By Charles H. Chandler

What’s happening to our nation’s ministers? Are they on the way to becoming an endangered species? With the unusually high percentage of ministers retiring in the next ten years and a very low number of young people entering the ministry, who will lead our churches into the future? These are questions that denomination leaders have been asking in recent years.

An article in the April 4, 2004 issue of the Louisville, Kentucky Courier-Journal sounded the alarm concerning the status of ministers in our nation. Most denominations are experiencing a shortage of ministers, especially among the mainline denominations. Based upon figures from the year 2000, the Courier-Journal reported that the number of declining clergy (including pastors and associate ministers working in music, youth, education and other fields but excluding those working in seminaries and denominational executives) revealed a disturbing picture. The ratio of clergy in ten different denominations shows this trend.

United Church of Christ
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . 7 clergy per ten churches
United Methodist Church
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . 7 clergy per ten churches
American Baptist Churches in the U.S.A.
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . 8 clergy per ten churches
Presbyterian Church (USA)
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . 8 clergy per ten churches
Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . 9 clergy per ten churches
Evangelical Lutheran Church in America
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . 9 clergy per ten churches
Reformed Church in America
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . 10 clergy per ten churches
Episcopal Church*
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . 11 clergy per ten churches
Assemblies of God
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . 15 clergy per ten churches
Southern Baptist Convention
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . 19 clergy per ten churches
*Based on 1993 figures

Many Protestant churches are struggling to find and keep pastors. Many smaller churches are turning to lay pastors and other new models of leadership. Even the faces of seminarians are changing. The number of clergy under thirty-five has drastically dropped. A significant portion of seminarians is made up of second career students.

Smaller towns with small congregations have difficulty securing and keeping ministers. The Alban Institute, a Maryland-based religious consulting organization, reports incoming seminarians have lower academic credentials than in the past and often arrive with low levels of religious literacy and significant personal and therapeutic needs.

Catholics, who are perhaps experiencing the greatest shortage of clergy, have turned more to lay ministry.  The numbers of priests are down 26 percent since 1965 and their average age is approaching sixty.

Much of the clergy crisis shortage is a result of “churches beating their plowshares into swords.”  When forced to resign, ministers have limited resources to cope. When members of a congregation lose their job they often enjoy the support of their minister and fellow church members to walk with them through that crisis. This is not true for ministers. They no longer have their support system of the church and the friends they have made. They are typically not aware that they may have legal rights. The loss of self-esteem, the prevailing insecurity, the resulting loss of goals and disillusionment with the organized church are often the common results of forced termination. This picture dampens the enthusiasm of young people considering vocations in parish ministry.

The crisis within the church reaches far beyond the church. It also affects the communities and society in general. Healthy ministers help produce healthy churches. Healthy churches help produce healthy societies. There’s a lot at stake.

The Barna Research Group, a consulting firm that does marketing studies of American culture and the Christian faith, reports that such uprooting comes with costs to both minister and church. Two decades ago, the average tenure for a parish minister was over seven years. Today, the average tenure has decreased to barely five years. This means that congregations often miss the most productive period of the pastor’s tenure, which according to Barna are years ten to fourteen.

The trend of forced termination may be shortchanging both ministers and churches.  Congregations are left with deep wounds as God’s servants are pushed out. But most alarming is the trauma to the minister and his/her family who are uprooted, often with no place to go.

These disturbing revelations do not end here. Barna reports that only 54 percent of ministers who are terminated go back into full time church ministry positions. One denominational executive stated that of the current students in his denomination’s seminaries, only 20 percent are preparing for a church related ministry position. And within ten years after graduation, only half of the 20 percent of students currently preparing for church ministry positions will still be in parish ministry.

The declining numbers of ministers in our nation is significant. Where it goes from here is dependent in large measure on how churches treat their servants. Churches must begin now to correct this growing trend before ministers really do become an endangered species.

Charles H. Chandler founded Ministering to Ministers Foundation in 1994 after experiencing a forced termination. He spent the next 23 years caring for ministers in all faith groups who also experienced conflict and/or forced termination. We owe a debt a gratitude for Charles’ devotion to ministers and their spouses.

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