Pittsburgh Theological Seminary

Bridging the Word and the World

1/18 2019

In Support of Pastors

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supporting pastors

When I was coming through seminary, I heard a few distinct messages loud and clear:

  • “There won’t be a church job for you when you graduate, so don’t expect to find one.”
  • “Don’t worry too much about understanding budgets, your church will have a financial secretary to help you with that.”
  • “Taking on some education debt is very common.”

At the time, my youth, general ignorance about that world, and low economic expectations (it was, after all, 2008 when I started seminary) protected me from the naturally frightened and conflicted response one might have to that combination of statements. As Ezra Pound wrote in Cantos, “I am not a demigod, I cannot make it cohere.” I didn’t particularly try to.


Supporting Pastors

But what happens when church leaders who were taught this way come of age in the 60 hour work weeks of ministry? What happens when general ignorance becomes particular knowledge—of human suffering, economic inequity, savior complexes, untenable expectations, impossible working structures, loneliness and lack of support? Well, that brings us to the fourth message I remember loud and clear from my seminary days, “Remember, 50 percent of pastors burn out in the first five years.” Ouch.

Now, I can’t say if the conversation at my alma mater has changed, but I can say that since that time the General Assembly of the PCUSA, their Board of Pensions, and certainly at Pittsburgh Seminary, that conversation has been taken up with urgency, and quite a bit has changed at those levels to support pastors, particularly new pastors, better. Not only that, but as our mean pastoral age in the PCUSA (and across the mainline church) is rising and pastors are retiring, we are moving from a surplus of pastors to a potential shortage, which while not particularly good news, does shift things a bit.


Pastor Burnout

Here’s the rub—in my anecdotal experience—though national structures and educational institutions have been pivoting to reconcile some of the issues that lead to clergy burnout, local congregations, amidst slowing attendance, rural/urban divides, political battles, and financial struggles, have generally been acting in a way that exacerbates clergy health and sustainability issues. In short, their anxiety sometimes seems to be delivered upon their pastors, who are working 60 hours a week for 20 hours a week pay, as though there is an endless supply of such pastors to absorb their disappointment. However, because changing policy is so much easier than changing culture, we as a church and a denomination have been avoiding a conversation about what causes clergy burnout locally in favor of system and policy changes nationally.

Perhaps this is because, very simply, there is a lot we cannot change if our church has 20 hours a week worth of salary to offer. That is what we have to offer. If we have an aging building that needs increased care in a community where selling the asset is unlikely, that is a pretty unavoidable reality. If we are in a rural county with struggling schools and abandoned industry, we can’t offer you a “transitioning” neighborhood with big city amenities. But this negative self-assessment pattern of churches often leads us away from our natural gifts and assets. We stop thinking about all we have to offer and how we might care for and lead with our pastors in new and creative ways and instead get stuck in a spiral thinking that our pastor is going to leave us anyway.


Caring for Pastors

Last year I visited a congregation looking for a pastor in a small town five hours from the closest international airport. They took me out to dinner at the town’s new restaurant, told me about the downtown renaissance, introduced me to the mothers of the church, offered me a manse to live in—furnished or unfurnished, as I preferred—and I hadn’t even applied for the position! They talked about their love and hope for the community, the community’s DNA as hard working and family oriented. They spoke about the virtues of their business district and mentioned that in a small town it is easier to get things done. If a potential pastor or her spouse was interested in starting a business locally, working remotely, or being active in civic organizations, the church had the connections to make it happen and they would deploy them. They were clear about the community’s struggles, but even clearer about their care for and investment in any pastor they might welcome. More than that, they were clear that there was more on the table than a salary.

They wanted a pastor who would plan not on making a job there, but a life there. The church was ready to consider full or part time, negotiate with family/parental leave and vacation, and make sure that the quality of life was such that their pastor would not miss the amenities one needs to cope with other challenges and contexts—like overworking in a city that never sleeps. There was no sense that this community would back bite their pastor’s choice to actually use her continuing education time or take the vacation in her contract. There was no hint that they would be offended by a pastor mothering children while leading the church or coaching little league as a part of their ministry. There was no expectation that ministry only happened in certain outfits or to certain people. Generally speaking, these people wanted to invite a human pastor to minister with them, because they didn’t just want to be served by their pastor, they wanted to love and share life with their pastor.

I was shocked by how moved I was. Why isn’t this always how it works? What have we let our anxiety make of us, that we chew our pastors up out of our own self-doubt? That we speak of ourselves as forsaken? Do we not believe that God is working and present in our midst, loving us and making us lovable?


The Beloved and Chosen of God


Those who minister among us are not simply a source of cheap grace to serve our religious needs. They are the deep human grace of God, not only to lead us, but to teach us how to be human in ways that are helpful, beautiful, annoying, refining, humbling, and difficult.

