A Long-term Team
by Alton M. Motter (November / December 2001 • Volume 17 • Number 6)
Thirty-five years ago, two Pennsylvania pastors saw the "team" concept as integral to their understanding of pastoral ministry. Nearing retirement, they have remained faithful to that initial vision. Here's how it worked
How can our larger congregations provide for more adequate long-range pastoral leadership? That question faces about 500 of our nearly 11,000 ELCA congregations who each have a baptized membership of over 1,500, according to Kenneth W. Inskeep, director of the ELCA's Department of Research and Evaluation.
Dr. Inskeep says that these pastors serve in a variety of relationships. Some situations are "senior" pastors, who have an "associate" or an "assistant" pastor. Such "associate-assistant pastor" arrangements total 1,246, or about 13 per cent of the 9,525 pastors who are serving congregations in the ELCA.
Records also indicate that 866, or 69.4 percent of such associate-assistant pastors serve less than 5 years, with many, of course, serving only 2 or 3 years.
Is there a better system? More than three decades ago, two young pastors thought so. They were Pastors Frederick A. Foltz and E. Edward Keyser. Each was serving small, closely located rural congregations in northcentral Pennsylvania. Since they were about the same age and were neighboring pastors, they developed a strong friendship, a friendship which included many trout fishing jaunts together.
Foltz, a graduate of Yale Divinity School, and Keyser, a Philadelphia Seminary graduate, began to share thoughts as to how they might blend their respective talents in some kind of a joint ministry. Why not a "team" ministry where they would serve as co-pastors?
They shared their concept with who was then bishop of the Lutheran Church in America's Central Pennsylvania Synod, Dr. Howard J. McCarney, now retired. His response: "Yes, it's worth trying, if there is a congregation willing to call both of you." Further repeat and review visits were made with their bishop. But there was still no call.
Then a call committee for St. James Lutheran Church, Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, visited the bishop. Their congregation was now looking for new pastoral leadership. They reported, however, that they were not satisfied with their previous senior-associate arrangement. Did the bishop have a better proposal?
Bishop McCarney did. He proposed the new co-pastor concept and recommended that the committee and the congregation council explore the possibility of calling two pastors. Since they would need to call a second pastor later in any case, he proposed that the pastors would receive equal salaries and share equal responsibilities. The congregation approved the plan. That was in 1976.
Today, 34 years later, there is almost universal agreement that the team-leadership arrangement has been a many-fold blessing to this congregation which now numbers 3,036 baptized members, and has an average Sunday attendance of 643.
Why the Team Worked
What kindled the plan to succeed? Following extensive interviews with these pastors, other responsible leaders of the congregation, and the synod's current bishop, I believe the following six factors help to answer that question.
(1) These pastors shared a mutual sense of responsibility for helping to shape and fulfill the mission of this congregation.
Richard Waybright, chairman of the original call committee, now age 70, and the operator of the largest dairy farm in Pennsylvania with a herd of 2,300 cows, said: "While we discovered that these two young men, who were about 30 then, had very different personalities, and different assets, they had an honest openness and a mutual dedication to expand the ministry of our congregation. This is what led us to recommend their election."
(2) Their sense of mission rose above their individual preferences in such matters as their theological emphases, their preaching style, or their liturgical selections.
"Neither wants to be a shining star," said Beth Becker, a public school teacher, chairman of St. James' Christian Education Committee and an instructor assisting Pastor Foltz in teaching confirmation classes. "As they seek to fulfill similar goals, they respect and complement each others' strengths," she noted.
(3) Their collegial style has also encouraged an unusual high degree of lay participation and support.
Instead of a chief or senior pastor calling the plays, the pastors' cooperative pattern is contagious, and clearly rubs off on their men, women, and youth leaders. This helps to account for the extended personnel on the 15 committees responsible for the church's life and outreach. It undoubtedly helps to account for the membership, for example, in the 5 choirs, culminating in the 50-member adult choir which conducted musical tours in Europe. Their leader, Timothy E. Braband, is the full-time minister of music who has served on the St. James team since 1975.
This could also be said for the church's strong Christian Education Program headed by a third pastor, the Rev. Judith A. Cobb, who was added to the pastoral team last year. The church's many-faceted youth program is directed by Andrea R. Noel, the full-time lay youth minister.
