The Impending Clergy Shortage…Coming From Left Field

EmExitRumors of an impending clergy shortage have been circulating for years in the mainline church.  The aging pastors who had put off retirement because the economy took a nosedive are finally choosing to head out to pasture, as most of that mess has rebounded.

But the more I look at the Christian landscape, and not just in the mainline, the more I see a different clergy exit looming and, yes, in process.

Largely from left field.

Many younger clergy are “giving it up for Lent,” as a colleague of mine once said, describing why he left the ministry after just five years.

Thousands of dollars in schooling and investment, while certainly not wasted, are not being used as originally intended.

The church really should take a hard look at why this is, and will continue, happening.  And look at it with eyes wide open.

Many who are leaving the ministry are doing so because the churches that they are prepared to lead, and the Jesus they fell in love with, don’t live in the same place. They’re finding so many churches too occupied with propping up the past instead of embracing the future.  They’re finding the Jesus of radical love and action to be hard-hearted and bound by fear.

They love the people in so many ways, but are having a hard time finding ways to let the people love themselves or others without spiraling into self-preservation and sniping.  The Jesus who said, “Those who lose their lives will gain it” seems to not have been talking about whole congregations, because they are not usually willing to lose their past to gain their future.

Some who are leaving the ministry are finding their particular faith doesn’t quite align with the faith in the pews.  Too esoteric.  Too mystical.  Too interested in justice, and not what the pews consider “Bible-based” (which, ironically, is the charge leveled at Jesus by the Pharisees who continually wanted to know what authority [scripture or tradition back-up] he was using to say and do the things he did).

Some who are leaving the ministry are finding the debt crushing.  Church attendance, and therefore giving, is at 1920’s levels.  Full-time calls at wages that will put food on the table and pay for seminary debt are disappearing.  Health insurance costs keep rising.  The business sector promises stability that the church can’t offer anymore.

If the church wants a learned clergy, it’s going to have to figure out this conundrum.

And some are leaving because they’re getting eaten up, and life is just too short to put up with that for too long.  We follow a Jesus who said that we’re to give our life away, but not in the way that disregards life itself. You should hear the stories coming from clergy about what is being said to and about them from the “Beloved Kingdom.”   The culture shift in the world that the institution is resisting is creating a difficult environment in many corners.  Anxiety and anger fill and fuel more than hope and service do in many places.  It’s not true everywhere, but in enough places to snuff out budding vocations.

Couple this with the fact that seminary enrollment is at unsustainable lows, we’ve really got to do some soul searching, church.

And the solution is only partly about encouraging people to go to seminary.  That won’t do the trick.  That’s like patching a road that needs to be replaced: it won’t work, at least not for long.

I think there is a clergy shortage coming from two directions.

We need to take an honest look at how it all operates.  Because we’re pumping out non-traditional clergy these days for a church that continues to want to operate in a very traditional way.

And this just isn’t going to work in the long run.

50 thoughts on “The Impending Clergy Shortage…Coming From Left Field

  1. Over the past few years, whenever I am approached by someone considering their call, I refer them to colleagues. Unless or until things change as you have noted above, I am reluctant to advise anyone.

  2. I’m interested: Does the Synod do case studies on thriving congregations, particularly ones that have had a turnaround due to strong leadership, similar to business case studies?
    You once asked if corporations needed pastors; conversely do pastors/clergy need corporate strategery (Thank you SNL) as well?

    • A great question. There are all sorts of stats on this, and business strategies are already influencing some of the current realities of churches (which are, essentially, small non-profits).

      But the minute parishioners smell business strategies they get angry/anxious/nervous. They want business results, but not the business models…because “the church isn’t a business.”

      Of course it isn’t. But do I look at a P&L sheet every week? Yes I do. Do I field complaints every week? Yes I do. Do I work on long-term and short-term strategy? Yes I do.

      • Well, I was more speaking to stymieing the clergy shortage through an understanding of what congregational strength can look like, its something that would be more visible at a synod/central diocese level though- was curious about how that worked. Definitely not suggesting that more PnL or CBA analysis is needed, if I’m reading your note correctly, its clearly a favorite part of your job.

