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Clerical Collars and Ecclesiastical Titles: 5 Reasons they are needed in the Church

“Just call me Erik”

I have never said these words out loud in the context of pastoral ministry.

Sometime just before or during my childhood, there was a movement toward informality in the church. Many pastors stopped going by “Reverend Last Name” or “Pastor Last Name” and started going by just “First Name.” At the same time, there was movement away from clergy attire (although for many Lutherans, collars and vestments had only been reclaimed a few decades earlier).

When I began seminary in 2005 and graduated in 2009, it was more-or-less the norm that clergy would expect to be called by their first name by parishioners, church goers from other churches and colleagues. Wearing a clerical collar was a hotly debated option for many seminary students.

I often got the sense that my desire to be called “Pastor” seemed stodgy and formal to some. And while seminary students of all stripes often liked to experiment with wearing clerical collars, it was not uncommon for veteran pastors having been active for 20+ years would come and drop off collars and vestments for students… yet, these pastors were not intending to retire or resign… they just had no need to clerical attire any longer.

“They create a barrier” was the common refrain when speaking of titles and collars. And real ministry can only be done through personal relationships. And you can only have relationships where people feel like they know you and trust you with personal relationships, which means first name basis and casual clothes.

Once I began serving, colleagues twenty years my senior would tell stories of their own childhood experience in church. They remembered having “Reverend Last Name” teach confirmation, and he was a real strict, no-fun, jerk who always wore his clerical collar. But then “(Pastor) First Name” came to town, and he was lots of groovy fun in his bell-bottom jeans and t-shirts. So now, every pastor should go by their first name because being old and traditional and stodgy is not good ministry. And being fun, and casual and cool is good ministry.

But even at 22 when I started seminary and 26 when I graduated, I thought that going by “Pastor” and looking like a pastor made sense.

The thing is, I was worried about being considered a kid or too young. The average age of pastors in my denomination is well in to the 50s, and here I was, half the average age. And I was about to lead a congregation on my own. Going by “Pastor” was just a small way that I could project the office to which I was called. Looking the part would disguise my youthfulness. Just maybe the people I was serving might see me as a pastor – and not some entitled millennial – if they visualized me as and called me “Pastor.”

In the eight years since, I have learned a few things about what it means to project the symbol of pastor, and to get by on the virtue of personal relationships and charm.

And there are reasons that the church has used titles and clerical collars to identify pastors, reasons that still hold water today. Here are some of them:

1 Pastors are Symbols

Like many vocations and callings in our world, we become public symbols when ‘on the job.’ Like police officers or fire fighters who symbolize safety and protection, like doctors or nurses who symbolize caregiving, like teachers or professors who symbolize learning, pastors are symbols to the people that we work with. We are symbols of God’s and the Church’s public voice in community. When we speak we speak not has individuals but as representatives of someone or something other than ourselves.

The symbol is visualized in the collar or other clerical attire. People can see the symbol in the uniform of pastors, just as safety is presented in firefighter’s gear, or healthcare is by hospital scrubs.

The symbol is verbalized in the title. When people address pastors by the title “Pastor” the symbol and its existence are intentionally articulated, rather than unintentionally assumed.

2 Using titles and collars provides clarity

Here is how pastors who wear collars and go by “Pastor” know that the two are important. When a funeral home, for example, calls me looking for a generic pastor for a funeral, they don’t tell the family that some guy named “Erik” will be doing the service. Rather by calling me “Pastor”, the nature of the relationship I will have with this grieving family is understood. When I show up in a collar, it is clear who I am.

Imagine walking into an ER and everyone was dressed in street clothes, and some person in jeans and t-shirt asked what your symptoms were, and then told you that Jimmy would be with you in a minute? You would be confused wouldn’t you.

Now imagine the same in a church. A person walks in looking for spiritual help, and a member says, let me get Erik to help you.

Collar and titles provide clarity.

3 Privilege

The varied ways in which we bear privilege is coming into our social awareness. And the option to decline the visual symbols and verbal cues of pastoring are a privilege, in particular a white and a male privilege. It takes a certain amount of privileged assurance to decline being called “Pastor” and to forego looking to still be confident that those you serve will assume and understand the full nature of the pastoral relationship. It takes privilege to assume that people won’t confuse your person with you vocation. And that is because whiteness and maleness are not characteristics about that might lead people to assume that one couldn’t be or wouldn’t be a pastor.

Yet, it is often assumed that women who are pastors are not pastors, whether it is sales people looking for the pastor over the phone, or visitors new to the church, or staff at hospital questioning the legitimacy of a visit.

The same goes for people of colour whom are often likely to be disbelieved that they are who they say are.

Worst of all, is that when white men, like me, decline the title and clothing of pastors, we undermine our colleagues who are women and people of colour, because we send the unconscious message that it is our whiteness and maleness that allows us to be pastors. Yet, if we used titles and wore the garb, we would clarify that we are filling office of pastor by looking like clergy and being addressed as clergy. It would also help if we insisted that all of our colleagues, regardless of gender or race or orientation were addressed by their titles.

4 Order over hierarchy

Often the objection to titles, or collars are that they symbolize a hierarchy in the church. Only special people get to wear the special clothing and have the special titles.

But in fact, titles and collars help to minimize the hierarchical nature of the church when understood correctly. When the visual and verbal symbols are not used by pastors, we subconsciously convey that it is for other reasons that we occupy the office of ministry. Perhaps it is that we are more spiritual or moral, that we are smarter or more competent.

Instead, it should be understood that it is “putting on the uniform” that symbolizes taking on the office. It is because through people I serve that God has called to serve, and this why they call me “Pastor.” Titles and collars are the things that are put on in order to serve, rather than service rooted in virtue and specialness. They identify the fact that we are called to particular ministry in the Church, some for this ministry, some for that ministry.

