Pastoral pipeline: Will there be enough ministers to serve the Presbyterian Church?

Retirements and deaths are outpacing ordinations.

Not everyone is as certain as Hinson-Hasty that a pastor shortage is pending – in part because another piece of the puzzle involves 50 years of declining membership in mainline Protestant churches. Over the past two decades, the PC(USA)’s membership has dropped from 2.63 million in 1996 to 1.48 million in 2016, a decline of 43 percent. The reality is that most PC(USA) congregations are small, some will inevitably close and many can’t afford to hire a full-time pastor.

 

The premise is this: With a surge of retirements approaching, and fewer people going to seminary, the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) is facing an impending, potentially severe shortage of pastors.

Lee Hinson-Hasty, senior director of Theological Education Funds Development at the Presbyterian Foundation, has been making that case in recent months — at the 2017 NEXT Church national conference, at Big Tent and elsewhere. Easily three-quarters of the Presbyterian pastors currently serving congregations will be eligible to retire over the next decade, Hinson-Hasty contends. Retirements and deaths are outpacing ordinations;  a new research study reported by the New York Times in June, citing the work of Eitan Hersh, a political scientist from Tufts University, and Harvard doctoral student Gabrielle Malina, found the median age for pastors in the U.S. (not just Presbyterians) is 57; and Hinson-Hasty and others have begun to argue that a pastor shortage may not be far off.

What might the shortage look like?

The Board of Pensions is studying the issue, with its leadership intending to talk about the data and its implications sometime this fall. The Way Forward Commission is asking what changes need to be made to support ministers who may not have traditional full-time calls, and to encourage innovation in changing contexts of ministry.

Not everyone is as certain as Hinson-Hasty that a pastor shortage is pending – in part because another piece of the puzzle involves 50 years of declining membership in mainline Protestant churches. Over the past two decades, the PC(USA)’s membership has dropped from 2.63 million in 1996 to 1.48 million in 2016, a decline of 43 percent. The reality is that most PC(USA) congregations are small, some will inevitably close and many can’t afford to hire a full-time pastor. So as more PC(USA) ministers retire, will the full-time jobs in ministry also vanish as those pastors leave?

Online discussions of bivocational ministry draw heated comments. Some herald it as creative, and point out that it’s long been commonplace in many immigrant fellowships and for congregations of color. Others criticize it as essentially “adjunct ministry,” pushing pastors with graduate school educations (and often significant debt) to accept part-time pay for what too often comes with the expectation of full-time availability and commitment.

There’s also the question of what kind of narrative the PC(USA)’s leadership is advancing – both for people considering becoming ministers, and for congregations and Presbyterians trying to identify and encourage those with gifts for ministry.

The message from the denomination’s national staff has at times been cautious – in essence, to warn those considering seminary that the jobs might not be there once they graduate.

For example, in 2010, Marcia Clark Myers, who was then-director of the PC(USA)’s office of vocation, told Religion News Service, “We have a serious surplus of ministers and candidates seeking calls,” with four ministers for every opening.

And it’s still true that the number of candidates seeking calls exceeds the number of positions available, according to the count kept by the PC(USA)’s Church Leadership Connection – the denomination’s system for trying to connect congregations seeking pastoral leadership with candidates seeking a call. As of August 2017, for example, Church Leadership Connection listed 569 open positions, compared to 2,020 people seeking a call.

Some, however, contend that to offer a continuing discouraging narrative of an over-supply of ministers is not wise.

Ted Wardlaw, president of Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary, said Hinson-Hasty’s contention that a pastor shortage is on the horizon is both accurate and “not a news flash.”

“As far back as 15 years ago, when I came to the presidency of Austin Seminary, thoughtful people were predicting that, across the next decade and beyond, some 80 percent of our parish clergy would be starting to retire, and that we would be wise right now to be thinking about that,” Wardlaw said. “But it strikes me that, at the highest levels of our denomination, that message didn’t get through. And so at the exact same time that this 80 percent retirement statistic was being identified, from my point of view, the message coming out of our Louisville headquarters was short-sighted and counterproductive.”

Those expressing a curiosity about ministry were essentially told “that the church is dying, and that if you can do anything other than go to seminary, you ought to.” With that “narrative of negativity,” Wardlaw said, “my personal judgment is that they missed the boat a decade ago, and we’re paying the price now.”

There’s also the matter of moving beyond the church as it is now to what it could potentially be – the vision that some Presbyterians have for a different way of being that could affect whether congregations could afford to call a pastor. Perhaps, they say, bigger, wealthier congregations could do more to share resources with smaller ones; there could be less of gulf between the top-paid pastors and those making the presbytery minimum; the denomination could consider collaborative new ways to fund seminary education, so students would graduate with less debt; medical and retirement benefits might be made available to ministers doing part-time or church-planting work.

Carol Howard Merritt, an author and minister, led a special committee on the “Nature of the Church in the 21st Century,” a committee that the 2010 General Assembly created and that reported to the assembly in 2012. That committee encouraged the denomination to consider new approaches – but many of those ideas have not yet taken root.

When young people are excited about ministry, “we tell them go do something else – do anything else, there’s no future in this,” Merritt said. “We’re going to have to think of a different story other than we’re on our way out, we’re going to die, we’re going to close the door on the way out. … I wish there was somebody who is looking at this strategically.”

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