Clergy Shortage: Perception and Reality

I hear all the time about our clergy shortage.  In fact, I see it with my own eyes.  There are churches in my district who do not have an appointed pastor.  These congregations end up being filled in any number of ways.   However, this morning at the Hartford Institute for Religion Research I read a very interesting article by Patricia Chang of Boston University about the perceived clergy shortage (long version/short version).   She describes the four important features of today’s “clergy market:”

  • There is a surplus of clergy to fill the available clergy positions.  If one looks at the number of ordained clergy compared to the number of churches in a denomination.   In some cases there are as many as two clergy per church, with seminary enrollments continuing to climb. This data contradicts the perception that there is a clergy shortage.
  • There is, however, a large vacancy rate if one looks at the actual number of clergy serving in churches.  A high number of churches are without a full time pastor. This vacancy rate supports the perception of a clergy shortage.  What the perception obscures, however, is that the shortage tends to be located in small churches.
  • The majority of churches in the U.S. are small, with 100 or fewer members.
  • The majority of the church attendees go to large churches with 350 or more members.

Chang then summarizes, “In other words the structure of opportunity provides ample jobs for those clergy interested in serving small churches but far far fewer for those wishing to serve in medium or large churches. Seminary students, most of whom were raised and formed in large churches (as are the majority of the American population) feel called to serve in the kind of churches in which they were raised – but these opportunities are declining.”

So, there’s a clergy shortage if you want to serve small rural congregations!  If you want to serve medium or larger congregations, the rumors you’ve heard of clergy shortages may have been greatly exaggerated.

Here’s the important question for United Methodists.  Should this change how we look for potential leaders?  Should we be thinking about nurturing the call among people more likely to serve in rural and smaller congregations?  Who would that be?

9 thoughts on “Clergy Shortage: Perception and Reality

  1. Matt – Thanks for posting this. It is interesting to note that the clergy shortage is in small rural congregations, but not a clergy shortage in the the larger urban churches.

    I think we should change how we look for potential leaders, but I am not sure that it is for this reason. These lead to some very hard questions that are probably deeper than we have a clergy shortage for small rural churches -> therefore we should try to fill those shortages.

    One thing that jumped out at me is that if we are trying to recruit and encourage young pastors to enter into ordained ministry, this trend poses even more difficult questions. I have not met very many young seminarians who are chomping at the bit to go serve a two point charge out in the sticks.

    It’s tough because there are wonderful people created in God’s image who live in these small towns and we cannot ignore them.

  2. Kevin: Yes, yes, and yes. 🙂

    Your second point about young seminarians is one that immediately came to mind while I was reading this study. I’m not sure where to go from there, because your third point is true. Rural churches are not farm leagues for the big leagues of urban ministry. They are, as you say, wonderful people created in God’s image.

    There may be creative solutions within our Methodist tradition that we haven’t explored as a denomination in 100 years. I’m still wrestling with that, I guess.

    I’m ready for your book on an authentic Wesleyan spirituality for ministry and mission. Let me know when it’s released.

  3. Matt – Thank you for reading this and passing along the highlights. I appreciate your willingness to share insights and pose provocative questions. I think that this is fascinating take on the issue of clergy shortage and you raise some great questions.

    I think that it should change how we look for potential leaders and could potentially change the way that churches are started or maintained. I think that the denomination, clergy and congregations continue or begin to focus creating a culture and environment in which people can hear and respond to God’s call to ministry. I think that this is true for all sizes of congregations. As it is likely that those who are called will be more willing and perhaps able to serve effectively in a congregation like the one from which they have come, rural and small congregations may perhaps be those who should provide more focus in this area.

    This is an issue that I think about here at Resurrection. If there is a culture in which people are called and respond to a life of ministry to what will they be asked to lead? This is a question that I ask myself at times. Thanks, Matt!

  4. Matt, why is the word “money” not coming up in this discussion?

    I know that there are culture issues between urban and rural churches. I know a small church is just a different kind of leadership challenge than a large church.

    But – the fact is – a small church does not pay as well and has fewer resources for ministry.

    Isn’t that part of the rural shortage and urban surplus equation?

    So, I’d say finding pastors willing to live on much less salary than their big city brothers and sisters is one issue.

    Big churces are also attractive – I imagine – becasue they tend to be in areas where there are lots of opportunities for active ministry.

    If you burn to spread the gospel, then it might be a bit frustrating to have a rural county-seat church in a county that is shrinking, the median age is in the high 50s, and practically everyone already attends a church.

    That is not a fair description of many small or rural churches, but it is probably a good description of many that are hard to fill.

    Also, there is human pride. I bet every UM pastor in the country (or nearly so) knows who pastors the big churches in their annual conferences. Those pastors – because they tend to be effective in their ministry – have leadership roles in the annual conference and influence.

    There is nothing wrong with that. But you need a crop of pastors immune to the attractions of that if you want to keep them out in the rural charges.

  5. Money and pride?! You sound like you believe in total depravity or something. Oh well, I guess you’d be in good company since Wesley did too. One of my professors once said Wesley believed in total depravity, just not tee-total depravity! But, I digress.

    Yes, these issues are all important to this question. How do you suggest we get a crop that is “immune to attractions?”

  6. Matt, no fair. If I had answers to my own questions I wouldn’t be raising them on your blog. 🙂

    Of course, I don’t have a good answer. Indeed, I don’t think my solution is possible. It certainly isn’t a practical plan for staffing small churches.

    If the gap in salary and prestige between rural and urban/suburban churches is a key problem, then it seems that reducing that gap is the solution. I wonder if there are good analogs in other fields of human endeavor. How do you get doctors to go to rural areas? Or lawyers?

    Or, of course, you can close small churches. That would eliminate the shortage, too.

  7. Haha, I have spent too many hours teaching, I guess.

    I don’t think it’s just salary. If it were, we could always develop some kind of flat rate salary system. I’ve heard that’s how Seventh Day Adventists do it for their ordained clergy, sometimes giving pastors with additional responsibilities something like 109% of the denominational pay scale. Would we find other ways of sizing one another up? Do kids in private schools that use uniforms find other ways to judge one another?

    I don’t have the answers. I do think this matter will only be concluded by asking serious and difficult questions about the relationship between local pastors and the annual conference. Eventually, we need to develop better systems and models to encourage and support local (contextual) leadership to take leadership. What it boils down to is this: if only people from large urban areas are responding to God’s call to ordained ministry, we’ll continue to have struggles between small local congregations and their leadership.

  8. Matt —

    The money is definitely an issue, but I think it bears less on prestige and perks than on costs of living (at least I hope it does). Our seminaries are ridiculously expensive and our new ministers often come in with debt loads that few smaller churches can help them cope with.

    I don’t think we can expect sanity regarding the costs of the degrees anytime soon, so some of this will change when our church, either at the conference or general agency level, steps up and starts to address issues connected to seminary debt. Until then, a lot of pastors will resist small-church, rural appointments, and a lot of young UMs called to ministry will opt for other areas of service or even other denominations whose ordination requirements don’t entail a ruinous (or maybe even usurious) level of financial debt to complete.

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