      • Lol. I actually don’t mind that part of the work, though many think it *shouldnt* be part of the work (which is part of the problem).

        We do have models for congregational vitality, and they borrow heavily from the corporate world.

  3. We need to stop crying wolf about a clergy shortage until all our trained ministers of Word and Sacrament have calls. I know people of color, especially women, gay people and older (second career) people who wait ridiculously long times to be called by a congregation. There’s clearly a shortage of young straight white cis males who are married and have 1.6 children. Congregations need to be guided to openness about calling gifted leaders who don’t fit in their box. When that happens, I’ll listen to those bemoaning a clergy shortage.

    • Certainly a lot of truth to what you’re saying, and another reason why younger clergy are leaving the ministry. They can’t find calls, or conversely, pastors that do find calls don’t want to serve in a system where this type of situation exists.

  4. At least in my church, another issue is that “their people,” the generation they are a part of, are not a part of the church. We have watched our confirmed youth grow up, graduate college, get jobs and not return. Many have not married or started families, but even those who have are looking for something different than the church they grew up in. We love them and miss them, but can’t figure out how to serve them.

  5. A major part of the problem is that younger ministers try to make their new churches into an extension of their seminary experience. They are sheltered for four years in a religious bubble and come out into the real church world, where they give up ministry in the first five years when they realize the church people won’t play at being seminary with them.

    • Hmmm. “Playing seminary” isn’t a phrase I’m familiar with, and doesn’t sound very generous. There certainly is some truth to the fact that the two are different, seminary and the parish, but I don’t imagine either are “playing.”

    • Statements like that are pretty flat if they don’t include examples. What makes you say that? What does “playing seminary” look like? As I see it, most of us (I am a 2017 grad) know pretty well that seminary is nothing like church and we are pretty happy when we are done. Many are already active in ministry. Most hold jobs while attending. Most aren’t fresh out of college. Most are pretty aware of church dynamics.

    • Stushie: This post reflects the attitude that almost convinced me to leave ministry at age 56 after 20 years in the pulpit; the notion that the worship that feeds YOUR soul and leads YOU to deeper relationship with God is the only “real” church. I have no interest in that kind of exclusionary ministry. In fact – it is one of the reasons so many creatives and dreamers and artists and philosophers don’t sit in the pews anymore. After a while, we all just got tired of having our thoughts ridiculed and our fingers slapped by people who are not willing to listen or compromise or adapt. I hope you’ve found a place where you belong. I remain in ministry because I have found a congregation full of people who are on a journey of transformation and growth. We play and we are a real church. As a church with a 150 + year heritage perhaps this congregation is a bit like some of the wisest elders in the church who realize that it’s time to let go and let God lead the next generation into new ministries.

  6. All valid comments…but I also think another problem is decades old…For decades, we have not prepared pastors for the daily/weekly/monthly “stuff” of congregational ministry. (Leadership development, change management, conflict management, fund raising, vision/mission building…just to name a few,). So all of those new pastors, especially “first call” pastors are totally unprepared. Tragically these young/faithful/unprepared pastors then become like lambs led to the slaughter. This lack of being prepared for the daily grind of ministry…is frustrating for both the congregation and the new pastor. That frustration often leads to conflict, which is often dumped on the pastor and way too often tragically dumped on the pastor’s family’s. If it were not for good mentors and patient, faithful, wise pastor coaches/mentors, I would have bailed on ordained ministry a decade or two ago. Classes on (conflict/leadership/finance/etc) probably should be taught by working/successful pastors and not seminary theologians too…them’s my .02 to some truly great questions about Jesus’ North American Church’s future.

    • I am a December 2017 grad, and I took courses on Leadership development, change management, conflict management, and, vision/mission building while in seminary. They were taught by the authors of leading books on each topic, seasoned pastors who taught from experience. As a second career seminarian with several decades experience as a business owner, I can confidently say that these issues are being addressed to prepare seminary students for the “daily grind” of ministry. I’ve spent the last year and a half (solo internship + interim while awaiting call) leading a congregation, and I was well prepared.

