September 29, 2015
On Sept. 28, 2015, United Methodist News began a 10-part series on licensed local pastors and the increasingly large role they play in The United Methodist Church. Read the series.
Local pastors – non-ordained, and in most cases without a seminary degree – are growing in number and taking on more roles in the Church. Denominational statistics show that from 2010 to 2015 the number of ordained elders and provisional member elders appointed to churches dropped from 15,806 to 14,614. In that same period, the number of part-time local pastors grew from 4,261 to 5,178.
In conjunction with the series, we are doing profiles of some of the pastors serving here in New England.
Gayle Holden has been a licensed local pastor for 11 years; this is her first year at Trinity United Methodist Church in Farmington, ME.
This is also the first time in 10 years that she hasn’t also been working as a teacher. She’s taught at Head Start, as a high school substitute and math for adults.
And though she loves teaching, she has also felt a call to ministry that began for her at a young age. But she did not pursue her call until after she was diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis.
She learned she had MS on April 1, 1997, and she had to quit her job at Head Start. Pastor Holden said she was “quite sick for some time,” but was still able to discern a call – and knew that it was something she could pursue.
Because of her health, Pastor Holden chose not to seek ordination, and not being itinerate is an advantage, she said.
“I appreciate being able to stay in Maine,” she said. “My husband has a good job, and we have family here. Because of my MS I don’t take for granted that I might have retirement time.”
“A lot of times forget I even have it,” Pastor Holden said, but having MS has given her greater empathy for the older members of her congregations.
“I really do know what it’s like not to be able to drive, to be homebound,” she said. “I understand the grief that comes with not being able to do things we want to be able to do.”
Local pastors often serve small churches, and Pastor Holden is no exception.
“We’re working it; we’re doing it – slow and steady,” she said of her current ministry. “Working with a church part time requires patience; slow and steady wins the race.”
Sometimes congregations find that difficult, she said.
“Everybody’s working a lot; you have a few hands doing a lot of work. But we get fed spiritually in the midst of our work,” Pastor Holden said, adding that she tells them: “’Let’s not panic. We’re loving each other, getting fed, and the rest will happen.’”
One of the nice things that can happen for small rural churches is the chance to work ecumenically: Doing services and outreach with other nearby churches, which are also likely to be small, just makes sense, she said.
A disadvantage for United Methodist rural churches served by licensed local pastors is that their pastors cannot vote for delegates to General Conference.
“That bothers me not so much for me as a person, but that is a whole area that has lost that vote as well. There’s not representation of the rural areas,” she said.
But rural communities like hers do not lack for ministry opportunities.
“I love to be in the community connecting with the people who aren’t in the church, necessarily, but who are looking for God,” she said. “They may be doing the work of Christ, but are just not used to being part of a church.”
And being bi-vocational makes reaching those people who are not in the church a bit easier, Pastor Holden said. People who know her as a teacher know she’s also a pastor, but she’s not “their” pastor.
“Many younger people have not been to church or have been hurt by the church. They get to know you in this other way,” she said. “And you get to hear what people are really thinking … They’re not worried about you as their pastor, so they can be honest about what they think about church.”
And, she said, “You can be a representation that may break their assumptions. So it’s good.”
Pastor Holden recalls when she was working as a long-term substitute teacher in a high school, the students would often stay after class to talk with her about all kinds of issues. When she was leaving, the students were sad and wondering whom they would be able to talk to once she was gone.
She told them:
“You stay after class to talk to me not because I’m a teacher, but because I’m a pastor, and you can find one of those.”