Billings church gets creative in face of pastor shortage

BILLINGS — A labor shortage plaguing much of America has spilled over and into the pew. Churches like Atonement Lutheran in Billing Heights are struggling to find pastors and that may mean big changes for the future of the traditional church model.

“There’s always a bit of suspense, we never know who’s going to be there to lead us,” said Sara Beth Wald, a member of the Atonement Lutheran church.

This shortage is occurring among churches across the country.

“Across the country, there are at least 600 positions open in the ELCA,” said lay pastor Kristin LaVe.

The ELCA represents the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. Here in Montana, there are 35 synod vacancies.

It has forced the churches to change the way they have always done things. At Atonement Lutheran, guest pastors now lead Sunday services.

Tyler Amundson has been a guest pastor at the church three times so far, and he’s actually a Methodist.

“There are only people who are exhausted, who come out of the ministry. There aren’t as many people to replace them,” Amundson said.

Amundson believes the pandemic has taken a huge toll on pastors. He says fewer people are entering the ministry and many are leaving religious life to serve their communities in other ways.

He’s actually the executive director of Big Sky Senior Services, he’s not a full-time pastor.

“A lot of pastors feel the need to be in the community more,” Amundson said.

Butch Morse is on the appeal committee seeking a permanent pastor.

“Right now, it is difficult to move a pastor because of the cost of moving and the expense. This stuff is pretty high,” Morse said.

Many here believe the future of a traditional church model may need to change to deal with the shortage.

“So for me, the predictable solution is that churches are going to have to look at different models of having pastors,” Amundson said.

LaVe thinks many churches can end up having services together.

“Churches can end up reimagining what their ministry looks like, they can combine forces with another small church,” LaVe said.

Although Atonement Lutheran was creative with his adjustments, it was certainly difficult.

“While we’ve come together very well as a church community and the volunteers have been wonderful, there’s that added layer of anxiety when we don’t have a pastor,” Beth Wald said.

Morse says the search for a pastor could take some time.

“It’s not easy and it takes time. Everyone has to be patient,” Morse said.

Jerry B. Hatch