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From Generalists to Specialists
By: Lyle E. Schaller

What is the most significant change in the staffing of Protestant congregations in America since the 1950s?

When they compile their annual statistical reports on membership, baptisms, average worship attendance, and new members received, why are several denominations in American Protestantism reporting a gradual decrease in those categories since the 1970s, despite the fact that the population of the United States increased by 50 percent between 1969 and 2008?

Why did an average worship attendance of 1,500 or more qualify a Protestant congregation to be listed among the megachurches in the 1960s, but that bar has now been raised to 2,000?

Back in the 1960s, it was rare to find a woman serving as one of the three or four most valuable players on the paid staff of a Protestant congregation in America, but today it is commonplace. What produced that change? The women’s liberation movement? Or other trends?

Why are lay persons now filling staff positions in larger Protestant congregations that formerly were always held by an ordained minister?

Why is graduation from an accredited theology seminary no longer a guaranteed road to a long career in the professional ministry?

An increasingly common sequence in a growing number of Protestant congregations in America often includes these five memorable stages of transition: (1) after two or three decades, the pastor who has led this congregation from an average worship attendance of approximately 150 to a plateau in the 700 to 850 range retires, (2) that ministry included the successful relocation of the meeting place to a larger site with new physical facilities at a far better location, (3) a national search was conducted and the No. 1 candidate formally accepted the invitation to be the successor, (4) after reaching agreement on all of the variables in that relationship, the candidate adds one more to the list: "Within 30 days of my arrival, I must have an undated, but signed letter of resignation from every person on the payroll. Within three months of my arrival, I will either place a date of termination on each letter or reject that offer to resign,” (5) This process often is defended as "the only road to our building a team of compatible staff specialists unified by a common goal."

The Larger Context
The generalists are being replaced by specialists! This trend has high visibility in the practice of medicine, the practice of education (the number of one-teacher public schools in America plunged from 200,100 in 1916 to 474 in 1996), the practice of law, the practice of agriculture, the practice of charitable giving and philanthropy, the practice of government, and the practice of parish ministry.

From a more narrowly focused perspective, the motivation to redefine the staff configuration can be summarized in four sentences articulated by that new senior minister. "I know what my highest skills and competencies are. I know what I do not want to do. I know what I should delegate to others. Therefore, my first priority in building a new staff team is to find people who excel at what I do not do well or do not want to do."

In the large multiple staff congregations of the 1980s, where the senior minister served with two or three generalists on the paid staff, it was reasonable to expect the successor to that senior minister could and should inherit that staff of generalists. Today, the appropriate decision may be to replace a group of generalists with a team of specialists or to replace the inherited specialists with a new team of specialists.

A more sophisticated approach begins with the call to design a comprehensive and customized ministry plan for that congregation. In the ideal world, that is completed and adopted before beginning that search for a new senior minister. Concerns such as schedules, real estate, staffing, governance, and finances should be seen as means-to-an-end issues required to implement that customized ministry plan. "Staffing our ministry plan" becomes the key reference point in both designing the staff configuration and selecting the staff required to implement that plan.

Where Does the Axe Fall?
One way to describe the impact of this shift from generalists to specialists is the position often called associate minister. Traditionally, that position was filled by a generalist, often a recent seminary graduate, or by a minister who had been serving as a generalist in the role of the pastor of a smaller congregation with only one ordained person on the payroll.

Instead of building on the distinctive gifts, experience, and skills of that individual, the associate minister was expected to make hospital calls, preach when the senior minister was out of town or ill, perhaps staff the youth ministry, officiate, when asked, at funerals and weddings, in addition to a half dozen other assignments.

While tradition has slowed the pace of change, the demand for specialized competence has been making that 1975 definition of the role of the associate minister as a generalist obsolete in the 21st century.

