There’s no shortage of students entering seminaries, but denominational leaders are scratching their heads and asking why there’s a growing shortage of pastors.
In 2000, the total enrollment in 225 seminaries accredited by the Association of Theological Schools was 72,728, with full-time students totaling 47,872. That was an increase of 7,091 students from the fall of 1996 to the fall of 2000.
Students who pursue the Master of Divinity tend to become local church pastors, but this year for the first time in 40 years the number of these students is down.
“In 1978, 57 percent of the ATS school students were enrolled in the MDiv. Today only 42 percent of the students are enrolled in MDiv programs,” Nancy Merrill, director of communications for ATS, told EthicsDaily.com.
“Of the seminary graduates who are planning to enter parish ministry, 61 percent of the male graduates and 54 percent of the female graduates were expecting to serve as full-time pastors,” Merrill said.
Merrill said the Master of Divinity program still has the largest number of students, but the largest percentage increase of students is in specialized ministries and pastoral studies programs.
The verdict is still out on why there is declining interest in the pastorate, but Duke researchers are examining the trend, she said.
“One thing that is very important,” said Merrill, “is the need for strong role models and influences in the parish to encourage young people who want to enter the ministry.”
Women and ethnic minorities are increasingly taking the degree, while the number of white males remains relatively flat.
In fall 2000, ethnic minorities represented almost 21 percent of the total seminary enrollment. Women constituted 34.9 percent of the total seminary enrollment and 30.7 percent of the total enrollment in the Master of Divinity program.
Merrill said there is a surplus of some ethnic minorities when compared to the numbers and populations of their congregations.
However, women who enter the parish ministry are not staying long. According to a United Methodist Church study of more than 1,300 women, female clergy are leaving the local church ministry at a 10 percent rate higher than male clergy.
The “United Methodist Clergywomen Retention Study” concluded that female Methodist ministers leave the local church primarily because of a lack of denominational support, family responsibilities and rejection by their congregations.
With nine mainline denominational churches closing every day, one might project a clergy surplus, but small churches in most denominations are finding it difficult to fill the pulpits.
Small churches are the norm, according to the “National Congregations Study” in the Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion. More than 1,200 congregations surveyed reported that the median worship attendance is 75, and 59 percent of churches averaged less than 100 in worship.
The Evangelical Lutheran Church of America reported in its landmark study, “Ministry Needs and Resources in the 21st Century,” that some synods have reached a critical shortage of ministers.
The ELCA report stated that 50 percent, or 5,453 churches, have fewer than 100 people in worship, a number similar to the “National Congregations Study.” These small congregations are finding it more difficult to find pastors, and the interim between pastors is growing longer each year.
The increasing number of pastors taking a sabbatical or leaving the ministry is hastening the shortage. In February 2000 there were 445 positions available in ELCA churches and 211 ELCA seminary graduates to fill those positions.
For a large portion of those entering the ministry, it is their second career. These new ministers are older than their predecessors, meaning their tenures will be shorter. More than 40 percent of the seminary students enrolled in 2000 were over 40 years old.
Several denominations are urging current pastors to recruit and encourage the “brightest and best” students. The Lilly Endowment has a new program available for those considering the ministry to explore seminary course work.
The push to raise the enrollments of young seminarians seems to be working. Merrill said the number of seminarians under 35 was up for 2000.
But the decreasing number of pastors is not the only concern facing mainline denominations. The decreasing quality of students is beginning to emerge as a critical issue. An Alban Institute Special Report in 2001, “The Leadership Situation Facing American Congregations,” raised the question of competence among those entering seminary.
“As to assessments of competence, the ATS has tracked GRE verbal scores. From 1981 to 1987, prospective women MDiv students consistently scored above the mean for all examinees. Male students consistently scored below the mean,” according to the report.
The Presbyterian Church USA reported in a Presbyterian Outlook article,”The Crisis in Leadership,” that the failure rate among candidates for ordination in 1999 was “unacceptable.” Thirty-one percent and 39 percent failed the exams on biblical exegesis in the spring and fall semesters, respectively.
In addition, the Alban report cited immaturity, poor interpersonal skills, the inability to comprehend and understand congregations, and the failure to assume responsibility as some of the reasons why the new students are ineffective in the local church.
Mainline denominations want to attract the “brightest and best” students, but will they come? Low salaries, denominational conflict and job stress make other professions seem a lot more attractive.
Ray Furr is a freelance writer and operates his own communications / marketing business in Poquoson, Va.