Could the jobs crisis be an opportunity for churches?

We live in unusual times. Job adverts have been carefully drafted and widely distributed, yet the deadline for applications comes and goes with no one expressing interest. This scenario has been taking place up and down the country. Currently, there are record numbers of vacancies as firms struggle to recruit. We experience the outworking of this with scenes of airport chaos and rising NHS waiting lists. There are shortages across sectors, from probation officers and dental nurses to plasterers, construction workers, and the agriculture industry. Those wanting to learn to drive cannot find driving instructors or even book a test.

The church is not immune to the difficulties. Jobs for assistant ministers, family and children’s workers have gone unfilled. I have heard of job adverts that have gone out with no applications received. This has been particularly true in the north of England, although it might be the case in the south too.

I grew up when unemployment was a terrifying reality and rising steadily in the seventies and eighties, reaching a peak in 1984 when 11.9% of the UK working adult population were unemployed. The nightly news reported the unemployment figures in the same way it reports Covid numbers today. The idea that job vacancies are at an all-time high is quite hard to get my head around, but this year at the beginning of May, there were 1.29million positions waiting to be filled.

Alongside this, record numbers of people have been leaving their jobs, citing a lack of motivation and progression, being overworked – and rude bosses. Many over-50s have been leaving the workplace altogether; those with secure pension plans have been getting out as soon as possible.

So do we have a shortage of workers in the church? Why are ministry posts left unfilled? Where is the next generation of gospel workers? Some ministry jobs are certainly more attractive than others. At the same time as hearing about unfilled posts, I heard about a position on a ministry training course that received over 25 applications from those seeking to move away from pastoral ministry. Pastoral ministry is demanding and exhausting. Covid has undoubtedly left a toll.

Working in a large church with a ministry team, admin support, and a clearly defined ministry area could seem a better prospect for someone newly out of college. I have heard some recent Bible college graduates explain why they hadn’t applied for some church jobs. One said: ‘I’m not really a preacher – I’m more of a trainer.’ Another said: ‘I’m not an evangelist’. They were aware of their strengths and sought a specific ministry role. I sympathise. I get it. But the church needs a generation of preachers who preach the word, in and out of season and do the work of the evangelist. We need a generation prepared to go to challenging places. We need people ready to go to smaller churches and isolated situations. Ministry is not a job like other jobs. It is not about career progression or professional development. It is about building up the body of Christ, pastoring the flock and reaching out to the community with the good news of the gospel. Once, we were taught that serving Christ meant being willing to go anywhere, to anyone and do anything – servant-hearted discipleship. Perhaps our tertiary-educated generation is too wise and professional for the church’s good?

The good news is that the current work climate could bring us greater flexibility for church planting. People could be more flexible and move to support a church plant. How about training to be a driving instructor to move and help an isolated minister? Others can work from home and have tremendous freedom in where they live. And then there are the over-50s in our churches – are they a workforce in our pews ready to mobilise as they retire early? Perhaps 60 is a good age to uproot and commit to a new community for the gospel? Maybe today’s employment market is the kick-start we need.

(First published in Evangelicals Now in August 2022)

© 2023 Karen Soole