Only 12 years ago, there were 1,601 ministry positions and 1,326 call seekers in the matching and referral system of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). Because all the buzz at that time was about the need for pastors, a great deal of energy and careful strategies went into clergy recruitment efforts. The Lilly Foundation, the Pastoral Leadership Search Effort (PLSE) and our PC(USA) seminaries all mobilized for action, driven by fearful rumors about mass retirements and a mass exodus of young pastors from ministry. Since neither of these outcomes has yet occurred, we have not had the expected attrition.
Today there are 2,159 persons under care of sessions and presbyteries preparing for ministry. They and the church are investing significant resources into their education and discernment process. At the same time, congregations are experiencing net losses of members and support while the fixed costs of ministry (buildings, energy, pastoral compensation and benefits) have risen.
Despite our cautions that fewer congregations are in a position to compensate a pastor adequately, seminaries have continued to attract eager students and presbyteries have continued to take sincere individuals under care even as churches continued to eliminate full-time pastoral positions. Separate parts of the leadership system focused on the preparation of individuals, assuming a call would be there for them to begin their ministry service.
Even if we don’t take action to slow the flow of candidates for ministry, we must share the facts about the costs of preparation, the employment prospects and the compensation realities. We cannot allow gifted, eager young people to enter the process without knowing the sacrifice they are being asked to make.
Nonetheless, I see many signs of hope and opportunity.
Even as employment opportunities have declined, there is no lack of ministry to be done. The harvest is plentiful! There are some creative, collaborative efforts to put to work those who are prepared and ready to receive a call. Among them are For Such a Time as This presbyterianmission.org/ministries/residency, a small-church pastoral residency program, the 1001 initiative onethousandone.org to begin new worshipping communities and the Committee on Theological Education leadership initiative bit.ly/cotepentecost. There are also significant efforts to reduce the educational debt burden of our candidates to free them to serve, including our new Transformational Leadership Debt Assistance bit.ly/tldassistance for those who serve in tentmaking or temporary pastoral positions.
As the lines of ministry function continue to be blurred in our congregations and communities — with more ruling elders serving pastoral functions and more seminary graduates seeking ordination to new forms of ministry — the church is forced to consider the purpose of ordination and the functions of the ministries of the church.
In this conversation are the seeds for a reinvigoration of the ministry of the baptized and the ministries of ruling elder and deacon. Our theological understanding of shared ministry is unique and has the potential for unleashing powerful energy for the work of Christ in the world. This comes just at the time that the baby boomers will be moving into retirement, seeking new purpose for their lives. Gifted volunteer leadership is a wonderful and growing resource.
We must reclaim our appreciation for the baptismal call of all for service so that we help Presbyterians find the path of service that best fits their gifts. Many who fall into the path of preparation to become teaching elders might find their calling in other ministries and should be supported and affirmed in them.
The PC(USA) and other mainline denominations have a serious crisis that might be framed as “clergy oversupply.” The abundance of persons energized for ministry is a blessing. Now we must find new economic strategies and ways to equip the saints for the ministry realities of our time.
MARCIA MYERS is the director of vocation for the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.).