Reaching retirement age was more of a milestone that I had anticipated. After a brush with stage four transitional cell carcinoma in 2004 there were doubts about living another year. So, last year, after my sixty-fifth birthday, we gave thanks and decided to realize the next chapter I'd been scripting for thirty-five years.
Credible research indicates that 1 out of 10 pastors will actually complete ministry through retirement. It is one of the tragic statistics of our spiritually wavering times. To know that hundreds of pastors leave their ministry positions every month brings all of these numbers into sharp focus. If they were retiring every month, we'd be cheering. Since that isn't the case, there's a lament instead. It may signal the age of endings.
Another stark reality darkens the horizon. More pastors and spiritual leaders are taking their owns lives. Reliable statistics on the suicide rates of people in the ministry are scarce. Still, most of us know one or more colleagues who have taken the extreme flight option of self-inflicted death. Data about the reasons for this tragic trend are also inconclusive. To know even one, however, for whatever reason, is enough to warn us of the realities of serving God in these spiritually challenging times.
What is more, a number of the studies indicate that another 4,000 - 7,000 American churches close every year. Thom Rainer, President of LifeWay Resources has indicated that the actual number may be 8,000 - 10,000 (www.thomrainer.com, 12/31/12). (These numbers have some age on them and may be inaccurate now). Just the same, the age of endings may escalate up in many directions. Pastors, church staff, spiritual leaders leave their positions and churches close. It is a grim picture of the spiritual challenges so visible in this culture.
Pessimistic about the future? Not hardly. These trends should aim our attention at the troubling demographics of escalating cultural secularism and the unique challenges these times present to the contemporary church. But, there are very notable indications of beginnings in the Christian world too. In reflection, remember these---
1. Enrollment at Christian colleges, universities, and seminaries is trending
upward, toward capacity in many places. A new generation of pastors,
educators, missionaries, church planters, and ministry professionals are
preparing for Christian service.
2. There is an energized church planting movement sweeping across our nation,
resulting in thousands of church starts each year.
3. Church re-vitalization and health have been elevated on the priority list of
most denominations and teaching institutions. Innovation and biblical
precedents are replacing business models in church life, a troubling fad over
the last few decades.
4. The biblicai foundations of church leadership and the meaning of church
membership are bringing into sharper focus the predominance of cultural
Christianity in our nation. New member training and orientation are
hallmarks of this movement.
5. The loss of a moral compass in pop culture is affirming the need for personal
and family spiritual guidance in navigating complicated times. Americans are
discovering the emptiness of secular values. This is especially true of recent
assaults on biblical marriage, horrific revelations about abortion and value of
human life, and the anti-Christian political correctness movement.
So, it is what it is, and even with an optimistic, confident outlook, the endings should startle us if nothing else. As leaders pray and plan for the future, my prayer is that more denominational and church resources will be committed to addressing these and other elements of pastor/staff distress. One obvious goal should involve lengthening tenure of those called to spiritual leadership. Studies indicate that staff longevity is a notable component of church health. Our non-hierarchical organization discourages local church interference by state and convention systems. They must usually be invited into a consultation role or, in most cases, a conflict resolution crisis.
Leadership dynamics may be the critical issue for the church today. Church plateaus and declines are the consequence of several demographic factors. Just the same, there are many thriving congregations in stagnant communities. Studies reveal that most church closures occur in areas that are actually growing and thriving. The character, tenure, and obedience of spiritual leaders are the defining traits that set them apart. We must elevate leadership to a top shelf priority. The goal: to help eliminate the endings.
At the conclusion of his letter to Colossae, the Apostle Paul commended Epaphras.
"...who is one of you, a servant of Christ Jesus...always struggling on your behalf
in his prayers, that you may stand mature and fully assured in all the will of God.
For I bear him witness that he has worked hard for you..."
Colossians 4:12-13, ESV
What a blessing to see how Paul, the Apostle, stood strong with one of the local pastors under his training and care. Would that we could follow such an example in affirming and encouraging one another, especially us geezers reaching out to those who are going to take us into the future.
And, end the endings.