Local pastors fill big gap for UMC

By Michael A. Riegler, Special Contributor…

The September 7 Reporter included a fine article by the Rev. Jay Vorhees.  If present trends continue, the article reported, the United Methodist Church will no longer have adequate numbers of ordained elders to serve all of our churches by the year 2032.  Simply put, we are retiring elders faster than we are ordaining new ones.  Mr. Vorhees also reports that the UMC’s  General Board of Higher Education and Ministry held a summit meeting this past August  to address our need to be intentional about identifying, helping, encouraging and recruiting young people to choose a path of college, seminary and ordination, to increase the supply of new ordained elders.  I enthusiastically agree … as far as it goes.

Mike Reigler

As a licensed local pastor (recently turned associate member) and as the chair of the John Wesley Association of Local Pastors and Associate Members in the West Michigan Conference, I notice a lack of consideration for the role of the local pastor.  Firstly, we are not about to have too few ordained elders to serve all the churches.  Rather, we are already in that position and have been for some time.  Nearly one-third of United Methodist pastors are already local pastors.  We have more than 100 in the West Michigan Conference alone.  The gap between new elders coming in and retiring elders going out has been, and will continue to be, filled by the local pastors.  Additionally, we must recognize that this trend is accelerating.

Called to serve

Some may contemplate this with despair.  I do not.  The local pastor track offers the United  Methodist Church access to a tremendous pool of talented, experienced and highly motivated Christian disciples, called by God to serve God’s Church.  Many have been active in the church and successful in other fields for many years.  Many have “paid their dues” through years of lay leadership and lives of discipleship, as well as through acquiring professional experience and higher education.

We already have adequate history to prove to us that this works.  Local pastors are successful in our churches.  Every one of them?  Of course not.  However, check the records.  Churches served by local pastors are doing well.  Ask around.  Talk to people from churches that have local pastors.  As with elders, the reports will be mixed, but many will be surprised at the positive reports.

Fruitful source

We are already aware that education level is a poor predictor of performance as a pastor.  Yet we make seminary education the key differential component of our clergy ordination process—not call, not ability, not devotion, not results, not even knowledge.  Does that make sense?

And, by the way, local pastors receive a significant education. In the Licensing School and Course of Study required of all local pastors, I read 96 books and wrote 760 pages of papers on those books.  I spent approximately 1,750 hours doing that.  I attended 480 hours in 24 classes, taught by 13 different seminary professors and nine different district superintendents or elders.

Is this the same as a master of divinity degree?  No.  But neither is it an insignificant theological education.

I am all for creating as many seminarians and ordained elders as we are able.  But we must also avoid the trap of thinking that we must keep doing what we have always done, because we have always done it.  Perhaps most especially, the ordained elders within the power structure of our denomination must avoid the temptation to believe that “it must be done this way, because it is the way I did it.”

If our leadership can stop looking at the local pastor track as an unfortunate but necessary way to fill empty pulpits, and start seeing it as a positive, rich, fruitful source of talented and capable clergy—a way to infuse the UMC with faith, fervor, devotion, talent, vitality and enthusiasm to “get out there” and serve God’s kingdom—then we can confidently move into the future with plenty of vital pastors to serve plenty of vital churches.

Endgraf:  Mr. Riegler is pastor of Faith UMC in Edmore, Mich.

Special Contributor to UMR

Special Contributor

This story was written by a special contributor to The United Methodist Reporter. You may send your article submissions to

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Interestingly, as Roger Finke and Rodney Stark report in The Churching of America 1776-2005: The Winners and Losers in Our Religious Economy, the Methodist Church began to decline in market share (percent of population that were Methodist Church members), precisely when it began professionalizing the ministry through college and seminary studies and began growing the denominational bureaucracy. This decline in preaching and leadership by lay people coincided with the beginning of the decline in market share. See for example http://www.layman.org/BookReviews.aspx?article=26…. If there is a causal relationship, an increase in the number of lay local pastors may be just what we… Read more »


John's comments are accurate regarding the history of the (United) Methodist Church and the timing of a beginning of decline. There are, of course, other factors at play in addition to the "professionalization" of the ministry, but it is worth research and consideration. Also, I would like to correct a possible point of misunderstanding. Licensed Local Pastors are not 'lay" pastors. When appointed by a bishop they serve as clergy until the time that they are no longer appointed, at which point they become lay persons once again. For clarity on the matter, one may refer to paragraph #141 in… Read more »

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