The OPC's Coming Ministerial Challenge
Ross W. Graham
The federal government knows about it. City planners, builders, and insurance companies are preparing for it. And soon the Orthodox Presbyterian Church will feel the full force of its impact. What is this phenomenon that is turning the heads of demographers? It is the stark reality that between 2005 and 2015 the number of people reaching retirement age in America will increase by a staggering ten million. Nothing like it has ever happened before, and ministers in the OPC will be among that number.
A quick study of A Ministerial and Congregational Register of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, 1936-2001, indicates that over the next ten years, ninety-eight ministers under active call in the OPC will reach the age of sixty-six. That includes missionaries, seminary professors, chaplains, general secretaries, and the pastors of 81 of the OPC's 312 churches. It means that in the next ten years some major changes are in store for the people of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church.
Not every OP minister who reaches the magic age at which the federal government allows him to draw full Social Security benefits will immediately retire from active ministry and ride off into the sunset. Indeed, many in OP ministry have opted out of Social Security. And while the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics indicates that this new crop of retired baby boomers will be the most affluent in history, most OP ministers have not been enriched by their labors and don't expect to join their peers in a life of luxury in their retirement years.
But even if they could live with all the financial security in the world, most OP ministers share a belief that the American concept of retirement leaves much to be desired from a biblical point of view. In fact, many Reformed Christians find little scriptural evidence to support the idea of a life of ease after forty years or so of labor. Instead, "Be fruitful and multiply; fill the earth and subdue it" is the mandate given by God to our first parents (Gen. 1:28). "Six days you shall labor and do all your work" is God's expectation of us in the fourth commandment (Ex. 20:9). "The sleep of a laboring man is sweet," says the Preacher in Ecclesiastes 5:12. And especially directed to ministers of the Word are Paul's words: "Be diligent to present yourself approved to God, a worker who does not need to be ashamed, rightly dividing the word of truth" (2 Tim. 2:15). So there is little chance that we will find these 66- to 75-year-old ministers of the Word simply living a life of ease and basking in the sun during their "golden years."
The fact of the matter is that an average of seven ministers will reach retirement age every year for the next five years. That compares to less than two per year in recent years. By 2011 the average will jump to ten per year. And even if they choose to continue their labors for a while longer, it is doubtful that any but the most hardy of these servants of God will find it possible to muster the strength and vitality necessary to maintain the rigors of a full-time pastoral charge much past the age of seventy. It is probable that, by 2012, as many as twelve to fifteen ministry positions held by these men will become vacant each year, in addition to the regular average of twenty to twenty-five pulpit vacancies per year. By any measure of the situation, the loss of a dozen pastors per year will be a significant challenge for the Orthodox Presbyterian Church. Presbyteries throughout the country will find themselves with a frightening number of vacant pulpits. Congregations could find themselves looking for two years or more before finding a new pastor.
Serious preparations need to be made now in order to avoid some difficult circumstances in the future as a result of the loss of so many ministers. Our presbyteries need to begin asking difficult questions, such as: How many of our pastors will be retiring within the next ten to fifteen years? What plans should we lay for what to do when 30 percent of our pulpits are vacant as a result of this situation? How many of these ministers are members or chairmen of the committees that help our regional churches do their collective ministries? Who will replace these men, and how? On a denominational level, where much of the ministry is done by committees elected by the General Assembly, a great value has rightly been placed on wisdom and maturity. But these committees are graying more rapidly than in years past. Are plans being laid to bring the next generation of ministers and elders into full participation, experience, and leadership in denominational life? How will that be done?
This is surely a call for our Committee on Christian Education to become proactive in its efforts to prepare men for ministry in the OPC. The Reformed seminaries throughout North America must be alerted to our need for pastors. Young men in their teenage years need to be challenged to take up the call to ministry as never before to be the shepherds of God's flock in future years when the need will be the greatest. And as the need for new pastors becomes acute, there could be a tendency within the church to "fudge" on the ministerial qualifications and preparations that have made the OPC strong throughout her history. So the Ministerial Training Institute of the OPC will need to be prepared to teach the OPC's history, distinctives, values, and culture to many young seminarians and men from other ecclesiastical traditions.
In the coming decade, the OPC will face some significant challenges to the way it has done its work. The sessions, congregations, and presbyteries have come to expect that the OPC will plant twelve to fifteen new mission works each year. But with so many pulpit vacancies, will we be able to fill them and also find organizing pastors for new churches? And as seasoned pastors are forced by age and health considerations to step away from their churches, what will our congregations and presbyteries look like with 30 percent of their ministers without a call?
The aging of the OPC's ministers also offers some significant opportunities for the advancement of the church. My office receives frequent inquiries from sessions and pulpit committees looking for recommendations of men who might serve as their next pastor. Among the most sought-after men are those who have recently retired and might be available to provide interim pastoral service for three to six months. Right now I can name those men on the fingers of one hand. But soon seven to ten OP ministers each year will be reaching the age when they can afford (by virtue of Social Security and pension benefits) to step away from the day-to-day press of pastoral life while still in good health. That offers us some exciting possibilities, with careful thought and planning.
Over the next decade, with twenty to thirty retired OP ministers available for short-term assignment at any given time, it is possible that many could provide regular interim services for churches that are in the process of looking for the permanent ministry of a new pastor. After finding temporary housing, they could be preaching, visiting, counseling, and providing administrative help. Some of those who are newly retired will undoubtedly be gifted evangelists who could be tapped by presbyteries or the Committee on Home Missions and Church Extension to help form new churches around North America, with no intention of remaining on as the organizing pastor. As a result of this new demographic, many ministers may be available, at little or no cost, who could relocate to become associate pastors or ministers of visitation in churches that could otherwise not afford them. Perhaps a group of retired ministers from across the presbyteries could be formed, who could be tapped as teams to deal with difficult church conflicts in an intensive manner-staying near the church and providing preaching, teaching, and counseling for three or four weeks at a time.
These are only the most obvious possibilities for the use of these seasoned servants. God will undoubtedly provide them with effective labors and lives to touch long after their full-time work has concluded. But let me make one more suggestion. Since grandparents love to be near their grandchildren, is there a soon-to-be-retired OP minister who has grandchildren in your area? What about offering him a call to be your assistant pastor?
Regardless of what we do about it, age will take its toll on the ministers of the OPC. We ought not to look on this as a crisis, but simply as a challenge which God has placed before us as a maturing denomination. The generation that founded the OPC has already passed the baton to those who know the ones who knew Machen. Those who are now ready to retire will need to make space for the next generation of OP ministers and elders to come on the scene with their energy and insights, and to train them for the positions of leadership that they will inevitably assume. And those who live on in their golden years will need to be tapped as a source of wisdom and experience, so that the OPC can move forward toward her one hundredth birthday.
The author is general secretary of the Committee on Home Missions and Church Extension. He quotes the NKJV and turns 65 in 2012. Reprinted from New Horizons, December 2006.