only it's Cornerstone, Concord, and Bethany churches that are filled to capacity each Sunday with Black Christians. Granted, the demographics may be favorable; but the success and the effectiveness of the churches in Black communities cannot be explained without reference to the quality of the ministers' leadership.
There are, of course, reasons of a history of oppression which have fostered the prominence of the minister in the Black community, reasons which do not obtain in White churches. The style of leadership in Harlem, therefore, may not be directly transferable to Scarsdale or Winnetka or Palo Alto. I cite these Black examples chiefly as evidence that models of strong pastoral leadership do exist and are hugely effective; leadership not only willing but eager to take charge, inspiring Christians by words and deeds to remake the world, after the design of the kingdom. Like the self-confident declaration of a pastor in East Harlem, a United Methodist, conversing as Methodists are wont to do each June about who will be appointed to what church with what prestige, emoluments, and size of membership; said he, "It doesn't matter where the bishop sends me because wherever I am I'll gather a congregation."
Strong pastoral leadership is the answer to the attrition the churches are suffering. In ensuing chapters I shall attempt to describe the characteristics of such leadership. Please note the careful insistence on the qualifier, "effective" for this ministry, which is a deliberate choice over "successful." What the church (and the world!) needs, what God requires, is leadership that can effectively mold Christian fellowship into becoming "light to the world," that church whose assaults of grace even the gates of hell cannot withstand.
Second Thoughts Twenty-five Years Later
The main thesis, that the church needs strong, intelligent, faithful pastoral leadership willing to spend itself unstintingly, stands surer than ever. My denomination in my corner of the kingdom continues to diminish. Caught up in the fervor to reflect the rainbow colors of American society, and seeking to do so by rhetoric and administrative strategies reminiscent of the social engineering of the last quarter of the last century, the United Methodist Church in the Northeast has steadily declined. (Yes, I think there is a direct connection between this administrative emphasis and the inattentiveness to other urgent issues, such as recruiting men, usually the absent partner in worship, for the church's faith and witness.) A church in South Nassau on Long Island once sent $10,000 annually to a sister church in Long Island City. Now that suburban church is a part-time appointment filled by a retired pastor. Demographics, yes, but absence of pastoral leadership, most certainly.
1. The ark in which I began my professional career, a building not of bricks and stone but of stucco and wood, has long since been transformed from a Viking ship of blue-eyed blondes to a barque filled with Bombay aspirants to the American Dream. A former congregant, child of Norwegian immigrants, greeted this change with equanimity: "Now it's their turn." So my assessment in 1975 may be a touch pessimistic. God will raise up children to Abraham, if not from stones, then from whatever human material is available. In the Borough of Churches and elsewhere.
2. Few are the descendants a generation later of these who loved Jesus but couldn't stand the church. Institutionalization, with all of its down side of stiffening and stifling vitality, is still the best way to bridge the inevitable erosions of time. Besides, Jesus and his future suffer more from societal indifference than from any overt hostility.
3. This suggestion, that bureaucracies might have better strategies to counter the church's diminution, is a rare instance of my humility. Maybe it's really the feigned humility of a pastor twenty-five years ago still in the thick of the appointment process; because I knew then as I complain now that I have seen just how incompetent the larger church is when it confronts its failures. Mostly, the strategy is denial, the offering of false hopes, and a resort to whatever program is on the current ecclesiastical hit parade. The church, my denomination in my part of the kingdom, suffers from many things, but the worst thing is the triumph of a pedestrian mentality that simply does not recognize the difference between what's popular and what's faithfully effective. Fortunately, God doesn't need us as much as we need God. Other avenues of service, other models of faith will, by God's sovereign grace, be raised up and will triumph long after our denominational witness bites the dust.
4. That was then, this is now: the seminaries have moved on to another pastoral model, the pastor as spiritual guide. Many of those attracted in the present moment to the ordained ministry arrive as a consequence of their own discovery in mid-career that there has to be something more to life than selling stock and buying a Lexus. Their own spiritual odyssey has led them to think that others must be on the same road of spiritual self-discovery. Which is often the case, but it's a presupposition that does not lend itself to effective pastoral leadership which requires the balancing of budgets, the teaching of thirteen year olds, and the repair of a leaky roof. The fellow we claim to follow had in his earthly ministry a profound lack of interest in his own spiritual quest. He was mostly concerned with getting us getting in step with the weightier matters of the law, justice, mercy, and faith. My read on the Galilean is that he was recruiting soldiers of faith not troubadours of the spirit.
5. By "one way street" I mean that the churches sent their sons and daughters to the seminaries, but the seminaries rarely sent their professors to the churches. I received a wonderful academic education at Union Theological Seminary, New York, New York. But did it prepare me for the reality of the pastorate? Hardly. By the grace of God, however, I was raised within a church with real people, empirical Christians, and I was amply prepared for my immersion into the life of a parish filled with mortals. If I were to have responsibility for picking seminary professors, I would require that their resumes list at least five years of positive pastoral experience. "Positive" is an important qualifier. Reinhold Niebuhr could meet that test, Karl Barth too. But most of those who taught me in seminary? I don't think so.
6. Fifteen years ago has become forty years ago. The young whippersnapper of a preacher has become the bald old pastor in the pulpit... and, it seems, only a day or two has passed since then became now. But the passage of the years and the pastoral experience in them have convinced me that the key to the Christian church's faithful future is in the hands of its ordained leadership... all of whom, after all, were once and future members of the laity, like me.