Walking into the Vineyard

By Galen Holley/NEMS Daily Journal

Unlike many college graduates this year, Chris McAlilly of Tupelo, hasn’t lost much sleep worrying if he’ll find a job. He’s always been sure that God would provide a place for him to serve.
“I never really thought of it in terms of the job market,” said McAlilly, 27, who just graduated with a Master of Divinity degree from the Candler School of Theology at Emory University.
Next month McAlilly, a Tupelo High graduate, will be commissioned as a provisional member of the Mississippi Conference of the United Methodist Church. He’ll take over as pastor of a two-point charge in Brewer and Shannon.
McAlilly is feeling confident, but humble. He’s been well prepared by his education and by plenty of advice from his father, Bill McAlilly, who’s also a Methodist minister.
“I’m honored to be called, and I know I have a lot to learn,” said McAlilly.
The young graduate’s faith has helped him stay grounded in a climate of some uncertainty within the field of ministry.
Most denominations encourage their ministers to do some graduate work, and in late 2009 experts projected that hiring of graduates with master’s degrees would plummet by 11 percent. Time will tell if that number is accurate, but in the meantime, McAlilly and others who plan to serve in the proverbial vineyard of the Lord are finding a niche in a pastoral landscape that is adapting to the times.
For the first time in years some denominations are reporting a surplus in the number of clergy available to fill vacant positions. The Presbyterian Church USA, for example, reports that nationwide there are 532 positions available and more than 2,000 ministers seeking to fill them.
Most of the reason for this reported surplus is rooted in the economy. Some older clergy have seen their retirement evaporate and are staying on longer. In churches across the country cash-strapped parishioners are giving less, resulting in staff cuts.
The Rev. Jim Futral, executive director of the Mississippi Baptist Convention Board, said churches are dealing with this “atrophy” in different ways.
“When churches lose someone they tend to spread out those responsibilities, which might mean finding different, alternative ways of filling that need,” said Futrall.
A church that loses its youth or music minister might, for example, find a volunteer to fill the position. Bishop Hope Morgan Ward said the same is true among churches within the Mississippi Conference of the United Methodist Church.
“(Some) associate positions are going away, and churches are seeking leadership, both volunteer and salaried, from within the laity,” said Morgan Ward. “This is a good thing in many ways.”
That volunteerism has given a leg up to many graduates entering the ministry, particularly those planning to serve in the associate positions to which Morgan Ward referred.
Mantachie native Elise Pearce interned in music ministry at West Jackson Street Baptist Church in Tupelo last summer, and she feels her experience helped her land a job as a new graduate.
Pearce, 21, just became the first female graduate with a degree in church music from Blue Mountain College. In July she hopes to take a full-time position as a minister of music at a Southern Baptist church in Webster County.
At one point, several months ago, she entertained doubts about finding a job. As Pearce put it, she “drank the Kool-Aid,” but she never doubted her calling.
“There are plenty of women in biblical studies right now who plan to serve in areas like children’s ministry and youth ministry,” she said. “But, when God calls you to ministry, he’s not going to leave you hanging.”

New horizons
As Morgan Ward put it, most all denominations are experiencing a “graying,” and an infusion of young blood is always a welcome thing. Placing new graduates, she said, will continue to be a high priority in the Mississippi Conference, which has the highest percentage of young clergy, defined as age 35 and younger, of any conference worldwide.
Tupelo native Brad Corban fits that bill. He wouldn’t go into details, but the 26-year-old didn’t like the way the California-Nevada Annual Conference was addressing the challenges of the economy, so he decided to return to his home state to serve.
Corban just graduated with a Master of Divinity degree and a Master of Arts degree from the Pacific School of Religion in Berkeley. Next month he’ll take over a charge in Star, Miss., near Jackson.
The Tupelo High graduate felt some anxiety about finding a place to serve, but he never forgot the fact that the Mississippi Conference once gave him a scholarship, and, as he put it, “made an investment in him,” so coming home should pay dividends both for him and the conference.
Corban is also confident that, based on the example of Methodism’s founder, John Wesley, the church is capable of adapting, and of ministering effectively to those suffering from the recession.
“We can’t be stuck just on survival mode,” said Corban. “I’m not interested in saving the church. I’m interested in helping to create a transformative experience and space, one that’s engaging and relevant for people in the real world.”

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