What Has the 21st Century Brought?
A useful example of how the demand for specialists has redefined the role of the associate minister is illustrated by one impact of this trend. Hope Church was founded in 1922 and relocated their meeting place in 1988. During the 15 years following relocation, the average weekly worship attendance quadrupled from 136 in 1987 to 535 in 2003, while the confirmed membership grew from 180 to 1235.

The diagnosis was, "We excel at attracting new members, but we are far less effective in assimilating newcomers." The response was to reverse the tentative decision to add a second associate minister to the staff and seek a specialist in the assimilation of newcomers.

When her husband’s job required the family to move nearly 700 miles back in 1982, the 32-year-old Sarah Brewster, career homemaker and mother of two children ages 9 and 11, continued her role as homemaker. They joined Hope Church. Seven years later, Hope Church created a part-time position for someone to specialize in the assimilation of newcomers. Sarah applied and was hired. During the next three years, Sarah spent three days at each of two very large congregations with a full-time specialist in assimilation on the staff and attended two different three-day workshops on this specialized ministry. By 2002, Sarah had acquired the self-confidence, experience, insights, wisdom, and skills that, with the strong encouragement of her pastor, she offered the first of what would become twice-a-year workshops on the assimilation of newcomers.

Her basic theme was, "The one system that will be effective in assimilating newcomers into any congregation has yet to be invented. During these three days, we will look at seven different systems, but most of our time will be devoted to the five I have found to be most effective. The format of this workshop is designed to encourage every participant to raise questions about how to adapt one or more to their back home situation."

A second example of this shift from generalists to specialists traces back to the mid-1980s, when more weight began to be given to the changed culture for parish ministry. The big "discovery" was that peer pressures were beginning to erode the influence of parents on children growing into the teenage years of life. This appeared to be a more pronounced change with teenage girls than with boys of the same age.

One traditional response was to add a person to the payroll to staff the youth ministries. Frequently this assignment was given to a recent ex-teenager identified as "Our Associate Minister." If that person protested, "But I have never had any training for that role, and I have no interest in that ministry," the response was, "You’re the right age, so take it if you want to be our associate minister. That comes with the territory."

Concurrently, the 1980s also brought the decision to "replace the silos with teams" in staffing larger congregations. That decade also brought a new and stronger affirmation of the relevance and value of personal experiences. One expression of that was summarized in the observation by a pastor born in 1948 who commented, "I volunteered to take four youth ministers from our District to a one-day event and I was able to attend all of the sessions. There were over a hundred youth staffers there and not a one had ever been a mother. As a mother, and more recently as a grandmother, I am convinced there are some lessons in life that can be learned only by spending at least 15 years as a mother."

A third facet of this reflection is today Americans place a far higher value on the gifts, skills, attitudes, and experiences that add up to competence in interpersonal relationships. In the contemporary American marketplace, this is summarized as "Customer Service." As a group, women excel when compared to men in terms of competence in interpersonal relationships.

Add these and other variables to the discussion, and an increasingly common consequence has been a redefinition of the need. That new definition begins with a broader focus and a recognition that no one person can bring the perspective, experiences, values, gifts, skills, and wisdom required for this assignment.

One contemporary strategy calls for resourcing a package of ministries with families that include teenagers. Frequently, special weight is given to resourcing ministries with single-parent mothers with a teenage son. Instead of giving that assignment to the associate minister, a team is assembled, consisting of one or two paid staff members, often part-time, plus three to five volunteers. That team may include a father who is an excellent role model of an adult Christian, at least two mothers, a recent young and never-married ex-teenager, plus two or three adults who are highly competent listeners. The goal is to create a team of adults, each one of whom brings a specialized competence to their ministry.

The 1925-75 era marked the peak of a wave in American Protestantism when a high value was placed on the need for educated clergy who could serve as generalists in the parish ministry.

The past three or four decades have brought an affirmation of the need for specialists. This is one of the foundation stones for the current revival of interest in the potential contributions of an expanded role for the ministry of the laity.

Lyle E. Schaller is a retired parish pastor and consultant.
Copyright 2010 by Lyle E. Schaller

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