Churches large and small, full-time and part-time, rural and urban, are beloved of God. Each has gifts and love to share. Their leadership needs will look different, and their life together will offer different joys and struggles. If a community is called to have pastoral leadership, then the community is called to lead with, care for, and share life with their pastor. We recently celebrated the wonder of the birth of Jesus. I invite you to consider what it meant for the small city of Bethlehem, for the humble shed Jesus was born in, for the small nation and poor people he came to that they were chosen in this way, as the viable space for the vocation of our God. Could our churches be viable in the same way?

Friends, we were chosen as those to whom God might come. Let us treat each other as the beloved and chosen of God and let us remember that those who minister among us are not simply a source of cheap grace to serve our religious needs. They are the deep human grace of God, not only to lead us, but to teach us how to be human in ways that are helpful, beautiful, annoying, refining, humbling, and difficult. Our pastors remind us what God is calling us to and also that God is not calling us or them to be everything to everyone. And that is okay. This Christmas may not have been perfect at your church or in your life or with your pastor. That is okay. My guess is Mary might have said the same thing about the first one. But God’s grace for us and God’s belovedness of us persists, so we are called to love each other.


The Rev. Karen Rohrer is director of the Church Planting Initiative at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary. Before joining the CPI team, Karen was co-pastor and co-founder of Beacon, a Presbyterian Church in the Kensington section of Philadelphia. The saints of Beacon taught her contextual ministry, the joy of being church, and the unique grace of being a lady pastor and boss in a neighborhood of matriarchs. The building of Beacon taught her amateur handy-woman and moisture remediation skills, and that a particular space really can be a reminder that you are loved. As director of the Church Planting Initiative, she is excited to vision new ways the church can bear good news to the world and to support and resource the leaders God is calling forth to make it so.


1/15 2019

Inside the PTS Curriculum: American Religious Biography

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The “Inside the PTS Curriculum” series gives you an inside look at what students are learning in their courses at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary. Each article focuses on one class, its subject matter, what students can expect to learn, the required texts, and the kinds of assignments students can expect. We’ll let you know whether the course is required or available for the Master of Divinity (MDiv), the Master of Arts in Pastoral Studies (MAPS), or Master of Theological Studies (MTS). Each article will include the professors’ bio.

This week’s course is “American Religious Biography.”

Heather Vacek teaching MDiv, MAPS, and MTS program students in PittsburghAbout American Religious Biography

In the Fall Semester, Pittsburgh Theological Seminary students learned about Church history with the Rev. Dr. Heather Vacek in the class “American Religious Biography.” An upper level elective, this class is open to students in the Master of Divinity (MDiv), Master of Theological Studies (MTS), or Master of Arts in Pastoral Ministry (MAPS) programs.

This course offers an investigation of the history of Christianity in America through the study of religious biography. The course explores the interaction of theology, context, and religious practice in the lives of Christians from the colonial era to the 20th century. Rather than an abstract study of published theologies, institutions, and movements, this course acknowledges that a wide variety of individuals have asserted those theologies and shaped movements and organizations and have done so from unique social locations.

In this course, Dr. Vacek invited students to explore how Christian belief and practices have shaped one another in concrete historical settings. Reading biographical monographs of religious figures and reflecting on those narratives in writing and in conversation, students gained an appreciation for what it means to live, worship, and serve in particular historical contexts. Through writing assignments, Dr. Vacek invites students to make connections between the past and present in order to shape current and future life and ministry. Upon completion of this course students were able to: 1) describe the historical relationship between context and the shape of Christian practice and 2) narrate the value of historical study to current lives of faith.

As to required texts, students read Margaret Bendroth’s The Spiritual Practice of Remembering, Catherine Brekus’ Sarah Osborn’s World, Jon Sensbach’s Rebecca’s Revival, John Turner’s Brigham Young: Pioneer Prophet, Matthew Avery Sutton’s Aimee Semple McPherson and the Resurrection of Christian America, and Barry Hankins’ Francis Schaeffer and the Shaping of Evangelical America. Brief additional readings were posted throughout the course.

As a hybrid class, this course met online on odd weeks and face-to-face on even weeks. Students in this class completed historical context summaries, reading responses, discussion board contributions, weekly tweets, and a final project or sermon. In addition, students were expected to not only participate regularly in class, but to undertake leadership of a class discussion.


About the Instructor

The professor for this course the Rev. Dr. Heather Hartung Vacek is ordained in the Moravian tradition. Dr. Vacek joined the faculty at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary in 2012 and in 2016 became vice president for academic affairs and dean of faculty / associate professor of church history. Her research focuses on the historical relationship between Christian belief and practice in the American context, particularly as it relates to suffering. Her book, Madness: American Protestant Responses to Mental Illness (Baylor University Press, 2015), explores Protestant reactions to mental illnesses from the colonial era through the 21st century. Her research interests also include American religious history, practical theology, and theologies of disability and suffering. After working for a decade in corporate positions, Vacek earned an M.Div. and Th.D. from Duke University, Duke Divinity School.


1/8 2019

Defending Resolutions

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Many churches just celebrated Epiphany. In the church calendar, Epiphany fills one official role and one unofficial role. Officially, it’s the time that we celebrate either the arrival of the Magi or the baptism of Christ. Unofficially, it’s the time we begin to joke about broken New Year’s resolutions.

