As mainline congregations’ membership has aged and declined, a shift in leadership is occurring that is troubling. Writing in “The Christian Century, Barbara Wheeler of Auburn Seminary documents the growing number of part-time pastors with very limited formal education who serve mainline congregations in distressed areas.  In my experience, these pastors are dedicated to the care of these struggling congregations. I fully support their work, but these part-time pastors have limited time and energy to do much more than preaching, teaching and visitation.

Wheeler is right that well-trained pastors make a difference.

How can congregations cultivate a hopeful imagination in communities that are distressed? What about sending well-equipped pastors who see the significance of ministry beyond the congregation?

In the communities where I have lived, the mainline congregations have begun most of the social services. They have provided the initial inspiration and often the perspiration for the food bank, the homeless shelter, the free clinics and more. The ministerial associations composed mostly of mainline pastors brought critical issues before government leaders.  The mainline is experienced in developing and encouraging pastors as community leaders. Will those gifts be lost as congregations lose their ability to afford full-time pastors?

Wheeler’s own Presbyterian congregation in Granville, N.Y., bucked the trend. When their part-time pastor lost his second ministry job, the neighboring United Methodist congregation in town decided that keeping the Presbyterian pastor as a leader in the community was so important that they would forgo the appointment of a United Methodist pastor if the Presbyterian would serve both congregations. It was not so much that the congregations needed better pastors, but that the community needed the sort of focused, prophetic attention that this pastor serving full-time could bring. The congregations agreed on the plan and presented it to their respective denominations.

I wonder if the congregations in Granville and their initiative have something to teach their denominations. What if executive presbyters, district superintendents and bishops looked first at the communities they served and asked, “What leadership is needed for those communities to flourish?” What if they talked to one another across denominational lines and looked for the best pastor or network of pastors they could appoint or send to serve the entire community across congregational lines?  Don’t worry about convincing the congregations.  Only work with the ones that catch a vision for what this can mean for their communities.  I could foresee a Presbyterian pastor working with a team of lay pastors serving several congregations in a community or a key two-point charge of downtown congregations in a tiny town. What kind of difference could that make?

Such cooperation would be a return to the past for many communities. One of the ways that congregations started in the frontier was through a union Sunday School.  Once these bible studies took hold the participants would seek to affiliate with one or more denominations.  Frequently they would continue to cooperate in study and worship.

American Christianity is increasingly congregationalist.  The church growth movement has rightly taught us to focus on the health of congregations as the key sign of a vibrant denomination.  However, healthy congregations are not marked by numbers alone.  They are a result of a clear mission that is pointing to God’s reign.  If sharing a pastor with other congregations in the same parish helped focus on a mission beyond the care of the congregation that would be a different and fruitful pathway to health.

I wonder if the future of mainline denominations is found in focusing more on what they have always done well.  The communities I have in mind need every kind of help imaginable to confront the overwhelming challenges.  They need a gospel hope that is beyond the current circumstances.  They need faithful and patient work with sparks of imagination and lots and lots of dedication.  They need a vision of God’s reign that is certain in the future and only partially visible in this moment.   They need congregations that are more than places to be cared for; they need congregations that are agents of God in the tough places outside the doors.

David L. Odom is Executive Vice President and Chief Operating Officer of Leadership Education at Duke Divinity.