      That doesn’t change the fact that I am now 6 months past graduation and soon to be unemployed. Not for lack of ability or a desire to serve. The call process is systemically broken.

    • Sounds like you assume all seminary graduates are 27 years old. They aren’t. More than half of my graduating class were second career. We were well beyond not uderstanding conflict, money and leadership. Seminary and life prepared us for the church. The ‘church’ as it stands today doesn’t want leadership… it wants a pastor that can recreate that particular congrgation’s golden years. Hhhhmmmmm. May semninary should teach magic!

      • Thanks for commenting. If I were to write the article over again, I would amend the language just a little bit to note that I am not necessarily talking about the age of the pastor, but the number of years they’ve been out of seminary. You make a salient point.

    • Did you ever consider that what is needed is a deep spirituality and transformation of each minister? That seems to be missing in so very many folks coming from seminary as well as those who have been around for a while. It’s not a business…it is the Way of Life in Christ! And not a head trip! It is a way of the heart!

      • Yes, Nancy. I absolutely disagree with your assessment: I see tons of transformation in ministers. I don’t think that’s the issue. And it certainly is not a business. But it is a small non-profit, and that practical reality is not something that will go away just because we don’t want it to be true…

      • Certainly disagree with you – it’s not an either/or. Both/and is the way, however, without the deeper spirituality essentials get lost

      • I don’t believe it’s an either/or situation at all.

        But the practical realities on the ground in the parish do not become easier when we slap spiritual language/desire on it.

  7. “We’re pumping out non-traditional clergy these days for a church that continues to want to operate in a very traditional way.”

    If only the problem were only on the church operations side! I think many seminaries are still training clergy for the “traditional” (1950s-model) church … and then wondering why the churches are failing and why pastors are frustrated. We don’t live in the 1950s, and that model of church was already struggling by the 1960s.

    We need to be training clergy that are able to read and respond to the culture at least as well as they read scripture. And training them for how to navigate organizational change, to guide a congregation from 1950 to 2020. I use those skills (which fortunately my seminary taught) way more often than I use Hebrew.

  8. Why aren’t more of these clergy that are fed up with stagnant, head in the sand congregations starting new, competitive congregations? If there is a new way to do church that resonates with young families, I am only seeing pockets of this, and most of it is on the fundamental side.

    • Oh..I don’t know..maybe the 100k in seminary debt keep us busy with other full time jobs while we try to find ways to enter full time ministry and keep,our families alive. It’s not like many of those who benefited from financial help during their seminary time are not writing big checks to help the next generation.

      • Might it be fair to say that judicatories are not funding the start-up congregations that are needed to re-start the church’s mission? Where there are dynamic start-ups, I see vocations (and lots of them). Clearly our 4+ year training model is broken, but so is our standard model for the congregation. Of course the church is a business (with its own particular missiological metrics, but a similar need for money); of course we have to adapt our mission to the new cultural realities if we don’t want to die out; and, perhaps sadly, we can’t please everybody. I believe that the ones who are most responsible for telling these truths are our clergy and more importantly, our judicatory leaders. There is hope; it is possible to grow churches; we have found and trained congregational leaders in a number of ways over the centuries… Perhaps we should expect it to involve taking up our crosses and letting the dead bury the dead…

  9. If a person (male or female, straight,gay lesbian) is “called” by God to do His work as the Apostles ,were and by ordination passed on without break to this day….does he or she also get the assurance that “if this ministry gets tough, you may opt out at any time..Golly, if this person gets “the call” and is examined and found to be suitable,(by other humans with exceptional skills)…I would think that this is it, it is so holy and sacred to be called , man they are in it for life!! This “call to vocation” astounds me in that it can be so manipulated one can make a fortune at it, great pensions and benefits and , if it doesn’t go as expected.. you can retire, or just give it up whenever . Oh my, you can negotiate with God who called you to this holy ministry? I would think that if God called you to it, He will guide you through it.

