While researching another project, I came across an interesting study completed a few years back by Auburn Theological Seminary in New York. The study suggests that churches in America may be facing a dramatic shortage of ministers in the coming years.
According to the study, less than a third of students now attending seminary intend to minister to congregations. These students profess a sense of calling, and their purpose in attending seminary is to answer that calling. They just don’t see themselves serving local churches.
The effects of this trend may already be at work. According to a survey of denominations conducted by the Alban Institute, the number of ministers under 35 has dropped off dramatically since the 1970s, in some instances dropping more than half. As baby boomers continue to retire, a real crisis in ministerial leadership is beginning to take shape for congregations.
Why is this happening? Studies conducted around the issue of calling reveal that the apparent lack of interest in congregational work stems from an array of issues.
One issue, for instance, is low pay. Although clergy salaries have been rising steadily over the past 25 years, they have not kept pace with other professionals with comparable training and experience. Added to this are long hours and exhausting job demands imposed by local church work.
Young seminarians also point to a loss of social respect as a factor in turning them away from church work. Scandals among clergy and the priesthood in recent years have certainly taken their toll on the way society views the ministry.
There is another piece to this as well. The young people interviewed in these studies gave evidence of a vibrant faith and a genuine sense of calling. They care about people and see themselves working in their communities to help people in need. Apparently they don’t see church as a place where this kind of work can be adequately done.
Maybe the young and the faithful are weary of the power struggles that have characterized denominational life for the last half century. Christians have fought over the Bible, over gays and lesbians, over marriage and divorce, even over Jesus.
Or maybe the young and called are sensing a loss of spirit as churches become more and more politicized. In many congregations it is hard to tell where the church stops and political parties begin. In some services there is as much emphasis on party platform issues as there is on the liturgy.
I remember a story about church life in the 1950s, a time when our country was obsessed with the spread of communism. A large church in a major city was hosting a citywide crusade. They invited a popular evangelist to preach. Every night during the service, the evangelist hammered the evils of communism. Toward the end of the week, the evangelist expressed his frustration to the pastor about the lack of response to his messages. No one was coming forward to make public professions during the altar calls.
“What do you want them to do?” the pastor asked. “Come forward and join the FBI?”
It’s strange that churches are finding their young and faithful leaving the church in order to fulfill their callings. It’s enough to make us wonder if churches have been hammering one thing, while God wanted something else entirely.
James L. Evans is pastor of Auburn First Baptist Church in Auburn, Ala.