5 Titles and Collars are reminders.

Just as I thought as a 26-year-old starting out in ordained ministry, it is still the case that going by “Pastor (First Name)” and wearing a collar are helpful reminders of the office I fill. And I have noticed over the years that when I wear the collar, people treat me differently. Not with more respect, but less as my particular self. I am more the office than I am Erik. And I have also noticed that whether subconsciously or not, when people address me as “Pastor Parker” or “Pastor Erik” or “Pastor” or “Erik” that is says something about their relationship to the office of pastoral ministry (and secondarily to me). Sometimes how we are addressed is sign of comfort or discomfort, security or insecurity. Those who call me just “Pastor” are often those who are the most comfortable in their relationship to me as their pastor. Those who use my last name are often the least familiar and from outside my particular church community. Those who use just my first name are either very comfortable and familiar, or sometimes are uncomfortable with my relationship to them as their pastor (for likely complicated reasons).

But the reminder is not just for those that I encounter and serve in the course of ministry. Titles and collars are probably most importantly reminders for me. When I put on the black shirt and slide that white tab into my collar, I am reminded that my personal identity takes a back seat to my vocational identity – I am a clergy person and pastor first and foremost to the people I interact with.

And when someone calls me pastor, it is small and constant reminder of who I am to them and the nature of my relationship and responsibilities. That I am called to announce the Good News of Jesus Christ in whatever way possible in this particular moment with this particular person.

Titles and clerical collars are symbols and tools for ministry which, I think, all clergy should consider. But wether not you prefer your suits and ties and go by your first name, or whether you want your pastor to be in a collar every time you see him or her and call them “Pastor”… The symbols we use, visual and verbal are important and they speak to nature of our call to serve in God’s Kindgom.

So let’s all think about the symbols and cues that we use that help us to understand and do ministry… titles and collars included.


Share in the comments, or on the Facebook Page: The Millennial Pastor or on Twitter: @ParkerErik

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Why Can’t Pastors Agree on What a Pastor is?

What DOES a pastor do anyways?

Ask 10 pastors what a pastor is, and you will get ten different definitions. Read 10 different blog articles on what a pastors is and should be doing, and you will get ten different opinions. The job title and ecclesiological office of pastor is one that encompasses a variety of definitions, often confusing and contradictory ones.

This vagueness around the job description and theological concept of being a pastor is one of the most frustrating parts of my vocation. The debate lately seems to be between the pastor as CEO vs. pastor as Shepherd. Just check out the titles of some relatively recent blog posts:

Why you should be thankful if your pastor behaves like a CEO by Carey Nieuwhof
CEO-style pastorates all the rage but offer little to those seeking deeper faith by Jim Brumley
Quit Telling Pastors We Have to Stop Pastoring to Have a Successful Church: Great churches don’t need spiritual enablers or high-achieving CEOs. by Karl Vaters

The current debate raging online, and probably in churches and among colleagues, about what a pastor is and does is nothing new. It is simply a symptom of the church facing the changing world and some dim sense that part of facing that change means pastors and churches updating their understandings of each.

Even in my short millennial life-time, I have seen pastors of different generations try to live up to different and changing ideas of what it means to be a pastor.

A different time, a different pastor

In my first congregation, a small farming community where the church had been the central focus for nearly a century, pastors were understood to be something akin to the “community professional.” In the early part of the 20th century, pastors were often called upon not only to shepherd the flock, but also provided medical knowledge, taught school children, provided legal and mediation services among other things.

In my Grandfather’s generation in the 40s and 50s, pastors were public moral paragons. They were (supposed to be) living examples of moral living who were required to lead the faithful in their own moral living and a disciplined faith full of regular devotion and study. Pastors were expected to be public moral authorities whose credibility was rooted in their character and leadership position. They were called upon to serve on public boards, public offices and positions and were often in the public eye.

And then in the 60s and 70s, Clinical Pastoral Education and a trend towards psychology and therapy transformed again the role of the pastor. No longer was the pastor a voice for morality and divine authority, but now a counsellor, therapist even. Someone to hear your troubles (sometimes on God’s behalf) and direct you to the help you need. And pastors started using as much the language of psychology as theology.

And then 80s and 90s, when, despite the early signs of decline, the trend was for established and growing congregations to program their ministry. This meant large facilities and increased staff positions. Pastors became middle managers, overseeing growing churches that had become corporatized. Business language become the vernacular at board meetings and for church leadership.

And then in the 2000s, pastors were called upon to become entrepreneurial CEOs, revitalizing the unwieldy and declining organizations that had been started by the community professionals and moral paragons, grown by the pastoral care providers, and managed into decline by the middle managers. Pastors were and are expected to be the source of mission and vision renewal for churches longing for a return to the glory days. The glory days of course depend on which of the previous eras felt the most glorious for a given person. And the new glory days also include incorporating all the new technology of a changing digital and online world.

These are, of course, not the only dominant forms of pastor that have risen up recently. There are several of other images and ideas about what the primary role of a pastor is:

There is the social justice warrior, who leads their faith community in striking out to address all the evils of the world. This pastor strives to lead people in activism and to organize communities of resistance beyond congregations who will fight for justice among all the injustices that exist in the world.

And there is the cruise director / country club pro who is the omni-present social glue that holds the many activities and programs and fellowship events that a congregation plans. The pastor will likely make an appearance at everything: every meeting, every breakfast, every golf or curling fundraiser. The pastor is more mascot than spiritual leader.

And there is the coach and cheerleader. The person encouraging the laity in their calling by passing off the bulk of the responsibilities of the pastoral office. A pastor’s job is to put themselves out of a job is mantra of this style.

So which of these is the right style or idea of the core of pastoral ministry is? Should pastors need to choose?

Jack-of-all-trades pastoring?

Picking one version of pastoral ministry over another actually misses the point. Of course all of the responsibilities are, at times, part of what a pastor does. Sometimes you will be the community expert, other times you will inspire your people to faithfulness, sometimes you be called upon to provide counsel and care for people in need, other times you will be the one checking the boiler and booking rentals, sometimes you will be hiring and firing people. And of course in the midst of all these things there is preaching and leading worship / the liturgy, studying and teaching the bible, prayer and helping people grow in faith.

But none of these shifting ideas about what it means to be a pastor are core to pastoral ministry as it has been understood for most of the church’s history. Pastors or priests have always been tasked with preaching the word, administering the sacraments and tending to God’s people. And throughout the millennia, this has put various responsibilities on the shoulders of pastors, managing and tending to groups of people wherever they are is complicated.

