GALEN HOLLEY: Churches pulled between poles of mission and recession

By Galen Holley/NEMS Daily Journal

The question that is being asked in board rooms nationwide is also being asked in meetings of parish councils, vestries and deacon boards: How can we do more with less?
Jim Futral of the Mississippi Baptist Convention Board said his denomination doesn’t have hard numbers on exactly how much the recession is shrinking the number of paid ministers in the state, but he conceded that it “is a reality,” and that churches are searching for creative ways to get by.
There are some 2,000 Southern Baptist churches in Mississippi, and anywhere from 300 to 500 of those are currently without a senior pastor. As in many denominations, the pastor-church relationship isn’t always a one-to-one ratio. Some pastors serve more than one church, and some are bi-vocational. Southern Baptists operate from a congregational model, and each church may call a pastor with any level of education or previous experience it deems fit. That sense of individuality among churches is one of the characteristics Futral cited as providing some creative options for Southern Baptist churches to work through the recession.
Like many churches, Southern Baptists are being pulled in two directions. On one hand, the denomination places a high premium on missions, always looking to reach out both domestically and internationally. On the other hand, missions, like most things, cost money, and people just don’t have as much money to give as they did before the recession began.
The Great Commission is a constant challenge to Christians to take the gospel to the ends of the earth, but right now, in the state with the lowest per capita income, discretion is certainly the better part of valor.
As Futral put it, there isn’t an official hiring freeze among Southern Baptist churches in Mississippi, but the posture is “let’s wait and see.” He’s excited about missions, but he said he isn’t going to lead the convention into any expansion while some churches can’t afford to replace outgoing ministers.
Bishop Hope Morgan Ward sounded similar notes of optimism and prudence about the United Methodist Church, the state’s largest mainline Protestant denomination. There are 1,142 Methodist churches in Mississippi, and in recent years Morgan Ward has overseen a kind of ongoing re-evaluation of how best to utilize the resources of each. In some cases that’s meant consolidation or reorganization, and this year, she said, eight churches reduced associate positions due to reconfiguration.
Most of the United Methodist churches in Mississippi are small, many with 50 members or less. In the smaller, country churches pastors often serve two or three-point charges.
The key word in understanding what I call the Methodist outlook is “connectional,” and that gives some insight into how the denomination is dealing with the recession. The United Methodist Church is like a nexus of interconnected communities that rely on each other for mutual support.
They share the Baptists’ passion for mission as well. Morgan Ward pointed out that, in 2010, three of every four Christians in the world are of African, Asian or Latin American descent. “Those we once evangelized now have a fresh energy to share with us,” she said.
“In 2010, the U.S. may just be the biggest mission field of all.”

Contact Daily Journal religion editor Galen Holley at 678-1510 or galen.holley@djournal.com