(Corrected Version) With about half the 11,000 congregations in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) unable to afford ordained pastoral leadership, the denomination’s Committee on Theological Education (COTE) is putting together two task forces — one very specific, the other more general in scope — to explore "needs and possibilities" for overcoming the problem.

At its mid-September meeting here hosted by McCormick Theological Seminary, COTE began its brainstorming with a "BHAG" (“big hairy audacious goal") from its executive committee that cut directly to the financial chase: to raise a multi-million dollar fund to pay five years worth of Board of Pensions dues — currently 31.5 percent of salary — for 250 first-call pastors from Presbyterian seminaries serving small churches.

That direct approach, said the Rev. Ted Wardlaw, president of Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary and COTE chair, "would encourage first-call churches to call seminary graduates instead of Commissioned Lay Pastors (CLPs).” Insisting that the issue is not the value of CLPs, Wardlaw said the executive committee’s proposal “would help those churches avoid the necessity of  having to call a CLP simply because they can’t afford a pastor."

McCormick President the Rev. Cynthia Campbell agreed. "Though for some churches a CLP is the right move," she said, "I have a hunch that it is cost that stands between too many congregations calling CLPs instead of pastors."

Kathy Wolf Reed, a COTE member and candidate for the ministry, said the dues fund "strikes me in a very emotional way." When she decided to go to seminary, she said, "I knew I wouldn’t be able to just walk into an associate pastor job in a large church," so she did seminary field work in small churches and prepared herself for small church pastoral ministry.

Reflecting on Wolf Reed’s efforts to find a call and the financial challenges facing small churches looking for pastoral leadership, the dues fund proposal discussion slowly turned to consideration of broader issues.

Katharine Henderson, president of Auburn Theological Seminary and a corresponding member of COTE, said that while she loved the specificity of the dues fund proposal, "I have questions about structural problems that are still going to be there. Will raising money for this simply perpetuate the problems that will still be there five years from now?"

The Rev. Michael Jinkins, the new president of Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary, agreed. "This is exciting if it's a piece of a larger strategy that we adopt as a church," he said. "There are plenty of opportunities and we have to encourage that larger vision. We are trying to solve an economic problem with an educational solution. If this is one part of the solution, fine, but we have to think strategically across the board."

The PC(USA) is working on a number of fronts to address these larger pastoral leadership and economic issues. The Board of Pensions recently renewed its program to help pay off the seminary indebtedness of first-call pastors who agree to serve small churches.

And the General Assembly Mission Council (GAMC) has just begun a new pastoral residency pilot program, "For Such a Time as This." Funded by a four-year anonymous foundation grant, the program engages six first-call pastors in small churches in four presbyteries in intensive orientation, training and mentoring. Participating presbyteries for 2010 are Heartland, St. Andrew, Northern Plains and South Dakota.

The more comprehensive approach COTE settled on also seems to build on a major study — "Raising Up Leaders for the Mission of God" — that has been developed over the last year by a Joint Committee on Leadership Needs (JCLN) comprising representatives from COTE, the GAMC and the Office of the General Assembly.

The JCLN sought to address three questions, said Brian Blount, convenor of the committee and president of Union Presbyterian Seminary in Richmond, Va: "What is the current context of ministry and mission? What kind of leaders do we need in today's context? How can the PC(USA) resource those leaders?"

In their study, Blount said, the JCLN "did not find that CLPs are taking jobs away from clergy … but there is a great deal of concern about the issue of the relationship between CLPs and ordained ministers," adding, "There is a lot of heat behind that issue that has not been addressed if we’re to be positive and constructive."

The complexity of the issues involved shouldn't preclude COTE from doing something as concrete and dramatic as the BHAG, argued COTE member the Rev. Chandler Stokes, pastor of Westminster Presbyterian Church in Grand Rapids, Mich.

"I know the issues are complex and the obstacles are persistent," he said, "but let’s take a stand and tackle something — it's hard for me to wait until the Board of Pension plan gets fixed. Let's take action as the next step, not the final step … nothing will solve the problem in five years."

COTE voted to create two task forces, the first — informally dubbed "the BHAG Task Force" — to "partner with relevant PC(USA) seminary constituencies, General Assembly agencies and other appropriate partners" — to "research the numerous needs and possibilities inherent in {the BHAG proposal]."

The second task force was charged to "mine the information" from the research projects that contributed to the "Raising Up Leaders" study and a self-study COTE conducted for the 219th General Assembly this summer and make broader recommendations about leadership needs in the PC(USA). That task force will include "but not be limited to" COTE members, seminary deans, members of the denomination's Seminary Support Network, middle governing body executives and members of presbyteries’ Committees on Ministry and Committees on Preparation for Ministry."