Yet, whatever trend or style of ministry is current, and even whatever denomination or part of the world  a pastor serves in… the essential of what is a pastor is the same.

Pastors bring the Church to the church.

Whether it is the through high church smells and bells liturgy or someone standing alone on a staff with just a bible in their hands, whether it is providing expertise, modelling faithfulness, caring for those in distress, managing complicated communities, or revitalizing declining churches pastors are the connection through which a particular faith community (a church) encounters the faithful of all times and places (The Church).

The Office of Ministry is how The Church enters into the life a church or congregation. In all those things that the debates suggest that pastors should be spending their time on, the underlying purpose of doing any of those things is to help local and particular communities be connected to the body of Christ. To help local congregations participate in the mission of the whole Church, to proclaim the gospel of Jesus Christ to the world. And we don’t do this in vacuums, rather we serve this mission in consort with all the congregations and communities doing the same around us and around the world.

When pastors, or lay people, or the church as a whole debates what a pastor is or does, the reality is that in some sense there is still agreement. The different ideas or styles still fit within the scope of a pastor.  And yet, all the debates fail to return and remind us of the core.

Pastors bring the Church to the church.


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Why Pastors Shouldn’t Work More than 40 Hours a Week – And Why Most Do

“If you want to see me on my day off, you will have to die.”

A veteran pastor shared this line with me that he uses to protect his day off. He sets the boundary that the only work he is willing to make exceptions for, on his day off, is imminent death or funerals.

Managing work time and hours as a professional in ministry is a constant struggle. I don’t know many pastors who work less than a 45 hour a week, with many working 50 or 60 hours. Being “busy” and over-worked is the norm for most in ministry (as it is for many in our busy-ness focused society).

After 7 years of being in ordained ministry, I still have difficulty understanding just why so many pastors feel the need to work more than full time. While I have never heard anyone articulate it this way, I suspect many pastors have a sense that the first 40 hours are for the salary, and the rest are for Jesus. I am sure there are a few church folks who may agree, but I think this is a sentiment that originates with pastors themselves.

Many pastors are running around going to every church event, dropping everything for every hospital call or shut-in visit, answering every phone call, arriving before every church meeting and staying for the meeting after the meeting in the parking lot. It seems like many pastors and the churches they serve are completely content with the idea that the pastor is omni-present in body… while never being able to focus well – in mind and soul – on anything in particular.

I once attended a retirement party for a pastor leaving a long time call to institutional ministry. While it was a celebratory event, there was a certain awkwardness about the whole thing. The community he served thanked him for his tremendous service, while his family made jokes about their husband and father that was never home. And when he was home, he was bringing work with him. The community that this pastor served basically thanked this pastor’s family for sacrificing quality time with their husband and father… for Jesus?

I don’t think this is a healthy way to do ministry, nor do I think that Jesus calls pastors to be work-a-holics. 

A few weeks ago, I came across an article by Eugene Peterson called, “The Un-busy Pastor.” It is an article that has resonated with me, even though it was written the year before I was born.

The idea of an “unbusy” pastor seems like a rarity: A pastor who takes the time to contemplatively read scripture so that she is drenched in the word. A pastor who prays often enough and in such a way that she exudes calmness and wisdom. A pastor who is isn’t so busy running around from function to function, that she has time to listen when real listening is needed.

I don’t know what the cultural value of being busy in 1981 was when Euguene Peterson wrote about the unbusy pastor, but certainly being busy in 2016 is sign of importance. Now pastors have no exclusive claim to being busy in today’s world, but like so many other professions and jobs out there, being busy seems to be the way pastors show we are doing our job and worth our keep.

I can’t help but think of the contrast between the omni-present, omni-doing pastor with the idea of the unbusy pastor who, according to Peterson, focuses on prayer, reading scripture, and unhurriedly listening.

Decades ago as the church in North America became heavily prescribed and institutionalized post-WWII, the role of pastor shifted from leader, expert and resident theologian of a community to the chief do-er of ministry for a community. This means the culture now is one where instead of leading communities that do ministry, pastors do ministry on behalf of churches.

However, in the past 10 or years this has started shifting back. As churches contend with the big “change” happening around them (rapid technological advancement changing the way communities organize and interact coupled with decline of institutional christianity), many are realizing that communities need to be a part of ministry again. It can’t all sit on the shoulders of the pastor. As that shift takes place and pastors start doing less so that they can provide leadership and expertise, pastors will have to better understand how to prioritize their time.

In Eugene Peterson’s article the Unbusy Pastor, he suggests that being a busy pastor (as many pastors are) is actually a sign of laziness:

“The other reason I become busy is that I am lazy. I indolently let other people decide what I will do instead of resolutely deciding myself. I let people who do not understand the work of the pastor write the agenda for my day’s work because I am too slipshod to write it myself. But these people don’t know what a pastor is supposed to do. The pastor is a shadow figure in their minds, a marginal person vaguely connected with matters of God and good will. Anything remotely religious or somehow well-intentioned can be properly assigned to the pastor.”

Taking control of our own schedules and prioritizing is essential as pastors shift from chief do-ers to expert leaders, but so is understanding how a pastor’s time is valuable to a faith community.

To that end, I think there are 3 competing ways in which a pastor’s time is valuable to congregations. Balancing these three will be essential for healthy ministry in the future.

1. Quantity

Society, at least legislatively speaking, thinks that about 40 hours of work a week is enough for most full time jobs. Yet, as pastors became the chief do-ers of ministry decades ago, added responsibilities meant more time. And as pastors worked to prove their value to their congregations, they worked more and more and more.

But when quantity of ministry is the highest value, it necessitates a decline of quality. You cannot write a good sermon if they are all Saturday night specials. You cannot plan for the future, if it takes all your energy to get through the day. You cannot attend to the needs of the community as a whole, if you are running from individual to individual like a nursemaid. You cannot take the time for prayer, reading scripture or to really listen, if your calendar is full of the appointments made by others.

