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Growing Use of Local Pastors in the United Methodist Church

Local PastorOne of the more interesting trends in the UM Church is the explosion of Local Pastors.   Since 1985 the number of local pastors has almost doubled from 3,804 to 7,464 while the number of elders has decreased about 30% from 21,378 to 15,019.

The number of local pastors includes both full and part-time with part-time local pastors comprising slightly over 60% of the local pastors.

So the national average in the UM Church is 2 elders for every 1 local pastor.  In 1990 there were 5 elders to every 1 local pastor.  Numbers compiled by the Lewis Center in Clergy Age Trends in the United Methodist Church 2015 Report.

According to the data the Lewis Center has provided, in the TN Conference there are 182 local pastors and 197 elders.  If you take out those elders in extension ministry, the TN Conference probably has more local pastors appointed as pastors of local churches than we have elders appointed as pastors of local churches in the TN Conference.

Whether this is good or bad depends on one’s point of view but certainly it is worth reflecting on.  (The Memphis Conference has 91 local pastors and 151 elders).

The top six conferences in percentage terms in use of local pastors compared to elders are in order: West Virginia; Tennessee; North Alabama; Kentucky; Missouri; East Ohio.

The four conferences using the least amount of local pastors as a percentage of elders in the conference are Oregon-Idaho; New York; Northern Illinois and New Mexico.

Many believe the trend of more and more local pastors will continue, as do I.  If this is true and we are headed to a time when we have more local pastors than elders is it time to reflex those changes in our organization structure?  For example:  is it time for a local pastor to be a DS?  This would, of course, require a change to the Book of Discipline, see P417, but it would reflect a significant signal to the way pastoral leadership occurs within the UM church.

Should we begin to include more local pastors on Conference Committees and National Boards and Agencies?  For example if the TN Conference is essentially a one to one ration of elders to local pastors, should every Conference committee have a local pastor for every elder on the committee?

If local pastors (esp. part-time local pastors) are going to become the primary way churches have clergy leadership do we need to radically rethink how we educate them?

Is the trend toward more and more local pastors a reflection of the increasing difficulty of becoming an elder, esp. in the TN Conference with its additional requirements beyond the Book of Discipline?  Or is this trend reflective of the pay package that elders require?

Another trend worth reflecting upon, I think, is the gender of local pastors.  While the trend among UM clergy is for more female elders than ever before, the number of females as local pastors is decreasing, at least among those local pastors 35 or younger.  So has the office of local pastor become a default way to try and avoid female clergy, esp. for those males who do not believe in female ordination or for those churches who “decline” a female clergyperson?

Is the explosion of local pastors a reaction against the “professionalization” of clergy who may be seen as more concerned with minimum salary, pension, health care benefits, and running the “organization” of the United Methodist Church than they may be perceived as attempting to win people for Jesus Christ?  Or is it simply the reality of churches who can no longer afford a full-time seminary educated elder as pastor?

Questions such as these, in my opinion, need to move more to the forefront of the United Methodist Church and Boards of Ordained Ministry as we contemplate, plan and pray for our future.  What do you think?  Dr. Ed Trimmer is available via email at

The preceding information is excerpted from a recent article entitled, “Trimmer’s Thoughts: Brief reflections on the 2015 Report from Lewis Center on Clergy Age Trends Dr. Ed Trimmer Fall 2015 Turner Center for Church Leadership” by Dr. Ed Trimmer, appearing on the Martin Methodist College website at:


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