by Lisa McIntosh

The pulpit is empty come Sunday morning. The manse is unoccupied. (I write figuratively, of course, as pulpits are used far less these days for preaching and some pastors do not live in manse accommodation).

Like dozens of others around the LCANZ, this congregation is without a pastor.

And the pastoral ’vacancy’ rate across our churches, schools and aged-care communities is climbing, with a larger cohort of pastors reaching retirement age together than ever before and fewer people studying for ordained ministry.

Along with falling memberships and decreasing attendance at worship in many parishes, some commentators would suggest our church worker shortage is another symptom of a dying church.

But is that it for our Lutheran family and some other Christian denominations across Australia and New Zealand?

Or is God calling us to open our hearts to see how he ‘is doing a new thing’ (Isaiah 43:19)? Is he hoping we’ll seek his guidance and trust in his provision, as we work for his kingdom with whatever support and skills he gives in each place and for each season?

Could he be coaxing us to lay down our fears, turn our focus outwards and get on with being gospel-sharers among our faith communities and, crucially, in the world around us?

No matter where we are, how small our worship community may be, or how dispirited we may feel about not being able to ‘attract’ or finance a pastor, we are not alone. As the South Australia – Northern Territory District’s Assistant Bishop for Mission, Pastor Stephen Schultz, says, congregations in vacancy may be without a pastor, but they are never without a shepherd.

‘One thing I usually do at pre-call meetings is to ask people how many vacancies there are in the LCANZ currently’, he says. ‘Once they have a stab at guessing, I tell them there are zero vacancies in the LCANZ – at which point they look at me as though I have lost my mind!

‘I then tell them that Jesus is the head of the church, of every congregation, and that he hasn’t retired or accepted a call elsewhere. They may have a pastoral vacancy, but the chief shepherd/pastor of the church is still very much in office and at work among them.’ Capitalising on Jesus’ ever-present and ongoing work among all our faith families, the LCANZ, its districts, parishes and congregations are endeavouring to meet worship and ministry needs in a wider range of ways than before.

As well as increasing support for lay readers and ministry coordinators, these include having more approved lay people licensed for word and sacrament ministry; identifying members to become Specific Ministry Pastors in their local context; and considering shared church worker, administration and lay leadership support and ministries across regions. These benefits can also come within multi-site churches whose locations may be geographically distant but which have common values and mission goals. An example of this is LifeWay Lutheran Church in New South Wales.

Even with these and other ‘strategies’, our pastoral shortage will remain. But perhaps through it, we can pray that God will show us how we can all minister to and care for others.

Already a subscriber? Click here to login and read this article.
Not a subscriber? Click here to receive stories & upcoming issues in full