2. Flexibility

Churches tend to hold their functions when most people are not working, which means pastors work when most people are off. Evening and weekends. Standard eight hour work days wouldn’t work for ministry. This means that usually a pastor’s day(s) off are a weekday, and that often pastors might find themselves without something scheduled on a weekday morning or afternoon. This flexibility works well for pastors and is a benefit to congregations, as churches wouldn’t be very good places for community if they operated on bank hours.

But when pastors start to work bank hours AND evenings and weekends, the boundaries around work-life balance disappear. Pastors set an expectation that they can be anywhere, anytime. Congregations then embrace that behaviour. Then when pastors do try to have boundaries, they have to say things like, “If you want to see me on my day off, you have to die.” Flexibility is important for ministry, but not a the cost of a balance of personal time and space. Nor at the cost of a healthy relationship between pastor and congregation, but that is for another blog post.

3. Expertise

Seminary training gives pastors tools and knowledge that simply cannot be found in other ways. The training and education shapes and forms a pastor into a person who should be a scholar of the bible, a competent provider of pastoral care, a theologian and liturgist, an administrator and leader of systems, and an educator and teacher among other things. Of course not all gifts and skills are equal among pastors, but there is a certain expertise that is brought to the table with a pastor. I know that I have studied the bible in ways that my parishioners have not. I know that I have been trained to care for emotional and spiritual needs in ways that most of my parishioners have not. I know that my understanding of theology and liturgy is resource that my congregation wouldn’t have access to without me.

But expertise takes time to keep up and maintain. It takes a sharp, well-rested mind to dig back to readings and lectures buried in the recesses of the brain. It takes time to keep up on current articles and books about ministry or theology or administration. It takes intentionality to leave the mind time to ponder and reflect on the bigger picture of ministry in the parish. The expertise a pastor provides is like a that of a doctor or lawyer or other professional. It should be seen as something that church people cannot receive elsewhere or on their own. Just like Dr. Google is not a substitute for a real doctor, nor is Pastor Google a substitute (says the pastor on his blog).

The balance between quantity, flexibility and expertise has long been weighted towards quantity. The sacrifice has been quality expertise. Too many pastors boast about not reading any books since seminary, nor having the time to do continuing education.

The church for the future needs less of a chief do-er of ministry and more of an expert leader. Pastors need to re-balance. Lots of ministry can happen in 60 hours a week, but good ministry should only take 40. After that you are not likely helping your congregation in their ministry, nor providing the leadership and expertise that the church has been longing for, for some time now.

As congregations and the Church contends with a changing world, Christians need pastors who can help prioritize the mission of the gospel. A pastor cannot help people grow in relationship with Jesus if that pastor is too busy filling his or her days with un-prioritized busy work.

Ultimately, the proof will be in the pudding. Thriving, healthy, mission and Jesus minded congregations will be led and served by unbusy pastors. 


Are you a pastor who works more than 40 hours a week? Why? How much do you think pastors should work and why? Share in the comments, or on the Facebook Page: The Millennial Pastor or on Twitter: @ParkerErik

5 Reasons Why Underpaying Pastors is Poor Stewardship for Congregations

The topic of clergy pay is a touchy one at best. Churches, pastors, denominational bodies all have vested interests in how clergy are paid… but sometimes those interests aren’t always aligned.

Determining what is appropriate pay requires that a number of questions be answered: How is professional ministry measured when it comes to compensation? How do you compensate someone who is fulfilling a calling? How do congregations balance shrinking membership and budgets with the need to keep clergy pay increasing, if even with just the cost of living? How do denominational bodies recommend guidelines that congregations can meet and that adequately provide for clergy?

Lately, I have heard a number of troubling comments and stories from colleagues about clergy salaries. Money troubles, like in marriages, can often be the straw that breaks the camel’s back between a congregation and pastor, and result in separation.

Unfortunately, clergy often end being underpaid for a variety of reasons, which ultimately ends up hurting the congregation just as much as it hurts the pastor who is not being adequately compensated. Going by the stories and comments I have heard from friends and colleagues surrounding pay, there are reasons that I see as being problems that will haunt congregations when they choose to underpay their pastor.

Disclaimer: The congregations I have served have always paid me according to the guidelines provided by the Bishop’s office. In my view these are fair and adequate, for the most part. I am grateful to the churches I have served for not making my compensation a big issue. 

The reasons that are often given for keeping clergy underpaid, might sound reasonable on the surface, but dig deeper and they become truly problematic:

1. “Pastors work for God, not for the money.”

It is absolutely true that almost no pastor packs up to attend 4 or more years of seminary in order to hit the jackpot as a parish pastor. Other than the handful of mega church pastors and televangelists who are making millions, most pastors earn modest, if not meagre wages.

But it is a false notion to equate working for God meaning that clergy are fine with working for free. All the clergy I know genuinely want to serve God’s church and God’s people. And they want to serve knowing that they can pay their bills, put food on the table and perhaps enjoy a meal out or a holiday away from home once in a while without breaking the bank.

The work that clergy do is NOT supposed to what earns their salary. The compensation is supposed to allow clergy a comfortable living so that they can attend to their work without having to worry about earning their pay.

2. “Pastor, the denominational guidelines are too high. You can accept less.”

I have heard of congregations negotiating one salary with the Bishop and Pastor in the call process, and the asking a pastor to accept less once they have settled into their new charge.

I cannot express how offensive this is. Clergy salaries are designed to be fair to both pastor and congregation. Asking a pastor to take less is effectively declaring that a pastor is not valued by the congregation, which is basically a non-confidence vote in the ministry.

3. “Oh, pastor ‘so and so’ never asked for raise”

This particular practice of some of my clergy colleagues infuriates me. I have heard of a number of pastors not asking their congregations to keep up with clergy pay guidelines. If this were simply a matter of the effect on one’s own family, then I wouldn’t care so much.

However, not insisting that congregations keep up with guideline salary is bad for your successor, and even worse for the congregation itself.

A congregation told me a story of how one their pastors had accepted a pay freeze during a period of renovations. The agreement was that once the renovations were complete, the congregation would “catch the pastor up” to guideline pay. I was told this was so difficult for the congregation to catch up in the end, that they made a policy never to fall behind guideline minimums again.

