The Billings Church is getting creative while dealing with the pastor shortage

BILLINGS — A labor shortage plaguing much of America has spread across and into the pews. Churches like Atonement Lutheran in Billing Heights are struggling to find pastors, and this could mean big changes for the future of the traditional church model.

“There’s always a bit of tension, we’re never sure who’s going to be here to guide us,” said Sara Beth Wald, a member of Atonement Lutheran Church.

This shortage occurs in churches across the country.

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

The ELCA stands for the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. Here in Montana there are 35 vacancies in the Synod.

This is forcing churches to change their previous approach. At Atonement Lutheran, visiting pastors now lead Sunday services.

Tyler Amundson has been a visiting pastor at the church three times and is actually a Methodist.

“There are only people who get burned out and drop out of the service. There aren’t that many people who could replace her,” Amundson said.

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

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

“Many pastors feel the need to be more in the church,” Amundson said.

Butch Morse is on the appeal committee looking for a permanent pastor.

“Right now it’s difficult to move a pastor because of the moving costs and expenses. That stuff is pretty high,” Morse said.

Many here believe that the future of a traditional church model may need to change to keep up with shortages.

“So to me, the foreseeable solution is that churches need to look at different models for pastors,” Amundson said.

LaVe believes many churches will end up worshiping together.

“Congregations might end up reconsidering how they serve, they might join forces with another small church,” LaVe said.

While Atonement Lutheran was creative with its adaptations, it was definitely difficult.

“Even though we’ve been really wonderful to work together as a church and the volunteers have been wonderful, there’s this added fear of not having a pastor,” said Beth Wald.

Morse says finding a pastor could take a while.

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

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