By Bishop Michael Rinehart
The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America is structured to work well in middle-class communities. A church of 120-150 can sustain the salary of a full-time pastor and pay the expenses of the building. Activities involve trips that can be very expensive.
What we don’t do as well is ministry among the poor. Because each congregation must pay it’s own way, communities in poverty struggle. Whereas a middle-class congregation can get by with the offerings of 120-150 people, it can take twice or even three times that to sustain the salary of a full-time pastor, pay other staff, fund the building, and then support other ministries.
Our model for ministry isn’t conducive to work with ministries in communities of poverty. Such communities include but are not limited to African Americans, Native Americans, Latino/as, and immigrants. By communities of poverty, I’m talking about places with a substantial number of households that make less than $30,000/year. At that level of income, it is nearly impossible to make ends meet, let alone give generously to support the ministries of the church. The median household income for the zip code where the synod office is now located (77037) is $41,000/year. By comparison, the median income of the zip code where I live (77356) is $96,000. Such a disparity is unfair, but it is the world in which we live. How can we lovingly engage in ministry in every community?
There are several ways we have bridged this gap in the past. For example, a portion of congregational mission share (funds given by congregations to work of the synod and the wider church) go to support congregations in communities of poverty. Such mission grants and redevelopment grants can help a congregation make it, but sometimes just barely.
Another way that small congregations can thrive in communities of poverty is with bi-vocational pastors. Pastor Gary Morgan-Gohlke serves Light of Christ LaPorte part time. He receives some remuneration for his pastoral work at Light of Christ, but his business repairing boat engines pays the bills. This makes him affordable for the church, and also affords him considerable freedom. This model has worked successfully in several places across the ELCA.
Another blessing is the ministry of retired pastors and deacons. With the average life expectancy climbing over the last twenty years, people are retiring at a time in life when they still have their health and energy. The young retired have a career of experience and the ability to serve without extensive financial needs. A small congregation in communities of poverty can and should pay their pastors and deacons, for laborers deserve their wages (Matthew 10:10, Luke 10:7, 1 Timothy 5:18, Deuteronomy 25:4). Retired pastors and deacons have saved retirement funds that pay the bills. They can work part time and offer their tremendous gifts to the work of the church, and also receive some financial help paying for medical or other expenses.
If you’re retired and still have energy and joy for ministry, I encourage you to consider this. You may find a late life ministry that is as fulfilling or even more fulfilling as your mid-life ministry. Come talk to us about possibilities.
One point of clarification. I am not talking about small dying congregations in changing neighborhoods. Yes, they need pastoral care as well, but this is a different matter altogether. Sometimes a neighborhood changes ethnicity, resulting in white flight to the suburbs. The congregation declines as people move, and soon the small congregation consists of the few who still live in the community, bolstered by some who drive back into the community to “support their church.” Some communities have been either unwilling or unable to adapt their ministry to the needs of their new neighbors. These congregations need pastoral care as well, to help them close faithfully, or be born again in a new ministry with a new community. This second option that often requires either bi-vocational pastors and deacons or retired pastors and deacons.
Beloved retired or semi-retired leaders: Thank you for your ministry over many years of faithful service. To what is God calling you now? How might your gifts be used to serve God and God’s people for the sake of the gospel? Would you like to conspire together? Let’s talk.