When a pastor accepts less than the minimum guidelines set out by a denominational body, it means the congregation becomes accustomed to a lower salary burden. And what happens when that congregation needs to call another pastor? They have to, all of a sudden, come up with thousands of dollars in their budget in order to pay the minimum. And congregations are really good making large year by year increasings in giving, right?

Worse yet, a new pastor might be asked to take a pay cut or accept less than what is supposed to be the minimum. (see point 2).

4. “Pastors get a housing allowance which is like a bonus”

Housing allowances are very misunderstood things. They originated as a means to allow congregations to provide a house that clergy could live in, without paying taxes on the benefit. Another way of looking it at was that the small salary or stipend that clergy earned (sometimes paid in chickens and garden vegetables) would be further taxed if the parish provided housing was considered a taxable benefit.

Once clergy began purchasing their own homes, there needed to be a way to make tax system equitable, regardless of the housing option a parish could provide – a home or an allowance.

In Canada, housing allowances can only be for the fair market rental value of a house up to 1/3 of total compensation.

But really, housing allowances are not benefits to clergy. They are benefits to congregations because they allow congregations to pay clergy less. If housing was taxable, congregation would have to make up the difference in take home pay by raising wages.

So to those who object to clergy receiving this benefit, I would argue that tax free housing is small price to pay in exchange for the virtually free civil services that clergy (and therefore churches) provide to their communities by performing legal marriages, by providing free chaplaincy care to many health care institutions, and by providing inexpensive or free counselling services to the community among other things. Not to mention the fact that studies show that people of faith are also the most likely to volunteer in communities and to donate to non-religious charities.

5. “Pastors should be poor and we are paying them too much already”

Another argument that makes me mad. If pastors should be poor, then so should anyone else who calls themselves a Christian. Really this is about controlling a pastor, where s/he lives, what car s/he drives, what clothes s/he wears, all in an effort to make the pastor the symbol of modesty on behalf of the congregation.

Still, a pastor who cannot afford the necessities of life really isn’t going to be effective in ministry. This argument makes no sense when considering that in many denominations, pastors have graduate degrees and as much education as doctors and lawyers. Pastors are expected to have the skills to administrate like a CEO of a small non-profit, to provide care and counselling like a social worker or secular counsellor, to teach children, teens and adults like a professional teacher, to provide event planner level organization to things like weddings and funerals, to oversee staff like middle managers, and then to provide spiritual leadership, guidance, and formation to a faith community.

The reality is most pastors could earn two times, three times or four times as much in a similar professional field with a similar education. But instead most clergy have chosen to forego that kind compensation in order to serve God and God’s church, to serve the people of God.

Ultimately, finding reasons to underpay pastors is poor stewardship

Underpaying clergy stems from a stewardship ethos that asks one person to bear an unequal share of the burden of providing ministry. It is shortsighted as it puts a congregation into a position where it won’t be able to keep up with minimum required to pay for a pastor when it is time to call a new pastor. And this poor stewardship assumes that pastors aren’t already making a huge sacrifice in order to follow a calling by taking on the burdens of student loans, of reduced pay compared to secular work and by working all overtime for free, most major holidays for free and being ‘on call’ 24/7.

When congregations underpay their pastors, it isn’t about saving money or stretching declining resources. It is about the value that congregations place on pastoral ministry. It is about the value that congregations place on their own work and following God’s mission.

The reality is that finding a way to pay a pastor less is really the first step in choosing to kill a church. Because the things that pastors do need to be done by someone in order for congregational ministry to go on. And as congregations who have been forced to make do without a pastor can attest, it is not an ideal nor a viable long term option.

But perhaps most importantly, adequately paying a pastor recognizes that ministry costs time, resources and money. It recognizes that ministry is worth the time, resources and money that is costs us. It recognizes that God’s mission for us in the world is worth our time, our resources and our money.


Does your congregation adequately pay your pastor? Do you have horror stories of being underpaid? Share in the comments, or on the Facebook Page: The Millennial Pastor or on Twitter: @ParkerErik

On Being an iPhone Pastor for a Typewriter Church

The ‘Millennials and Church’ thing has been written about to death in recent years. Theories about what millennials want in church range from the newest, flashiest most technologically advanced thing to the oldest, most artisanal traditions. If you are sick of reading about how to get millennials back to church,  join the club. In fact, I wouldn’t blame you for not reading yet another blog post about the topic… but bear with me, I promise not to talk at all about what millennials want or how to get us back to church.

That being said, figuring out millennials is big business for Christianity these days… and finding the magic bullet to get us all back to church would make someone rich.  Lots of church consultants and ministry experts are making the speaking rounds telling the church all about millennials and the big “change” the world is experiencing.

And yet, as a millennial myself, I am rarely asked why I didn’t follow the rest of my exiting generation… and when I am asked why I am still around, it is usually after I have pointed out that I am rarely asked.

Being a millennial and an ordained Lutheran pastor has provided me some insight into the Church’s quest to regain millennials. Almost always the starting point for this conversation is, “how do we get the young people back?

Yet, it is almost never asked, “Why are young people leaving?”

Church people are convinced they know the answer to why people are leaving. The surface level answers have to do with sports on Sundays, shopping on Sundays, lack of commitment, not having prayers in the schools, boring traditional worship, not enough youth ministry, too many rules, too much organ, etc…

The experts have more sophisticated reasons like people being busy and carefully choosing how to spend their discretionary time.

Yet, none of these things seem to really name the reason that my contemporaries are not going to church. None of these reasons seem sufficient to explain my anecdotal experience.

Admittedly, I have never had parishioners my own age in the last 6 years of ministry. Yet there is one area where I have consistently done ministry with millennials.

Baptisms.

I have met with dozens of millennials who are bringing their babies to be baptized, but who don’t otherwise go to church. Since, I require that I meet with them for friendly conversations about baptism, I have the opportunity to ask about the role of faith in their lives.

