A Brief History of Pastoring in America

vicarIt was once common practice to call a pastor to a town or village. For example, in pre-revolutionary Connecticut many towns didn’t secure a charter from the colony until they had called a pastor. The implication was that the pastor served that community as a whole. As a part of that ministry, worship services would be held at a church building or Meeting House, which in those days wasn’t much more than the worship space. A pastor could spend his days (and they were all men back then) walking around town or out among the farms talking to people.  These pastors really did shepherd their people (the term pastor means shepherd): guiding, supporting and keeping discipline. This was the model of being a pastor in America for generations.

With the advent of the telephone, the pastor needed a place to answer it. In due time the church office was born. Since the pastor was still out tending to the people, the church secretary also became an important new role so someone could answer the phone while the pastor was away.

With the car came the need for the pastor to drive to go see his people who didn’t live nearby the church anymore. As the suburbs and roadway systems grew, so did the distances between the church building and the people who used it. Once the interstate system was established the geography that supported congregations increased to distances inconceivable in former generations. Diana Butler Bass suggests that this is also the time of growing church facilities to include a fellowship hall (people no longer saw one another in the town or as neighbors and friends in the same ways anymore), and the need arose to create a space to do community building through events, meals, and other programming. With the growing mobility of the population, competition among the local churches became normalized. The churches that adopted marketing techniques from the business world grew (rather than relying on family tradition and loyalty).

With the photocopier and later the desktop computer came mass communication, and new pressures came along with these new technologies. Office needs increased to produce resources, correspondence, bookkeeping and records. Electronic communication made all these things more frequent and more necessary. Maintaining connections with community services, managing staff, recruiting volunteers, and keeping up with the changeover of people moving in and out of the area all added administrative pressure on congregational leaders and budgets.

Social change started to become present everywhere by the mid to late 20th century, and most ‘givens’ of former generations began to give way to new understandings of what is normal, just, equitable or destructive to human flourishing.

We have entered a new era unlike what we have known before.

Celebrity and scandal now fill the mass forms of media, and fill the streams of growing new forms of social media. The wider culture increasingly grows weary of institutions as a whole, and grows cynical of the church in particular. Anxiety is high everywhere.

With the mobile smart phone comes the mobile office. The pastor no longer needs to be cooped-up in the building anymore but can get back out into the neighborhood and connect with people. She understands that her congregation doesn’t really live in the neighborhood where the building is planted. Some church members do live nearby, but the vast majority do not. She also realizes that her people are now as mobile as she is; they are also increasingly busy, scattered and under a lot of pressure just to survive.

The pastor makes an important observation about the wider community: Many people who live in the neighborhood around the church may not look like the members of the congregation, but are much more economically, culturally and ethnically diverse. Many are non-churched or de-churched, or come from different faith traditions all together. Many immediate neighbors and most people in the wider community do not know any people who belong to the church (including the pastor). These neighbors also, by no fault of their own, do not understand what goes on in the church building, who church is for, or why it exists at all. In former times, clergy were viewed as valuable leaders in their local communities and were well-respected by the population, even those who were not members of their congregations. Now religious people as a whole (and clergy in particular) are looked upon with suspicion and skepticism. Connections once easily granted are difficult to make and maintain, let alone grow.

The pastor quickly realizes that she is neither called to be a caretaker of the church, nor the hireling of its membership. The 21st century pastor is a missionary sent to this particular place in this particular time – into a wide-open mission field. She is there to name God at work around her to others, build relationships among them, and exhibit concern for local needs. She discerns that her best way to do this is to mobilize the people she is called to lead, make local connections, grow her network, and help the congregation become a positive (though imperfect) visible sign of faith put into action for the good of others. She feels called and ready to do this important work.

Yet, the people in the congregation resist change. They long for the days when the church was full and the children were abundant simply by opening the doors. Their numbers shrink steadily year after year as the church continues to age. Young families leave with their children on Sunday mornings for the game fields and they are not coming back.

Simply trying harder is no longer a viable solution to a world that has left the church behind. The members of the church feel too busy, too ill-equipped and too anxious to respond to new calls to action, but the pastor keeps seeking ways to encourage them to connect moving variables into tangible action plans that all involve change.

Today’s pastor feels pulled into a tension of two competing courses of action:

  1. Calm anxiety by meeting growing expectations of church membership seeking shelter from a world they no longer understand or control.


  1. Lead the few who are willing to risk it all by entering a whole new world.

This is a time like no other in corporate memory. There are no assurances of success. There are no easy answers to underlying questions. There is no road map leading forward.

In this moment, the pastor takes a long deep breath and prays.

What will happen next is anyone’s guess.



About geoff sinibaldo

Follower of Jesus, Husband, Father, Son, Friend, Change Proponent, Goofball, Seeking Faithfulness in the 21st Century
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