Small churches needing pastors with supplemental pay on rise in Alabama

By Grace Thornton
The Alabama Baptist

Noel Vickers says it makes him a little nervous sometimes when he thinks about his age and looks around.

Well maybe not nervous, he said — concerned might be a better word. He’s 63 and he’s the youngest pastor in his association.

“When your youngest pastor is over 60 years old we’re not doing something right,” said Vickers, pastor of New Prospect Baptist Church, Ashland, in Clay Baptist Association. “I’m worried about the lack of younger leaders.”

He’s not alone in his thoughts.

On the other side of the state Gary Bonner has a similar concern.

“Back in 1974 when I surrendered to preach, there were so many of us out there looking for places to preach,” said Bonner, associational missionary/director of missions for Sipsey Baptist Association. “Now it’s hard to find people for the small churches.”

And that’s no small thing. Right at a third of Alabama’s churches — more than 1,000 congregations — have fewer than 50 people in Sunday worship. Another third has between 51 and 250 in worship attendance. 

‘Building blocks’

Across the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) roughly 90% of churches have a Sunday worship attendance of 250 or less or are led by a pastor who works another job while serving as pastor. Nearly 40% of those have one to 50 people on Sundays.

Small churches are the building blocks of the SBC, but they’re finding it harder and harder to secure pastors, said Rick Barnhart, director of the office of associational missions and church planting for the Alabama Baptist State Board of Missions.

“There are two major statements that I hear consistently across the state regarding availability of pastors,” he said. “Bivocational or covocational, quality, SBC-minded pastors are very difficult to find. The second need is having quality younger men being called to pastor the churches.”

Why is it such a problem? Barnhart said as he talks with associational missions directors around the state, a few possible reasons often come up.

1. It’s possible men are not being called to respond.

Many suspect churches aren’t using the invitation time in services to call for commitment to ministry anymore, Barnhart said. It seems to him that the practice “has pretty much come to a halt.”

Bonner agrees with him.

“I don’t know if there is enough challenge from the pulpits in calling people into ministry,” he said. “We challenge people as far as giving to missions, but I don’t know that we challenge people as a call into ministry. I can’t say that we don’t but I don’t see it.”

2. It’s possible that even if they are being called, they’re not responding.

Otis Derrah, who retired from Judson Baptist Association in October 2019, said in the past it wasn’t uncommon for a layperson to sense a call to preach.

“They would feel God was calling them to be intentionally bivocational, to have a business but also use their talents to pastor a small church,” said Derrah, who serves as pastor of Adoniram Baptist Church, Abbeville. 

But during his five years as Judson Association’s leader, not one man surrendered to the call to preach.

“I can only speculate as to why, but it doesn’t seem that there are very many laypeople in our churches who are answering the call to preach,” Derrah said.

3. It’s possible some men who do respond have unrealistic expectations for where they’ll serve.

Sometimes when men graduate from ministerial school they expect their opportunities to look different than they actually are, Barnhart said. They don’t necessarily expect to serve at a small church and work a second job.

Bonner said he sees that reality too. In his association only three churches have fully supported, full-time pastors — the other churches just can’t afford that so they employ bivocational pastors.

He said it could be that fewer men want the responsibilities of having two careers.

“I understand pastors wanting to be in a church where they can be fully supported because ministry is never ‘part time,’” Bonner said.

‘Do the same thing’

Back when he was a pastor he also worked as a teacher or principal, and at times he would’ve loved for his ministry to have been fully supported.

“But if I had to do it all over again, I’d do the same thing,” he said.

4. It’s possible a changing culture is affecting men’s response.

The fact that pastors are not revered as they have been in the past could affect a man’s desire to take that role on, Barnhart said. It might also be possible that more men are aware churches can be very wounding places to serve.