And there are two things I have taken away from these experiences:

  •  Even though I fit the big teddybear-like white-guy-with-a-beard mould of the stereotypical pastor, I don’t fit the age mould. And I don’t talk about faith like they expect me to. And I tell them way more about baptism than their parents, grandparents or my predecessors have. Almost always, the millennials I meet with find it refreshing that I didn’t just expect them to magically know everything about church and that I encourage questions and skepticism.
  • While the first takeaway is troubling, the bigger takeaway when I meet with other millennials (even ones that are almost completely unchurched) is that I don’t have to make the cultural commute that I am constantly making with most of the people I serve.

What is a cultural commute you ask?

Well, it is the whole “iPhone pastor for a Typewriter church” thing.

It is the idea that in order to engage or interact with a certain community or group of people – or generation of people –  you need to speak in their cultural language.

An easy example is actual languages. Even though I am an English speaker, I took grade school in French. It was draining to operate in a second language all the time.

It is the same for immigrants and foreigners, even when they already speak English. You don’t just speak the same language, you learn  a whole system of symbols, images, colloquialisms, inside jokes, history, and baggage that go along with a group of people. And when you don’t get that culture, you feel constantly like you are on the outside.

I remember when I first got my iPhone and would pull it out to make appointments or send messages in front of parishioners. They would often look at me like I just beamed down from the starship Enterprise; these were people who remember riding to school in a horse and buggy.

But more than that, when I sit in most meetings or conversations with church people, the discussion ends up being full of cultural references that pass me by. TV shows, music, movies and historical references from the 50s, 60s, and 70s, of which I don’t understand the meaning, are regular parts of conversation. While at the same time, I have to park my cultural baggage. I can’t make Friends or Breaking Bad or Jay-Z or Mumford and Sons or Hipster or Twitter references because most people won’t get them.

But it isn’t just pop-culture symbols. It goes deeper than that.

It is the whole way church and faith were approached 50 years ago versus how things are approached today.

The most draining cultural commute that I experience as a millennial pastor is the difference between congregations who still expect that every good Canadian (or American) citizen would be a church goer versus my expectation that only people who are interested and for whom faith is very important would be a church goer.

It is a cultural commute that takes shape most clearly for me in this way:

When I go and talk to unchurched millennials about baptism, I often get asked about why faith and church is important to me. This is often is the most exciting part of the conversation.

Yet, when I ask churched boomer and older members about why faith and church is important to them, I get uncomfortable looks and uncertain answers.

Now don’t get me wrong.

I love the people I have served and do serve. And I don’t begrudge them this in anyway. If anything, this is a failure of church leadership to not help people think through why church is important to them.

I also think that it is an important part of ordained pastoral ministry to be constantly making cultural commutes to those whom you serve in order that they might hear the gospel (wasn’t the whole incarnation a cultural commute?).

But this cultural commute… this expectation that as a millennial I will always cross the bridge in the cultural gap and engage – work, speak and serve – in a world that is culturally different is not just because I am a pastor. Church people so often expect that anyone outside the dominant culture or generation – millennials, foreigners, seekers, new converts – will be the ones to make the commute. And often this expectation is unconscious.

It is okay for a millennial pastor to be the one crossing the bridge, making the cultural commute in order to be a part of a church community. But it doesn’t work for millennial church members.

And I think this is a big reason millennials aren’t in church. It just isn’t a world that most of us can even access.

I am about to go to the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Canada’s (ELCIC) National Convention next week. The 4 day event is filled with important agenda items. We will talk about how to do ministry in remote parts of country where pastors are unavailable, we will talk about right relationships with Canada’s indigenous peoples, we will talk about working for justice in the correctional system, we will pass resolutions on climate change and immigration issues. And we might event talk about “how to get the young people back.”

These are important issues, things we should talk about, things we should speak out about.

But we aren’t talking about why people are leaving church.

And we certainly aren’t talking about how to translate ourselves into a church for 2015 and beyond. Instead, we are talking about restructuring, and right-sizing… the corporate language of the 80s and 90s.

I suspect that this is where a lot of conversations in local churches, in districts and national offices are going. Churches are trying to catch up to the 80s… while my millennial contemporaries are leaving churches because the cultural commute to even access church is just too far a journey.

Being commuting pastors is something that many of my millennial colleagues and I just accept. I know that helping congregations and church bodies into the 21st century (hopefully before it ends) is just going to be my lot… no, not just our lot, but our calling…

Yet I wonder as I prepare for this national gathering of my church body and as Christians across North America struggle with young people walking away… I wonder when we are going to start looking to the millennials still here to help us become a church for all generations faithfully looking forward into the 21st century.

Until then, I will keep being an iPhone Pastor for a Typewriter church.


What cultural commutes are you making at church? How can we help the church into the 21st century? Share in the comments, or on the Facebook Page: The Millennial Pastor or on Twitter: @ParkerErik

PS Thanks to Nadia Bolz Weber for introducing me to the concept of  ‘cultural commute’.

6 Ways Churches do Ministry like We are Dying Anyways… (or how keeping everyone happy is killing us)

When I talk to colleagues and church members it doesn’t take long to hear stories of congregations and churches fighting over the details of ministry: the style of worship, the number of staff to hire, the colour of the carpet, the need to have a Sunday School (even in churches with few or no kids).

Most of the fighting is about opinion and preference rather than issues of substance. Churches are great at having disagreements over the details and turning the details into insurmountable differences. A good friend of mine (also a pastor) has often said, “Church politics are so vicious because the stakes are so low.”

Image source - http://donutchurch.com/tag/comfortable/
Image source – http://donutchurch.com/tag/comfortable/

Church leadership, church boards, staff and pastors wring their hands and tying themselves in knots trying to keep churches happy. I know pastors who run around 7 days a week working themselves to death trying to be everywhere, do everything and make sure everyone gets what they want from church. It is almost comical that so many of us consider this “ministry.”

As I was writing my sermon for last Sunday, it occurred to me that a ministry focused on making people comfortable and happy is doomed. In fact, it sounds eerily like palliative care.

The amount of palliative care ministry that many congregations are doing is incredible.

Now to be clear, true palliative care for those facing the end of life, particularly with illness is very important work – holy work even. However, when the regular ministry of the church starts to look like the holy work of making people comfortable as they face the end of life, we have a problem.

