In an earlier issue of my "President's Newsletter," I described the looming shortage of clergy for the Presbyterian Church (USA) during the next 25 years. In brief, 83% of all of the currently active Presbyterian ministers will reach 65 by 2025.
Although some of us have been talking about this for several years, the story is finally being picked up by various publications, including Presbyterian Outlook, Presbyterians Today, the New York Times, the online newsletter Sightings from the University of Chicago, and other publications.
Here are some of the new findings about this very significant problem in church leadership today.
- The problem is partly the absence of young clergy. David Wood, our colleague with the Louisville Institute here, helped compile statistics for some of the major Christian denominations, focusing on the percentage of ministers under the age of 40. Here's a sample: Presbyterian Church (USA) (7%); United Methodist (6.71%); Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (6.13%); United Church of Christ (4.02%); Episcopal (3.92%); Disciples of Christ (3.65%); American Baptist (5.75%). The percentage for Southern Baptists is higher but not dramatically so-11.5%. We've read for years about the shortage of Roman Catholic priests; their demographics are the same as mainline Protestants. Only 6.11% of their priests are under the age of 40.
- Obviously, we Presbyterians are not alone. The problem affects all Christian denominations, undoubtedly even those whose statistics are not readily available. Furthermore, the problem is not restricted only to churches. Newsweek recently reported that half of all the public school teachers nationwide are expected to retire by 2010. Virtually every sector of American society-from the military to non-profit institutions-will be affected by a shortage of young leadership in the next 25 years.
- This trend is exacerbated by several other factors. Nationwide, the median age of students entering seminary is 33. Only 54% of younger students plan to become ordained, while 65% of the older students seek ordination. Just as people often enter ministry as second career students, they sometimes do not remain in ministry until retirement. In other words, just as there is an increase in the rate at which people change careers in American society, so also there is greater volatility in the ranks of clergy.
(For an excellent compilation of findings, see the March/April 2001 issue of Congregations, published by the Alban Institute, 7315 Wisconsin Avenue, Suite 1250W, Bethesda, MD 20814-3211. Website: www.alban.org).
Several implications of this shortage of ministers are already evident in the Presbyterian Church (USA), and by extension other denominations as well.
- All congregations are finding it more difficult to find the leadership they desire. What used to be seen as a problem for small congregations is now an issue for every congregation. (Witness the ads for ministers in Presbyterians Today and Presbyterian Outlook!)
- Clergy compensation is increasing and will likely increase even more in this competitive climate. I welcome this trend since some studies indicate that Protestant ministerial compensation has not kept pace with inflation during the last century.
- Women will find more opportunities for ministry. The much discussed "stained glass ceiling" in American Protestantism will be cracked and shattered during the next 25 years.
- Congregations will increasingly rely on lay ministers. The creation of the office of Commissioned Lay Pastor in the Presbyterian Church (USA) is only one sign of a growing trend to utilize lay people for congregational leadership-a pattern that is very pronounced in the Roman Catholic Church.
What can be done? Some examples: At Louisville Seminary, we have dramatically increased our merit scholarship program designed to attract the very best candidates to study for ministry here. The Committee on Theological Education (COTE) is planning a national effort to present the rewards and challenges of ministry, focused on college-age students. Lilly Endowment has provided millions of dollars for programs to spur interest in church vocations among high-school students.
But the answer finally rests in the same congregations that the next generation of ministers will serve. For example, congregations in southern Indiana have united in the Church in Vocation program to provide funds for a promising senior at Hanover College to attend Louisville Seminary.
Prospective ministers come from congregations. Congregations-communities of faith-are the cradle in which the next generation of ministers are born and nurtured. Ministers and lay people are the ones who can help seminaries and the entire church enlist and attract the leaders the church of the future needs and deserves. Work with the Holy Spirit; you can be its channel, its voice, its human presence to someone who can shepherd the people of God. Don't hesitate to speak to someone who may be the next pastor to you or your children.
John M. Mulder
Tell us about a candidate for ministry. We would love to be in touch with them. You may also contact Rev. Marilyn Gamm
, Director of Admissions, 502.895.3411, or toll-free, 800.264.1839. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.
And, of course, if you would like to make a gift to Louisville Seminary, please contact the Office for Seminary Relations or me, e-mail: email@example.com.