Actually, that’s too generous. Many of us started joking about broken resolutions almost a week ago.

For some reason, we have the idea in our cultural consciousness that we break most of our New Year’s Resolutions within a few days—if not hours.


Give Yourself Credit

But it’s not true. When it comes to our New Year’s Resolutions, we don’t give ourselves enough credit.

Consider the most popular resolutions. You might guess that they tend to be things like “get in shape” or “get healthier” or “exercise more.” In whatever form, many resolutions end up meaning “lose weight.”  The American Psychological Association published an article a number of years ago confirming this suspicion. The top three resolutions they found were “lose weight,” “exercise more,” and “quit smoking.” At the time the article in the APA was published (2004), those three resolutions made up roughly three quarters of the total reported resolutions.

Luckily, these two issues—smoking and weight—are thoroughly researched. With some help from the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (www.cdc.gov) and a medical journal or two, we can find out how well we kept our resolutions.

So, over the last decade and a half, how have we done?


Resolution: To Stop Smoking

Let’s look at the smoking resolution first.

Since the APA article listed above was in 2004, we can start there. In 2004, the CDC reported that roughly 20.9 percent of adults in the United States smoked cigarettes. That’s roughly 44.5 million people.[1]

Since non-smokers don’t usually resolve to quit smoking, one can only assume that the people resolving to quit are in that 44 million. Did they keep their resolutions? According to the CDC’s most recent data, in 2016 roughly 15.5 percent of adults in the United States smoked cigarettes. That’s 37.8 million people.[2]

That means that over twelve years, the smokers in the U.S. dropped from 20.9 percent to 15.5 percent. In raw numbers, there are about seven million fewer smokers. That’s a drop of about half a million smokers each year. While there are many reasons for the decline, it seems that at least some of those who resolved to quit smoking actually did!


Resolution: To Lose Weight

But the weight thing—that’s tougher.

Over the same time period (2004 to 2016) the United States has seen a marked increase in the number of people with extreme weight problems.[3] The change indicates that we need to do a better job controlling our weight as a country. Yet, the final word about weight loss resolutions may be more encouraging.

A study published in the New England Journal of Medicine[4] examined holiday weight gain in Germany, Japan, and the United States. The results indicated that in the United States, weight tends to peak about 10 days after Christmas, around Jan. 4.  By Jan. 6 or 7, however, our weight starts to drop.

About the time we start joking that our resolutions are broken, they’re just starting to work!

“Weight Gain over the Holidays in Three Countries”. 2016. New England Journal of Medicine. 375 (12): 1200-1201.[5]


Typically half of the weight gained in December drops away pretty quickly, evidence that the “lose weight” resolution may be taking hold. Often the rest of the weight is gone within a few months, despite a setback around Easter. Our scales typically show the lowest numbers in late summer or fall. In other words, we put on weight in December, pledge to lose it in early January, and then spend the next several months successfully doing exactly that.


Do Resolutions Work?

So what does this mean for our resolutions?

It means that we do a pretty good job keeping them. We resolve to stop smoking, and many of us do.  We resolve to lose the holiday weight, and many of us do.

These victories may not be caused by the resolutions but perhaps the resolutions help. Of course we eat less after Christmas is over, but combined with intentional effort, the weight may come off a little easier. Sure, some of us won’t quite make it. Many people want to lose not just the holiday pounds but a few more. Plenty of people are still trying to say goodbye to nicotine.

But on the whole, maybe we do a better job at our resolutions than we realize.

This is good news.

It means that we have reason to be a bit more optimistic about ourselves and our ability to reach our goals.

It also means that our resolutions are bigger than the first few weeks of the year. When we experience setbacks, it may be helpful to remember that keeping our resolutions, whatever they are, can be a longer term goal than January.

As this new year continues, we will be tempted to give up on or even make jokes about our resolutions.  When you hit that temptation, try to slow down and remember that our resolutions are far more successful than we sometimes realize and offer some grace to yourself and others as you try to keep up the good work!


The Rev. Derek Davenport ’05 is director of the Seminary’s Miller Summer Youth Institute and digital marketing analyst. Derek is also a PTS alumnus of the Master of Divinity (MDiv) Program and Master of Sacred Theology (ThM), between which he served at a church in Orlando, Fla., for five years. Besides working with youth pastors and young adults, he serves as a guest preacher in Western Pennsylvania, researches church symbolism on his website, and tweets at @DerekRDavenport.


[1] https://www.cdc.gov/Mmwr/preview/mmwrhtml/mm5444a2.htm

[2] https://www.cdc.gov/tobacco/data_statistics/fact_sheets/adult_data/cig_smoking/index.htm

[3] https://www.cdc.gov/nchs/data/hestat/obesity_adult_13_14/obesity_adult_13_14.htm

[4] https://www.nejm.org/doi/full/10.1056/NEJMc1602012

[5] https://www.nejm.org/doi/full/10.1056/NEJMc1602012

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