Here are some examples:

1. Trying to keep everyone happy.

Hospitals generally try to treat illnesses and make people better. Schools try to teach and form students. But the only institution that I can think of, whose chief goal is keeping people comfortable, is a hospice or palliative care institution. Churches and Pastors whose primary aim is keeping people happy are basically doing palliative care.

2. Focusing exclusively on people already here.

Churches have become really good at focusing on insiders. Churches worry about what their members will think about new initiatives or programs. They are concerned about losing even a single discontent member and are constantly searching for any hint of displeasure among the rank and file. Churches like this worry about new people showing up and upsetting the established, delicate balance. Palliative care is about focusing on those in the program, not about seeking new patients.

3. Avoiding conflict at all costs.

When there is only a limited amount of time left, why ruin it by fighting? Avoiding conflict is rooted in the hopes that problems will just go away if we ignore them. And the reality ism in palliative care most problems do just go away eventually – you know, that whole death thing. Death is a great problem solver. When churches simply brush conflict under the carpet, they are hoping it will just go away. And yet, the only way conflict goes away in churches is if all those involved die… and even then it can linger.

4. Being comfortable.

Comfort is a big concern for those in palliative care. It is also a big concern in churches. Many churches want members, visitors, seekers, basically anyone who enters to feel comfortable. They say things like, “people shouldn’t have to work to understand what is happening.” “It should feel like you are in the comfort of your own home.” “Church should be casual and welcoming – make people feel comfortable in their own skin.” Last time I checked, comfort was not really on high on Jesus’ priorities. I don’t recall him ever praising anyone saying, “Your faith has made you comfortable.”

5. Everything becomes about preference.

Churches worry a lot of about people liking things. We fight over getting our own way when it comes to worship, programs, facilities, planning. How we worship, the bibles we read, the food we eat, the chairs we sit in, the paint colour on the wall all becomes a matter of preference. Pastors and leadership can start to worry whether they have provided the right mix of preferences for members. We become like a nurse asking if a patient wants more pillows or blankets, chicken or beef for dinner.

6. We talk a lot about decline and dying.

Maybe the biggest resemblance to palliative care is when churches begin talking a lot about decline and dying. Now, I am not saying we should avoid identifying trends and history. But unlike someone with a terminal illness, it takes a certain amount of hubris (conscious or unconscious) to think we are finally the ones who will kill all our churches. But more importantly, churches are not terminal patients. Imagine someone who gets to a certain age, starts getting a few grey hairs or wrinkles, maybe has some aches and pains, and then starts talking all the time about dying imminently. It seems absurd. Because it is absurd. Yet this is what so many churches are doing whenever they meet to discuss and plan their future.

As I said before, true palliative care and palliative care institutions do important work. They provide care and dignity to people who are facing their last days. Please don’t take what I am saying to be a condemnation of that work, but rather a lens through which to see how we as pastors, leaders and church folk are approaching ministry.

When our ministry as churches and congregations takes on the character of palliative care, we have lost the plot. We become insular groups of people, looking after our own and worst of all, waiting to die (even if we don’t know it).

Comfortable-Georgian-Church-Interior-DecorBut the thing is, God doesn’t do palliative care. As far as I can remember, Jesus never helps people die in the gospels. God is about Life. New Life. Abundant life. Life where there should only be death. God doesn’t make us comfortable as we die. God makes us uncomfortable so that we can live.

And I would like to say that I don’t have answers for how to turn self-centred ministry to our dying selves into life-giving God-focused ministry…

But I do know.

We all know.

  • Stop talking about how we are dying all the time. Or at least recognize that our dying is only a part of God’s alive making.
  • Turn our focuses outward, stop worrying so much about people who are in the pews already and think about ministry to those who are not in the pews… yet.
  • Conversation. Dialogue. Talking. Communicating. We need to talk less about the things we like or don’t like about church (maybe forget talking about them at all), and begin talking about what ministry is happening. Talk about what God is doing in our lives and in our communities.
  • Do the hard work of living as a community, instead of dying. Living is uncomfortable, it is conflictual, it makes some unhappy at times, and requires us to live with uncertainty about what is coming next.

Ministry that looks like palliative care is killing us. Or least it us letting us as pastors, churches, and Christian hasten our journey towards communal, institutional death.

And worst/best thing is, we aren’t terminal.


Has ministry become like Palliative care in your context? Should we be focused on making people comfortable? Share in the comments, or one the Facebook Page: The Millennial Pastor or on Twitter: @ParkerErik

Confessions of a High Church Millennial

I have a confession to make. It will probably be surprising for many to hear from a millennial:

I am a high-church liturgy nerd.

For many of my 31 years in the church, I have been told that my generation is a group of moths attracted to the glitz and glamour of projections screens showing videos in church, electric guitars and drum kits playing the music we can hear on Christian radio and cool, hip preachers who speak “authentically.” And sure, I have been to my fair share of churches, campfires, and youth services that cater to the “youth.” I have even enjoyed them greatly!

Somewhere along the way, this has led to the assumption by everyone (and no one) that my generation’s desire is only for the new. And this desire is often held up along side our narcissistic tendencies to take selfies, post our dinner plans on twitter, and live in our parent’s basements.

It just so happens that these same lazy narcissistic millennials are currently the concern of so many church members. Churches spend a lot of energy worrying about what interests us and wondering why we don’t come to church (anymore).

I know millennials are not the first generation to be the object of the church’s and society’s attention. When I was a little, churches were trying to be contemporary then too… trying to attract boomers and their young families with 70s folk music. As a child of the 80s, my church had more than a few 30-40 something guys standing behind lecterns with guitars, singing special music that sounded like an Eagle’s song with Christian lyrics.

And then Generation X got its 15 minutes of attention…During my tween and teen years, the Gen-Xers were doing Friday night youth services once a month with songs from artists like Brian Doerksen, Petra, Amy Grant, and Third Day. The Gen-Xers, we were told, would come for this. As a teen watching this unfold, I hadn’t quite processed what it meant for the church to be so concerned with making sure 20 somethings stayed in church. I didn’t understand why Friday night youth services, token 20 somethings on church council and money for expensive sound systems and projectors was going to keep the young adults, just a little older than me, in church.

