We could use a union; but church planting first

Friend and colleague, the Rev. Adam Tierney-Eliot, commented following my post on “unsettled” ministers:

What StephenR said makes sense to me. Scott, what you need is a union.

Funny. I’ve written about ministers’ union before, but was thinking the same thing about ministers actively seeking settlements. For those unfamiliar, this is the dry season for looking for churches. The UUEnforcer started to game out who would be settled where come this fall, and those votes and elections are going on now and for the next few weeks.

The churches that are open now — I’d guess — are either part time, less attractive, had a disastrous call process or opened from unforeseen reasons. There are twenty-four congregations in search. Thirteen of those positions are part-time and three of the rest are below fair compensation levels. None are in this area.

If I was looking, I would be very worried. But I’m not and am quite happy with my compensation and the character of work.

That said, there needs to be more opportunities. I’m not advocating that the UUA’s growth strategy should have full ministerial employment as its rationale, but that a progressive and varied new congregation program would address a number of issues that trouble the UUA today, including identity shaping and ethnic breadth.

Which worries me when I saw a zero budget for congregational growth in coming UUA fiscal years. If the responsibility for church planting as devolved to the districts, I’d like to know exactly how that’s supposed to work.

By Scott Wells

Scott Wells, 46, is a Universalist Christian minister doing Universalist theology and church administration hacks in Washington, D.C.


  1. Well Said Scott. As someone who has spent very little time thinking about church planting, I am concerned about the “old growth” nature of much of our church stock (mine included). Do you have any thoughts about the best way to proceed in a growth strategy? (I know that you’ve written about this before…)

  2. I heard an interesting comment from another minister the other day, who felt that we are beginning to see longer settlements. I feel that is true. Average settlement of ministers was getting pretty short there for a while. But we’ve seen a big increase in the quality of interim ministries — in the past, many interim ministers were retired ministers just looking to fill some time (and pocket some cash) — not we’re seeing interim ministers who are experienced and better trained. So I suspect the interim process is working better, which is leading to longer average settlements, because congregations are becoming more self-aware which means fewer ministers are being forced out after just a year or two.

    What that means in practice, I think, is that many of the congregations that are now open in any given search season are (a) seriously dysfunctional over the long-term, (b) so small they can’t afford an experienced interim, or (c) just emerging from a major conflict. This should also mean that in practice we’re going to see an ongoing shortage of openings (and an even bigger shortage of openings in healthy churches) as the average settlement continues to lengthen — eventually the average will plateau, and then the job market should open up again. Another practical matter — all this implies that any minister who is thinking of going in search might do well to get skills in dealing with dysfunctional congregations since the odds are pretty good that you’ll wind up in a dysfunctional congregation.

    If my analysis is correct, from a minister’s point of view, the situation is bad and likely to get worse. However, from the denomination’s point of view, it’s really good to have an oversupply of ministers, because you have fewer congregations without clergy. And — chances are that ministers will be forced to be increasingly entreprenurial, maybe going out and starting churches on their own, or doing community ministry (which helps spread the word about our denomination), etc. So I doubt there will be any great incentive for the denomination to do anything about this situation.

  3. All things being equal, I welcome longer pastorates since they usually keep churches healthy and are probably the best way of making sick churches well. But as you suggest Dan, there’s probably not much incentive to change, especially where it comes to innovative church growth.

    Entrepreneurs will have to push and a good place to start changing attitudes is with the ministerial college who have seemed to be either completely disinterested in new churches or vaguely hostile. One reason I keep bringing it up.

  4. First, a church planting conference, from the grassroots up but perhaps with some wider institutional connections, is in the works–probably next year. To be kept in the loop on it folks can send me an email. I might have some information at the end of the summer.

    About it falling to districts: jeez louise, nothing will get done of much import, I strongly suspect. now if they (national and district) wanted to just make some grants available to qualifying churches to do their own thing, including missional projects not necessarily even called churches at first but with an ultimate aim of forming the kind of group that could plant another group of its own, that would be a fairly simple and non-bureacratic thing to do—no control that kills; a polity in keeping with our tradition, of serving existing churches and inspiring them to think beyond themselves and the settlement and seminary process. Maybe we should just sit down with the Disciples.

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