Shared Ministry!?!

I have been conducting Charge Conferences one and two a night except for Friday and Saturday, plus up to four on Sundays. In addition, Consultations with pastors have been every hour on the hour each day through tomorrow. Both Charge Conferences and Consultations have been excellent and informative. There have been some tensions as we finish up the business and I open up a “town-hall” style conversation about ministry. In particular, there has been fruitful seed-planting about a dream that I have to deal with the 16 churches within 5-6 miles of my office.
These 16 churhes have about 3,000 members and around 1,000 in average attendance. They are pastored by mostly elders, 3 retired supply persons, and two Probationers. Each church has its own identity and is doing vital and valid ministry. The situation that presents itself is that these churches are all struggling in a sense. The attendance in the churches starts at 25 with a high of 125. There has been disciple-making, but little numerical growth. The total salary amount for the clergy serving these churches is over $630,000, not counting accountable reimbursement or housing allowances in lieu of parsonages. Only three of the churches have parsonages.
I don’t want to have a cooperative parish system because my experience is that model smacks too much of being one foot already in the grave; i.e., “Let’s continue to do our own thing but get together every now and then until we shrink to the point that we have to be closed.” Another model suggests that larger churches can absorb smaller ones as satellite congregations. This strikes me as a “hostile takeover” no matter how good the intentions are. Another model is where a larger church has an Associate Pastor who serves in that role and as Pastor-in-Charge in a nearby smaller congregation. Then, of course, is the idea of mergers but that creates a mutated DNA mixture that could be deadly.
The model that I’m pondering most has groupings (clusters) of similar churches in close proximity that avoids any sense of takeover and affirms each church’s identity. The 16 churches that I’m specifically thinking about could be grouped into 2 or 3 clusters for a “Shared Ministry.” They would have their own pastor who would be there 75% of the time, but share clergy responsibilities with other clergy from the Shared Ministry Group. For instance, a clergy for a particular church may be that church’s “pastor,” but there would be a degree of rotation in preaching duties to underscore the connectional nature of a Shared Ministry.
I wouldn’t need 16 pastors to handle these 1,000 people. I also wouldn’t need over $630,000 to fund the clergy. But this is much bigger than saving money and stewardship of human resources (After all we do have a clergy shortage in SC). The primary impetus is to help these struggling churches do more and do it together. If I put the slogan that comes to mind for this on a T-shirt it would read, “Together We Can Do More!” Maybe 6 elders would be enough to handle the pastoral needs including several who might be retired Supply. I would want at least 2 Deacons to handle Programming and Christian Education opportunites that can be shared with all the churches in the cluster. Plus, I would want superb persons for Children’s, Youth, Young Adult, and Older Adult Ministries that would be individual and shared. All total There would be 12 clergy and ministry staff persons instead of 16, but MORE IMPORTANTLY there would be so much more opportunity for these particular churches to see growth rather than status quo – “Together We Can Do More!” It is a connectional model that honors who we are.
I’m broaching the subject at Charge Conferences and in Consultations, and the reception is better than expected given the differences between the churches in terms of socio-economics, theology, and race. This would create cross-cultural opportunities that just aren’t happening enough as is. People have responded by saying that this plan reminds them of what we did years ago when we did “Sub-District” events which provided a understanding of our denomination beyond a single church. Maybe they have a point! Please pray that we can make some of this happen, and leave your comments. This is going to take several years to get everyone on board, but the conversation has started. There are big issues to deal with like each church’s autonomy from the Discipline with regard to salary. I would prefer an English model of equalized pay, but that’s not my perogative though I do have the power of consultation for the greater good. I think something like this has to happen not just in Columbia but around the connection. I haven’t see anything written about a Shared Ministry exactly like I’m pondering, but I’m open to new thoughts and the Spirit’s leading. Help!?

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