Yet, despite all the catering to what the young people supposedly want, what I do remember from church of my childhood is liturgy.

image source - http://ultraspike.blogspot.ca
image source – http://ultraspike.blogspot.ca

When we were all together as a community, when we gave up as much as we could trying to cater to what will attract the youth, or appease the seniors, or keep the young families interested, or make the boomers happy, we did simple Lutheran liturgy. 

Now don’t get me wrong, it was low-churchly Lutheran liturgy.  Which is to say our worship felt a bit like eating vegetables; it was good for us, but no one really liked it. Or at least we acted like we didn’t like it.

Our worship was billed as being everything from “Bach to Rock,” but the liturgy was more of a timeless aspect of our worship. As a kid and then teen, I could feel the prayers, the liturgical songs, the actions of standing, sitting, praying, responding, receiving were starting to ingrain themselves in my very body. I remember myself starting to set the hymnbook down more and more. I would simply pray or sing or respond. The phrases like “And also with you” or “Thanks be to God” or “Amen” started to come naturally and unbidden.

Interestingly, our low church Lutheran liturgy, that felt like eating vegetables, connected our whole congregation much more deeply than any of the things that we did to attract different generations. Weirdly, we all liked it. We all shared in it. In fact, we came to the same worship service because of it. Liturgy doesn’t distinguish between generations. It’s kind of like how I don’t play Xbox with my grandma, and she doesn’t knit with me. But we both know how to sit down and share a family meal.

Liturgy ties us together, rather than emphasizing our personal or generational experiences. Liturgy is timeless and when we can get past whether we like the tunes or instruments playing them or not, we can realize that these things we do, and repeat together, are biblical, rooted in the ancient Church and are about God. In fact, liturgy at its best makes us forget it is liturgy and instead helps us see God in out midst.

In a recent blog post, Rachel Held Evans, who is an Evangelical trying out Episcopalian worship, writes:

I am folding laundry, its starched, orderly scent a sort of incense, as the hymn rises to my lips. 

“Glory to God in the highest, and peace to his people on earth. Lord God, heavenly King, almighty God and Father, we worship you, we give you thanks, we praise you for your glory…”

I can’t remember the rest of the words exactly, and the tune meanders a bit, so I improvise, prompting Dan to shout from the other room, “Hon?  You okay? You crying about something?” which happens just about every time I burst into spontaneous song because, apparently, my version of a joyful noise remains indistinguishable from a sob.

Still, I sing on.

“….For you alone are the Holy One, you alone are the Lord, you alone are da da da da la la la la.” 

It is a season of new songs.

(Read the rest here…)

Like me, she is a millennial and a Christian (if you haven’t discovered her blog, you are probably living under a rock). If the two of us were to sit down for coffee, I would tell her that this will only get worse (or better). Way worse.

When you become a liturgy person, all those familiar texts like the Gloria (which is what Rachel was singing) start to come to your mind like the baseball stats that so many dads seem to know – they come automatically. Worship starts to take on a rhythm and pattern that you can’t escape. You will eventually find that worship is something where you always know what is going to happen next, or that your body knows what to do next. The things that change start to rise to the surface and catch your attention. After the familiar Kyrie and Gloria, which are the same week after week, the collect and scripture readings, which change each week, stand out. Liturgy helps you to identify the new and changing things of worship, by keeping you grounded with the constants.

And still, it gets worse. When you are a liturgy person, you can show up for Anglican, Episcopalian, Roman Catholic or Lutheran worship and generally know what is going on. You might even find yourself singing songs you have never sung before because you already know the words.

In my development as a liturgy person, my low-church, eating-our-vegetables, experience of liturgy as a child and teen morphed and grew into something more as I went to university and then to seminary. As I learned more and more about the meaning and history of the symbols, I fell in love with the richness of it all. I became high-church. I became a liturgy nerd.

And I am going to make a bold claim because of this.

Liturgy can engage the young people.

I am not saying that non-liturgical worship is wrong, or won’t “attract” millennials. In fact, I know many of my generational cohort who have abandoned liturgy for praise bands. But like Rachel Held Evans shows, some are coming the other way. Contemporary worship is not something I am looking to critique, but rather I am suggesting that all those criticisms of liturgical worship is simply unfounded.

I am a millennial and I am drawn to tradition, to wrote prayers, to words passed on to me from generations before. The symbols and ritual actions point to God in ways that nothing else has in my experience, not sunsets or Christian radio, not preachers with graphic T-shirts and 45 minute sermons. I don’t think I am alone. I am not saying that every millennial wants what I want. Liturgy is what it is, it doesn’t really sell itself. And I think many of my generation are not interested in being sold faith.

So to my liturgically minded brothers and sisters in faith: Let’s stop worrying about being something we are not. Let’s not try to be contemporary like the Baptists down the street while still somehow still being us. And for heaven’s sake, lets not do liturgy like it is eating vegetables. Let’s see liturgy as the beautiful meal of diversity and rich flavours that it can be.

We will never be the mega-church contemporary worship that we think all the millennials have left for. And the narrative that we need to be that to “attract” the young people only shows them that we have an identity crisis, and that what we are, is not worthy of our youth. I am sure many millennials find that off-putting… I do, and I am a pastor in a denomination with an identity crisis.

Instead, let’s be what we are. Let’s use the tools that we know how to use. Let’s preach the Gospel and point to God at work in our world with the liturgy we have been given.

And remember, as surprising as it may be to hear that one millennial is a high church liturgy nerd… it might be even more surprising that there are a lot more out there.


Are you a liturgy nerd? Do you think liturgy can engage millennials? Share in the comments, on the Facebook Page: The Millennial Pastor or on Twitter: @ParkerErik

As usual, thanks to my wife, Courtenay for her edits and insight. Follow her at @ReedmanParker on Twitter.

PS

If you like what you read on The Millennial Pastor, you can vote for this blog on Christian Piatt’s list of top 25 Christian Blogs of 2014. You might have to scroll down the list a bit, but as of this post, I am in the top 50.