First in a 10-part seriesBy Sam HodgesSept. 25, 2015 | UMNS
When large, multisite Grace Church in Florida needed a pastor for its new downtown Fort Myers campus, the Rev. Arlene Jackson got the call.
She began with about 30 in worship. Over five years, her flock at Grace — a United Methodist church — has grown to more than 400. Many were previously “unchurched” and recovering from addictions, as she did.
“It’s the most diverse bunch of mixed nuts you’ve ever met,” Jackson said. “They’re growing in Christ and bringing people and having a lot of joy in their walk with the Lord.”
Jackson has impressed many, including Grace’s senior pastor, the Rev. Jorge Acevedo.
“This girl would take on hell with a squirt gun,” he said.
Proof of his and others’ faith in Jackson is that she’s just been given an unusual cross-conference appointment, to start a Grace Church campus in Sioux Falls, South Dakota.
But Jackson is not an ordained elder, the kind of United Methodist pastor who spent three or four years getting a master of divinity degree and made it through provisional member elder status to become “fully connected,” with a guaranteed appointment.
Local pastors like Jackson are on the rise numerically in The United Methodist Church in the United States. And though typecast as mainly leading small churches, they are landing in a range of positions and church sizes.
Bishop Robert Schnase of the Missouri Conference has appointed many local pastors, and is among their champions.
“We do not presume that every elder is somehow more gifted than every local pastor,” Schnase said. “Therefore, we have local pastors serving as senior pastors of large congregations, in senior staff positions in large churches, as new church start pastors and on the conference staff as directors.”
The numbers game
The upward trend with local pastors comes as ordained elders are becoming rarer.
The denomination's General Council on Finance and Administration reports that from 2010 to 2015, the number of ordained elders and provisional member elders serving churches dropped from 15,806 to 14,614.
United Methodist elders are declining in number in the U.S., but licensed local pastors are on the increase. “Elders” above includes ordained elders and provisional member elders appointed to churches, as opposed to extension appointments. “Local pastors” includes full-time and part-time local pastors. Data source: GCFA.
Though the denomination was shrinking in the United States, local pastors appointed to churches climbed from 6,193 to 7,569 in that time. Both full-time and part-time local pastor numbers grew, with the latter growing faster.
The Rev. Lovett Weems, director of the Lewis Center, has long followed United Methodist clergy trends. He notes that in 1990, elders outnumbered local pastors 5 to 1. That ratio is roughly 2 to 1 now, and drops further when looking just at those in church appointments.
Conferences vary widely in clergy makeup, but the West Virginia, Kentucky, Tennessee, Oklahoma Indian Missionary and Red Bird Missionary conferences had more local pastors than elders serving churches as of summer 2015, according to GCFA. Some other conferences, such as Upper New York, East Ohio, North Alabama and Missouri, are close, and still others acknowledge they are highly dependent on this growing category of clergy.
“We’d be in a world of hurt in the Holston Conference without local pastors,” said the Rev. David Graves, former superintendent of its Kingsport District.