    • This is another reason pastors are leaving their church jobs. They are faced with vicious barbs, words that sting, and unhealthy communication. Our calls go far outside the church. Leaving a church job doesn’t mean that we are leaving our call. In fact, most of our work is found outside the church, even if we have a church job.

      Also, fortune? Great pension and benefits? Many pastors go without paychecks for weeks or months at a time because the church can not afford to pay our salary. I work halftime with no pension or health insurance and continue to pay down my seminary debts.

  10. I’m leaving my current congregation b/c of a great job opportunity for my spouse that takes us out of state, but I will also be exiting congregational ministry after 15 years and don’t plan to seek another call in the foreseeable future. The people in my current congregation are wonderful, welcoming and accepting people, but only a few are actually committed to the community…the others just like the idea of a progressive, open and affirming church in the heart of the Bible belt, but choose to spend their time and energy elsewhere. Or they come to be accepted and healed from the damage done to them by other churches, and then move on–which is not all bad, but not something you can build a sustainable congregation on. It’s exhausting work. I’m selfishly choosing to find another way to serve that is not so self-depleting.

  11. I don’t dispute many of your observations. However, I do know that, in the Presbyterian Church (USA) at least, there are four pastors looking for a call for every open position.

    • Fascinating observation. That’s not the case in my context, though, as I mention, full-time calls that pay a living wage are disappearing.

      My first offer for a call straight out of Seminary was for $28,000 a year, for full time work in Chicago, with the possibility of a raise “if things go well.”

      Needless to say I turned down that opportunity…

      • And a female took it because she was not being giving the interviews to congregations that could afford more. It is nice to say “I didn’t take it” when you knew that being a cis white male would eventually get you the call with the right package. The view point of minority clergy is very different. There are sustainable calls, but we are not given the interviews or they would prefer a white Male clergy over a person of color/female/differently abled/LGBTQ clergy most of the time. After 10 years I have yet to have a full package salary and have taken the 28k more than once because it is better than nothing.

  12. I’m a 2009 grad, still fixing computers (my old job). The pastoral calling and passion is still there on my end, yet I’ve never found a ministry that truly desired me / called me (unless I was fully self supporting). Where does a passionate Jesus follower who is mystical, contemplative, missional, an Anglican (wannabe), sacramental, charismatic, who was raised Lutheran, and who is proudly evangelical as Lausanne defines it (, with a peacemaking (Mennonite-like) heart, with a heart for global missions, who has the gift of exhortation (and as I’ve been told, the prophetic), who is currently attending an conservative African American Baptist church (weekly bible study and some services) in Utah go to find a “calling?” The Holy Spirit has placed all of this in me, all of this passion and FIRE for Jesus, His church, and His kingdom, yet I can’t fully find a church home or a denom, let a lone a calling with such a non standard background. I just don’t fit in.

    I’ll never forget the ELCA seminary that I dropped out of in SC, where the professor would not Amen my prayers in the worship practicum class because I added music (piano), scripture references, etc to the liturgy, or what have you…

    I remember going to a denominational meeting during an internship (10-hours per week, which was not nearly enough time or hands-on experience), while at another church and seminary that I graduated from with my MDIV, where the entire process felt like a business meeting, fueled not by the Holy Spirit, but business principles, philosophical liberalism, (I know…. that’s deep), and networking. I was disgusted at the entire process. Where was God in all of this?

    Anyway, my only assumption is that it’s not meant to be, yet as previously said, that burning fire and passion is still inside of me. Perhaps the Holy Spirit is still saying wait and be patient. Having said all of that, I’m in a GREAT place where I’m literally being discipled inside the African American Baptist church. Amazing! I’m blown away by the Holy Spirit and how the His “wind” is moving not only within me, and more so, among the congregation, across generational and ethnic lines. Beautiful!