This encouraging lay participation probably helps to explain the fact that while many congregations cancel their Sunday School sessions during the summer months, St. James does not.
(4) This broader pattern also undoubtedly helps to account for the very inclusive membership pattern of St. James.
About 1,500 members of the congregation come from Gettysburg's population of some 8,000. This includes factory workers, and Gettysburg College and Gettysburg Theological students and faculty members. The remaining portion is made up of people from the countryside: crop and dairy farmers; professional workers who commute as far away as Washington, DC; and fruit growers and workers whose Adams County apples, peaches, cherries, and other fruit are known in many parts of the world.
Included in this "mix" are 50 non-European Caucasians which includes 25 Orientals, and Hispanics, and an almost equal number of African-Americans. Cassie Nutter, an African-American social worker with the Pennsylvania Department of Assistance, serves frequently as a lector and Holy Communion assistant. A member of St. James since 1980, she said, "This church doesn't merely 'talk the talk', it 'walks the talk,' too." She joined the church because, as a social worker, she was "impressed by the church's willingness to always stand ready to help people in need."
Included in this mix, too, are 11 retired pastors, many of whom assist in carrying on the work of the congregation. One of these, for example, is the Rev. Samuel W. Schmitthenner, a former long-time missionary to India, who served as a visitation pastor while Pastor Foltz was recovering from a heart by-pass operation.
(5) This sense of an expanded partnership has also led to a widened community ministry.
Among its weekday activities, there is a Stephen Ministry, and 17 church and community groups meet in the church every week. These include meetings for Cub Pack, Brownie, and Boy Scout Troops; Christian support groups for divorced/widowed/single persons; Alcoholics Anonymous; Narcotics Anonymous; a weight control group; as well as provisions for the weekly meetings of the Gettysburg Exchange Club.
Pastor Keyser serves currently as president of the Gettysburg Ministerium which consists of pastors from six Catholic and Protestant denominations who sponsor appropriate ecumenical events during the year. The pastors feel that a large church in a small community can make a real impact for Christ in all areas of its life. Shirley Armstrong, a mother of teenagers and a psychological counselor at Gettysburg College, said that "our pastors have helped to make Gettysburg a better community for all of our people."
(6) The church's sense of partnership goes far beyond Gettysburg and Adams County.
It sponsored and welcomed Senkon Telmeh, a Liberian farmer, to Adams County, where he was trained in farming methods which may be of help to him in his own country. Sponsorships and close ties have been maintained through the years with pastors and churches in Namibia, South Africa, Panama, Mongolia, India, Russia, and Egypt. St. James' total benevolences at the end of 2000 reached $193,500.
Can It Work Elsewhere?
If called by some of our larger congregations, are other pastors capable of serving in this kind of a team ministry? Former Bishop Guy S. Edmiston of the Lower Susquehanna Synod feels that the Foltz-Keyser story has been successful for two reasons:
One, "These pastors had developed a genuine friendship over a previous five-year period. That friendship included trout fishing as a mutual recreation."
Two, "With the guidance of the Holy Spirit, they were able to develop a support style which honored their respective gifts and talents."
"It's important to remember," Bishop Edmiston added, "that they started together, just, as 35 years later, they plan to retire together on August 1, 2002. They have had a remarkable ministry. Other pastors and congregations may want to reflect upon this experience."
Let me conclude this article by asking three more questions regarding team ministry:
(1) To what degree can we learn to call and accept one another, as the Apostle Paul did when he referred to his unnamed colleague in Philippi: "I entreat thee also, my true teammate (yokefellow)..." (King James Version, Phil. 4:3). Can we be or become true team-mates to one another?
(2) Can we relegate our "egos," and our individualistic concepts of theology, liturgy, and administration, to a larger mutual commitment to Christ, and to the equally large mission of Christ's church?
(3) Should we try to influence our theological seminaries to help prepare us to serve in such a capacity?
Alton M. Motter, an ELCA pastor, now retired, has served parishes in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania and Denver, Colorado. He has also directed the work of councils of churches in St. Paul, Chicago, Minneapolis, Buffalo, Topeka, and Williamsport, Pennsylvania. He is the author of Ecumenism 101: A Handbook About the Ecumenical Movement (Cincinnati: Forward Movement, 1997). He now resides in Lewisburg, Pennsylvania.