On any given Sunday there may be as many as 350 churches in Tennessee without a pastor, said Roger “Sing” Oldham, pastor engagement specialist for the Tennessee Baptist Mission Board.
“The number changes weekly as churches are constantly working to fill those vacant pulpits,” he said.
“Many of these churches are served by interims who preach and provide needed pastoral care while the church seeks its next leader,” he added.
‘Especially for smaller churches’
Jim Twilbeck, director of missions for Western District Baptist Association, based in Paris, recently observed that “finding ministers is sometimes difficult, especially for smaller churches. The pastor pipeline is dwindling.”
Oldham noted, “Many churches in our state are at a crossroads.” During the first two years of the COVID-19 pandemic (2020–2021), Oldham conducted hundreds of phone calls with pastors and interviewed all 63 associational mission strategists (DOMs) across the state and discovered two recurring themes.
First, pastors in their 70s and 80s continue to serve many churches that cannot provide a full-time salary and have difficulty finding young men with families to move to smaller communities.
Second, laymen who already live in those communities are not responding to God’s call to ministry the way they have in times past.
“In the mid-20th century, it was common for deacons, Sunday School teachers and other lay leaders in construction, business, manufacturing, agriculture and other professions to respond to God’s call to preach, teach and lead,” Oldham recalled. “When they did, their pastors mentored them in ministry.”
Those men, in turn, “were called to serve their home church or neighboring churches as pastors. They led their congregations to thrive and provided stellar leadership in churches in every size community across the state.
“We need a resurgence of pastors calling out the called and training them for effective ministry,” Oldham said.
‘Calling out the called’
Roger Britton, bivocational ministry specialist for the TBMB, said the thought of 350 churches (nearly a tenth of the churches in Tennessee) without a pastor “brings tears to my eyes. My heart breaks for churches in Tennessee that are seeking a pastor that have not had a pastor in several years.”
He agreed with Oldham that there is a need for “calling out the called” and training them to be ministers. “We are not keeping up with the demand of passing the torch to a younger pastor to lead a congregation.”
Britton observed that older, historical churches “are in danger of closing doors and vanishing right before our eyes. I have seen with my own eyes churches with “For Sale” signs on the premises because the congregation has diminished and no pastor could be found to lead the church.”
He noted that “this may be the time God is calling bivocational pastors to give up that secular job and pastor more than one congregation.
“I don’t have the answer to this great issue, but I do know God is calling us to preach His faithful Word and to not give up.”