  13. Spot on, Timothy! 29 years in the ELCA and the trends couldn’t be more obvious. And the white, Scandinavian, eastern Europe crowd is more entrenched in tradition than ever. I don’t foresee any great changes ahead and I’m looking forward to retirement.

  14. Pingback: We’re Losing Pastors Fast | joescheets

  15. Everybody is talking about wanting the church to change – be more modern. The Bible tells us that God said the standard and told His creation. “I am the Lord, I change not”. Furthermore, the New Testament reinforces that: “Jesus Christ, the same, yesterday, today and forever”. I was a bi-vocational pastor for over 30 years. Now that I am retired, I still pastor part-time. It’s the hardest job I ever loved. The church doesn’t care about how many German Philosophers you can quote. They don’t care about how proficient you are in Hebrew and Greek. The people in the pew want the pastor to explain how the Bible relates to their everyday lives. They want to know how to apply it to the struggles and trials they experience on a daily basis.

    The problem is that most big city churches want a pastor who is 27 years old with 30 years experience. Smaller churches don’t pay enough to make it a full-time profession, so many people, like me are bi-vocational. That’s where you separate a calling from a career. If you are genuinely “called” you will do whatever you have to do to spread the Gospel message. It won’t be easy. You have to ask for time off for funerals. You may have late night calls on people in the hospital ER. I have done that many times, plus I also served in a voluntary capacity as a police chaplain, notifying families and consoling the loved ones of suicide victims.

    I wouldn’t have traded that time that the Lord used me to His glory for anything in the world. If you want a career, go into business. If you want a calling, let me give you a secret. “If He calls you to it: He will equip you for it”

    • Thanks for commenting, Allan. It’s clear we don’t agree on it, but I appreciate your voice in the conversation.

  16. Many churches struggle financially and can’t offer a pastor a living salary, parsonage, health insurance and retirement plan. Seminaries need to adapt and be more like night schools and extension programs and Pastors should have another “worldly” skill to make enough money to live on. Each church could have two part-time pastors to cover the burden of the church and provide them with a stipend and also cover the cost of the education they obtained in order to be a pastor. This is the model that needs to be adopted. However, if people are looking at going into huge debt, but not being able to find a job at all or needing to add secular work to a full-time schedule there is good reason to choose not to be a pastor.

    Being a pastor as a second career makes a good deal of sense as the person has other life experience and understands the stresses their congregants are going through.

    I was in a small church and the main priest had a full-time job outside of the church. The church paid for him to take an extension program at a local seminary. So there was an online component and for 2 weeks in two consecutive summers he was in residence. He was educated in for Priest role in another congregation before and had an undergraduate degree. So it might not work for someone with no base education, but it was an option. Another priest helped part-time, but he had another full-time job somewhere else.

  17. “We need to take an honest look at how it all operates. Because we’re pumping out non-traditional clergy these days for a church that continues to want to operate in a very traditional way.” – Does this mean that we have a shortage of people who answer the call to he traditional clergy?

    • I’m not sure if I get your meaning.

      By “traditional” here I’m saying “operating in a past era, organizationally.” It’s not a commentary on worship style or denomination, but rather of habit and expectation.

  18. Sadly, a very talented and gifted clergy friend, deeply unhappy in his current call, is considering leaving the priesthood. His experiences, and mine in my first church as solo pastor, mirror your blog post. Though my current call is a match made in heaven, (which I know is not typical these days), perhaps it’s time to look more closely at how we match clergy to call.

  19. Many churches hesitate to call a pastor over 55 because they want a pastor who will be with them for 20+ years. Few pastors do that now. I am starting a writing ministry to reach people God loves, and I preach occasionally in nearby churches as I wait for a call.

  20. The real culprit is cronyism. Judicatories do not remove standing when a pastor reaches 68. They allow 2nd, 3rd, 4th careers to pander to aging congregations while young 1st careers are swallowed up by student loan debt and toxic churches due to a pastor who didn’t rock the boat and drew a check until his 83rd birthday. And then the next pastor who sick of being a lawyer at age 55 took a few classes to replace the 83 year old pensioner. Here I Stand.

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