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?