The Plight of the Unattached Pastor

September 10, 2011

For one group of Presbyterians, the waters are not churning white-water but the going-nowhere stillness of the doldrums. Or, to use another analogy, this group is stuck in the gridlock of a traffic jam, either unable to move from one place to another or thwarted from getting into the flow of traffic at all. I am speaking of “unattached pastors,” those ordained teaching elders (Ministers of Word and Sacrament) who, for one reason or another, cannot find or take a call in a local congregation.

As the PCUSA reorganizes itself, along the lines proposed by the Fellowship of Presbyterians, the focus of attention (rightly) has been on congregations and their options. But unattached pastors are experiencing their own kind of anxiety, because there is no clear Way Forward for them. How does an unattached minister transfer to a new denomination, for instance?

Several years ago, I wrote a lament for a class assignment. It was written at a time of great pain and discouragement over the dead ends I was experiencing in finding a new call:

Song 1
A lament before closed doors

O Lord, where have you been?
            You have been silent—are you sleeping? 
            How long a nap do you need?
You have hidden your face—are you ashamed of your servant?
Your promises to me are unfulfilled—are you angry?
O Lord, whose word called the earth into being,
            Speak into my soul; let me hear your voice again.
Open a door for me; Show me your path,
            For my boots are on and I am ready to walk forward.
Are you the God who leads the blind into a brick wall?
            Do you take a baby in your arms, only to drop her at the gates?
Surely you have given a ministry to all who follow you,
            Will you let the scoffers laugh at my dead-end?
I heard again your voice saying, “I will lift you up at the right time.”
I remembered that your ways are not my ways.
Therefore, I trust that you have given me days and designed my years.
For your glory I put my life in your hands, and trust in your wisdom.

I will wait upon the Lord with patience,
            and light a candle of hope.
I will look back on my disappointment with joyful laughter,
            And say, “The Lord knew what he was doing
            When he led me to the door he himself opened.”

The pain and the discouragement that accompanied this lament are now gone, but the prospects of a new call for a person like me remains the same. And yet, I, like other unattached evangelical pastors in their ministry prime, might actually have a great opportunity in the current climate. Think about it; such pastors are

• completely free to act according to personal conscience. They do not have to coordinate their response to the current situation with the members of a congregation, who themselves may be ambivalent or as a body not of one mind.

• They have nothing to lose, which means there is nothing to fear in making choices.

• They can be completely open to the New Thing and think outside the box…why not? since thinking within the box has not been fruitful.

• Most especially, they have the joy and freedom to be missional: that is, they can engage incarnationally in local ministry and experiment with ministry ways and means that are untraditional.

I believe that there is a wellspring of ministry resources out there in the form of unattached pastors, who may, because of their availability, offer a real service to the burgeoning Fellowship of Presbyterians. The challenge for them is to organize themselves in such a fashion as to be accountable, encouraged, and supported. At the very least, their existence should be taken into consideration as plans are drawn for the New Reformed Body. We may be an answer to prayer for each other.

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4 Responses to “The Plight of the Unattached Pastor”


  1. Thanks for lifting this group of faithful folk to my attention!

  2. William L. Goff Says:

    Rather than thinking outside the box, I like to cogitate outside the cubicle. – Bill Goff

  3. Renee Guth Says:

    There are lay leaders who feel the same way. For myself, I am waiting for my local congregation to recognize our increasing age and know that we have to do things differently. In the mean time, we find other people who are waiting for the same thing, build community, and serve God.

    In terms of “I will lift you up at the right time,” it may be when we are called home.

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