A recent article posted at Associated Baptist Press documents a trend that folks in seminaries and divinity schools have been noticing for some time: the number of students who want to do ministry is rising, but the number who aspire to be pastors is falling.

At Campbell University Divinity School, for example, only 20 percent or so begin their divinity school trek with the idea that they are preparing to become a pastor, according to dean Mike Cogdill. The number is a bit skewed, he says, because many of those who express a desire in youth ministry will ultimately become pastors. Even so, the percentage remains far less than half.

Students love God and love the idea of ministry. They want to make a difference in the world, but don’t necessarily see the church as the best place to do it. Many can still see themselves serving in church staff positions, but others prefer institutional roles such as chaplaincy ministries in a hospital, hospice, retirement home, or military setting. Others want to do hands-on missions, either through traditional channels or humanitarian organizations like Habitat for Humanity or Samaritan’s Purse.

Why is it that students have a heart for God, but not for church?

Some speculate that it has something to do with a rise in conflict in church life, at least among Baptist churches. Church conflict is nothing new, but the theological conflict among Baptists during the past thirty years — and the promotion of a more authoritarian leadership style for pastors — is at least one contributor to an apparent increase in the number of pressure-cooker conflicts and forced terminations among Baptist congregations.

Students who grow up in a dysfunctional church are less likely to imagine themselves occupying the hot seat behind the pulpit, and may pursue what are seen as “safer” ministries with lower profiles and lower pressure.

But, the rise in conflict is certainly not the only issue. We’re still on the cusp of postmodernity, and the cultural shift has given us a generation of young adults who have little allegiance to institutions, including the church. They’re more interested in relationships — including their personal relationship with Christ — than in supporting an institution that may not appear very healthy to begin with.

Should we then expect an upcoming crisis, a plethora of pastorless churches?

Not necessarily. It is nothing new for students who are interested in ministry to gravitate more toward pastoral ministry as they grow older, more experienced, and more confident in their abilities.

But, that doesn’t mean we can rest easy. One option I hope more seminaries and divinity schools will explore is finding ways to tap into the postmodern interest in relationships — and demonstrate that the core call of a pastor is to build relationships.

The pastor is not to rule the church, but to love the church, remembering that Jesus taught us to love even our enemies. True pastoral leadership is earned through committed care for the congregation, rather than inherited by virtue of the office.

In the 26 years I served as a pastor, there were conflicts, to be sure, but there were also tremendous rewards. Among those rewards, none were more gratifying than the opportunity to build relationships with others, to watch children grow and flower, to walk with adults through the transitions of life, to sit with those on the path to decline and even death.

Ultimately, if we truly believe in the concept of a divine “call,” then we must trust that God will call out those who are needed to provide leadership in the churches — and pray that those who are called will answer.

There are many forks in the road of ministry, and all are to be celebrated. The road branches in numerous directions, but the various paths often intersect, and many of those forks in the road will ultimately come to the pastor’s parking spot.

So we pray.

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