Monday, March 2, 2015

Where are the future pastors coming from?

I recently met with a pastor search committee to help them begin the process of finding a bivocational pastor. One of their questions focused on the number of available pastors that they might interview, and I gave them the answer I usually give: the pool is getting smaller. Many of us currently in ministry are nearing, or already past, retirement age, and many in seminary are not planning to enter pastoral ministry.

The Association of Theological Schools surveyed 6,900 students entering their schools for the 2011-2012 school year. Only 19 percent of those students indicated they planned to have a parish ministry position after graduation. The remaining 81 percent were planning on going into counseling, social work, chaplaincy, church planting, and various specialized ministry positions. Some reported they enrolled in seminary to further their own spiritual growth, and a number of them were undecided what they were going to do with their seminary education. Less than half of the students planned to be ordained.

Other studies have found that 50 percent of pastors will drop out of full time ministry within five years after graduating seminary. While it is not believed that we have a clergy shortage at present, given the above facts we must be concerned about the number of pastors who will be available to serve the future church.

For smaller, bivocational churches the problem is even worse. Studies indicate that many clergy persons refuse to even consider serving as a pastor in those churches for a variety of reasons. Clearly, with the growing number of bivocational churches in many denominations, this is something we must address.

What can we do to ensure an adequate supply of pastors for our churches and especially our bivocational churches? Let me present an initial list, and you can feel free to add to it.

  • We must begin to lift up pastoral ministry as a worthy calling for young people to consider. 
  • We need to pray that God will point us to persons who might be good pastors and then challenge those persons to consider if God might be calling them into ministry. I'm in the ministry today because a pastor asked if I had ever felt that God was calling me into pastoral ministry. He had, but I had not told anyone until the pastor asked me that question.
  • We need to lift up bivocational ministry as a valid calling of God on a person's life. I do not believe the growing need we have for more bivocational ministers has caught God by surprise.
  • We need to look at how we train and prepare students for pastoral ministry. It is especially critical that we seek new ways to make seminary education more affordable. There is something wrong with seminary graduates leaving school with student debts of $20,000-80,000.
  • Smaller churches may need to look within their congregation for their next pastor. People who have the gifts and passion to serve as a pastor, and who sense that God has called them to that role, can be trained in a variety of ways that does not require them to put their lives on hold for three years while they attend seminary.
We cannot and must not attempt to call anyone into pastoral ministry. That is God's work. But, we can talk with and pray with persons who may sense such a call on their lives. We can walk with them through the discernment process as they consider what that calling might look like in their lives. If someone determines that God has called him or her into ministry, we can support and encourage that call. Finally, we need to assist them as they prepare to answer that call.

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