Empty chairs at empty tables

In one of the more somber scenes in Les Miserables, the character, Marius, sings of “empty chairs at empty tables.” He’s grieving because most of his revolutionary friends have just lost their lives in a failed attempt to overthrow the government. He returns to their favorite watering hole, only to find it eerily quiet – just empty chairs at empty tables. Like many Les Mis tunes, it’s catchy. For some reason it’s popped in my head lately.

In the odd associations that my mind makes, I connect Marius’s lyrics to ministry.  I think about those pastors and parishioners who show up to empty chairs and empty tables, empty pews and empty pulpits.

Thankfully, this is not the case everywhere. If you have fellow Christians to gather with for worship and Bible study and community, thank the Lord for these blessings!

However, many of you are experiencing more empty chairs/pews in your churches than in previous years. It gets discouraging. However, while empty pews is a whole topic of its own, I’m especially thinking today about empty pulpits – or podiums or music stands or wherever your pastor proclaims God’s Word!

During the past number of years in my church body, The Lutheran Church – Missouri Synod, and in most other churches, we’ve seen less and less candidates pursue vocations in ministry. This is true of pastors, teachers, Directors of Christian Education (DCEs), and other church work vocations.

Adding to this situation, the number of church workers who are retiring or soon to retire is skyrocketing. Many calls for commissioned workers (DCEs, etc.) go unfilled. Many churches are experiencing long vacancies without a pastor. This includes churches both large and small, urban and rural. These vacancies take a toll on our churches and schools and youth groups.

I could go on and on, and if I were more ambitious, I could pepper this post with stats that illustrate the trend toward empty pulpits. Instead, I just want to ask, what are we doing about this on the local level? 

Rather than waiting for some top-down solution, a sweeping recruitment strategy from the Synod or from your regional or national church leadership, what can you do?

Here are just a few thoughts:

  1. Begin with Jesus’ order: When He saw the crowds, He had compassion for them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd. Then He said to his disciples, ‘The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few; therefore pray earnestly to the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into His harvest.’” (Matthew 9:36-38)  Jesus Himself tells His people to pray for more workers for His kingdom. Think about specific people who might pursue a church work vocation and pray for them. Pray for those who are preparing for the ministry at our Concordia universities and seminaries. Pray for the laborers the Lord has given to serve in your church and school and community.
  2. What about you? (Yes, you!) Perhaps as you pray for the Lord to send laborers, you’ll seriously consider that this could include you. This is something for our mature youth to consider, but how about you adults? I was blessed to go to seminary with men who had had other careers, some for decades prior to pursuing pastoral ministry (engineering, insurance, education, etc.). What about you?
  3. Start a conversation: Talk with your teenager at the dinner table. Talk with that kid in the youth group who lights up when theology begins to make sense. Talk with the church elder whose presence already seems “pastoral.” Talk with the young woman who delights in telling Bible stories at VBS. Ask a simple question: Have you ever thought of becoming a pastor? A missionary? A Lutheran teacher? I think you’d be great at it!
  4. Who will you encourage? There’s someone nearby that you can encourage to contemplate serving in church work. Begin by planting the possibility. When I was in high school, I had about 6-8 people who constantly planted (sometimes subtle or not-so-sublte) “ministry hints” for me.
  5. Draw attention to the need: This spring, our church is going to host an evening for youth (and also adults) simply to encourage them to consider church work as a possibility. We’re going to enjoy some music and pizza, but we’re also going to hear from those who are serving as youth directors and teachers and pastors. How did the Lord lead them into this ministry? What are some of the blessings and challenges you experience in your vocation? What would you recommend to someone considering your vocation? Hopefully we’ll help to start some more conversations.

If you don’t have empty pews and pulpits in your church, give thanks!  But other churches are not so fortunate.  What can you do to help address this situation?

Lord of the church, please continue to provide laborers for Your harvest. Please work through me to encourage potential and current church workers.  Help me to say, “Here I am, send me!” for whatever ways I can serve Your people. Amen. 

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