Local and loving it, these pastors fill a vital niche

They preach, they teach, they officiate at weddings and funerals. They conduct baptisms and administer the sacraments of Holy Communion. Like any pastor, they’re there for their flock in sickness and in health, celebrating the joys and offering comfort in sorrow.

Typical United Methodist worshipers may not even know whether their pastor is ordained as an elder or licensed as a local pastor.

For Will Clark, a local pastor appointed to serve First UMC, Williston, and preside over the annual homecoming service of a small group of faithful in the rural outpost of Wacahoota, the opportunity for licensing versus ordination was key to his ability to answer God’s call.

“I feel as connected as anyone else,” the pastor said. “I think God has allowed me to do many of the same things [as elders].”

Pastor Will Clark staffs a booth at the local Peanut Festival
Will Clark, a local pastor shepherding First UMC, Williston, takes a turn at the church display table at the local Peanut Festival. Photo from Will Clark. 

Across the U.S., United Methodist churches are seeing an increase in the numbers of local pastors, according to a United Methodist News Service series of articles published this month. (Click here to start reading the UMNS series.)

The increase can be traced largely to declining membership that leads to financial shortfalls, particularly at small, rural churches. Though full-time local pastors are entitled to similar financial support in terms of a parsonage or housing allowance, they typically draw smaller salaries than elders. Part-time local pastors are not guaranteed housing assistance.

Unlike much of the nation, however, the Florida Conference is seeing a decline in the number of full-time local pastor appointments, as evidenced in data collected from the conference’s Knowledge & Information Services and compiled in a recent report from the Lewis Center for Church Leadership. (Click here to download the report.)

Rev. David Dodge, who’s involved in the appointment process as assistant to Florida Bishop Ken Carter and who previously oversaw the conference Clergy Excellence office for many years, noted that the report does not reflect part-time local pastor appointments. He believes those likely are holding steady or increasing in the Florida Conference.

Part-time appointments typically serve a small congregation that can’t afford a full-time minister, or they serve on a larger church staff where an elder leads the flock. Often part-time local pastors work a secular job as well.

“[District] superintendents are deeply grateful to these individuals who are able to serve through part-time appointments,” Dodge said. “Just because it’s a part-time appointment doesn’t mean it’s not a vital ministry.”

The Asbury factor

Dodge and Rev. Dr. Wayne Wiatt, Clergy Excellence director since 2013, said the proximity of a United Methodist-approved seminary in Orlando may account for Florida’s larger percentage of ordained elders. Kentucky’s Asbury Theological Seminary opened its Florida campus with programming geared toward commuter students in the late 1990s, according to the school’s website. Statistics about Florida United Methodist pastors and deacons who studied there was not readily available.

Dodge said people who held bachelor’s degrees and had already established families and careers in Florida frequently opted for the United Methodist Course of Study required for local pastors rather than the Master of Divinity (MDiv) degree that elders and deacons must obtain. Before Asbury opened its Florida campus, the closest seminaries where clergy candidates could study for the MDiv were in Georgia and North Carolina.

“Folks who are already established in Florida tend to gravitate toward Asbury in Orlando,” Wiatt agreed. “It tends to appeal to [those seeking] second careers.”

Rev. Arlene Jackson prays for man with arm raised
Rev. Arlene Jackson (speaking into microphone), a full-time local pastor, led the downtown Fort Myers campus of Grace Church to strong growth. Jackson recently was appointed to start a campus of Grace, a United Methodist church, in Sioux Falls, South Dakota. Photo from Grace Church and UMC.org.

Many local pastors have obtained a college degree before embarking on the Course of Study, but it’s not required, Wiatt added. The Course of Study is a prescribed curriculum offered at regional school sites, generally for far less tuition than seminary courses. Up to half the program can be completed online, and students can often complete the other requirements in a series of short weekend visits that make travel and lodging affordable.

Second-career pastors who draw a military pension or other form of supplemental income can complete the Course of Study and fill a valuable niche for congregations that otherwise couldn’t afford a pastor, Wiatt said. Licensing local pastors who plan to go on to seminary and pursue ordination also carries benefits, allowing budding clergy to administer the sacraments in their first appointment, he said.

Clark is one of those military retirees. It was toward the end of his 21-year stint in the Navy when Clark heard the call to ministry. He looked into the seminary, but with two daughters about to head to college, he was hesitant to take on student loan debt for himself.

“I was confused about my calling because I didn’t even have an undergraduate degree at that point,” Clark recalled. “There were a lot of expenses to go to seminary, and my wife [Colleen] and I didn’t feel that it was a good choice for us.”

He talked to a Jacksonville pastor who explained the Course of Study option and encouraged Clark to look into it. After leaving the Navy in 2003, Clark not only finished his bachelor’s degree but also completed the basic studies to become a pastor and is now pursuing the advanced Course of Study. He has been a pastor for 12 years, first at Orange Park UMC and in Williston since 2011.

Clark describes the Williston congregation as a family-based church that doesn’t have big challenges or financial issues. He is the first local pastor for the church, which has had elders in the past. 

“It’s a good appointment,” Clark said. “I’m here as the pastor and do what the congregation expects.”

Service beyond the local church

Clark said being a licensed pastor has not limited his options because he has had several district and conference appointments, including the district Committee for Ordained Ministry. He also serves as the conference-level chairperson on the Florida Commission on Religion and Race and on the East Angola Partnership Committee.

His advice for someone contemplating seminary versus Course of Study is to know the options and choose what’s best for the individual situation. “If it puts you in debt at our age, it might not be the best route,” Clark said.

The financial commitment was also a roadblock for Susie Horner, full-time local pastor at Cedar Key UMC, who started on the elder track at Asbury in Orlando.

Susie Horner sitting in pew at Cedar Key UMC
Susie Horner had two careers before becoming a local pastor, now appointed to Cedar Key UMC. The local pastor option made it possible for her to pursue her call to ministry without taking on too much debt. Photo from Susie Horner. 

“I prayed and prayed about it,” remembered Horner, whose appointment at Cedar Key began in July. She was at Wakulla UMC in Northwest Florida before that.

“There came the moment I had to sit down and ask myself if I wanted to take on more debt.”

Once she decided that being a local pastor was the journey God wanted her to take, she was at peace with her decision.

“The financial aspect was what God used to make me understand he had a different direction for my path,” said Horner, who also is the caregiver for her older brother. “I know beyond a shadow of doubt this is what God called me to do. God has put me here to serve this congregation and I’m happy with that.”

Being a pastor is the third career for Horner, who received a degree in vocal performance from Stetson University. She went on to the Boston University Opera Institute and pursued an operatic career in Boston for a number of years.

“I realized I was aging out of that profession and then went into insurance,” she said.

She returned to Florida to care for her mother and was a member of Wesley UMC, Gainesville, when she felt she was being called to ministry.

Like Clark, Horner has enjoyed opportunities to serve at the conference level. She is the first female president of the Florida Conference Fellowship of Associate Members & Local Pastors, where she serves as a liaison for local pastors to the Florida Conference. The group is in the process of completing a handbook for local pastors, something Horner believes will be beneficial to candidates who are joining the clergy ranks.

“The most important thing we need to remember is that local pastors have an important place in the [Florida Conference]. Congregations are smaller and more rural, and they are looking to us to be strong leaders,” Horner said.

“Remember, God called us to this post and we need to be proud of our calling.”

– Susan Green is the Florida Conference managing editor. Mary Ann DeSantis is a freelance writer based in Lady Lake.

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