by Susan Fox and Lynn McClintock
To commemorate the bicentennial of Union Presbyterian Seminary in 2012, students, staff, trustees, professors and community leaders gathered on the lawn of the Union campus in Richmond, Virginia, to bury a time capsule. In a century, the capsule will be unearthed and opened by people living in an ecclesiastical landscape very different from what we know today. What will “church” look like then? Who will be the leaders? How will theological education and the role of seminaries be different?
Clearly, the church is undergoing significant and rapid change as it seeks to be a faithful witness in our complex world. New expressions of being the “community of faith,” such as the 1001 Worshiping Communities initiative and the NEXT Church network, are coming alongside more traditional models. And while membership numbers in mainline denominations continue to shrink, recognition of ministry opportunities outside the four walls of the church are increasing. The placement process for today’s seminary graduates reflects the multiple hues and challenges of church and ministry today. (While ”placement” is not a theologically or functionally accurate word to describe the process of assisting students through candidacy and search for a first call, it continues to be familiar shorthand language in seminaries and the church.)
As Tama Kieves notes in the Huffington Post, finding a calling isn’t as simple as “taking a pill or the right assessment test to pin the tail on the donkey. There’s no recipe.” While Kieves is referring to professions in general, the same is certainly true about first calls in ministry today.
While it is anyone’s guess how placement will look 100 years from now, seminaries are working to prepare students for the new reality that our graduates enter upon graduation. This article explores the dynamic relationship between seminary graduate placement and the changing landscape of the church and world. Developing curriculum, programs, and support that will stay ahead of the curve is both a challenge and an opportunity.
FIRST, THE NUMBERS
The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) uses an Internet-based system called the Church Leadership Connection, or CLC, to connect those seeking leaders for ministry positions with candidates seeking calls.
While not all churches seeking pastoral leadership are reflected in the CLC’s listings, within that system, at the time of this writing, there are 1,680 individuals seeking a call. Of this group, 255 candidates are first-call seekers — those seeking a first position after seminary. Of the 453 open positions in the system, 86 are available for persons seeking a first call — only about one in five.
Christian educators have even tougher odds. The CLC currently reports 211 Personal Information Forms (PIFs) indicating interest in non-certified Christian educator positions. There are currently 8 Christian educator positions and 2 certified Christian educator positions; one of the 8 is open to an educator seeking a first call.
According to PC(USA)’s Research Services, 55 percent of PC(USA) congregations have 100 or fewer members, and the median size congregation has 87 members. It is often the case that smaller churches cannot afford full-time pastoral leadership. While there will always be a need for full-time, ordained clergy, many churches will be seeking pastors and educators for part-time positions.
ENTER SEMINARY GRADUATES INTO THIS CHALLENGING EMPLOYMENT ENVIRONMENT
Despite the numbers, God continues to call men and women to ministry. Students coming to seminary today frequently arrive with the understanding that their call may look different from that of seminary graduates in their parents’ or grandparents’ era. The call that one eventually receives may be surprising. Union Presbyterian Seminary class of 2014 graduate Rachel Jenkins Shepherd’s expectations did not line up with where she was called. She writes, “I expected to be in a small church because they tend to call new pastors with less experience, but in fact I am in an 1,800-member church as an interim associate pastor.” Rachel’s experience may not be that uncommon, where a student enters the call process expecting to be in a particular church setting, and then is surprised — sometimes happily, sometimes less so — where the call leads.
Taking a snapshot of seminary placement is like trying to photograph a toddler standing still. Much like fluctuations in the stock market, placement data varies from day to day. Some students complete presbytery requirements months or even years after graduation. Others are ready to receive a call as soon as they hang up their cap and gown. Spousal employment in a difficult job market, student educational debt, and the need to locate near aging parents are also factors that affect a graduate’s ability to move to take a call. Pastoral and clinical pastoral education residency programs are increasingly attractive options for seminary graduates, as they welcome the opportunity to continue to build valuable skill sets under the supervision of a mentor or supervisor. However, since residency programs are short term, graduates must seek another call within a year or two of graduation.
Creativity, patience, and openness to relocating are valuable qualities for first-call seekers. Jackie Saxon, vice president for student affairs and vocation at Austin Theological Seminary, notes:
For those seeking parish ministries, the best advice I give my students is that they really need to be flexible and recognize that the call may not be to a large, tall-steeple church but instead to a small church in a small town. My students are finding jobs but they have to be willing to move in order to receive those calls. I am also clear that it’s all about timing; where they are in the candidacy process at the time of graduation is key and that for some it may take them a year to find the right fit, so make sure you have Plan A, Plan B and a Plan C. We start working on their “exit strategy” shortly after they have completed New Student Orientation in their first year as 3 or 4 years will fly and before you know it, they have got to go!
Although seminary staff and presbytery committees on preparation for ministry work to prepare students for the realities of the call process, the actual experience is inevitably a unique and unpredictable journey. Recent Union Seminary graduate T.J. Remaley’s search experience is a good example:
The process of completing my PIF was simultaneously exciting (“a culmination of years of effort!”) and terrifying (“what if there’s nothing out there?”). I felt an inherent tension between following the movement and timing of the Spirit, on the one hand, and the fiscal and practical realities of having to move out of seminary housing and finding a stable income on the other. I had to resist the urge to “accept the first thing I could find” simply for the security of knowing I had somewhere to live the week after graduation.
The changing landscape of seminary placement may require that “Plan A” is engaging in bivocational ministry — where graduates work part-time in one or more positions — rather than in a traditional full-time pastor or educator position. The
growing need for bivocational pastors and educators raises new challenges for seminaries as dual degrees (such as Master of Divinity/Master of Social Work or Master of Divinity/Master of Business Administration) may provide more flexibility in a shifting job market than traditional stand-alone Master of Divinity and Master of Arts in Christian Education degrees, which typically are designed to provide full-time leadership in church settings.
Seminaries are facing challenging — and intriguing — questions. How does the need for bivocational pastors impact admission decisions? Should seminaries be recruiting second career persons more aggressively? What is the role of dual degree programs now, what will it be in the future, and what degrees should be considered? How can supervised ministry experiences be shaped in ways that support future bivocational calls? What educational delivery platform — such as online or evening/weekend classes — best address the needs of students who are employed and need to continue working? What is the impact of Certified Ruling Elders on the placement of seminary graduates? (Certified Ruling Elders generally serve part-time in small, often rural congregations that cannot afford full-time leadership, or they are called from within new immigrant congregations to serve as indigenous leaders.)
LANDSCAPE OF HOPE
The good news is that seminary graduates are receiving calls. Union Presbyterian Seminary typically has placement rates in the upper 90th percentile one year after graduation. Other seminaries also report encouraging placement statistics. Despite the smaller number of congregations in the PC(USA) today, all of Union Seminary’s 2014 graduates who were eligible and seeking to receive a call as of January 1, 2015 were placed. Of those placements, 69 percent of Master of Divinity and Master of Divinity/ Master of Arts in Christian Education dual degree students and 67 percent of Master of Arts in Christian Education graduates are serving in congregational ministries. Similarly, even with the small number of Christian educator positions listed in the CLC system, some seminary placement offices report receiving frequent calls from educator search committees looking for a graduate whom they may interview.
In the years to come, seminary graduates increasingly will accept calls in part-time positions while engaging in a secular job. These bivocational clergy will (and do) bring a richness of life experience to the churches they serve. This arrangement often is successful in churches who seek a seminary-educated pastor or educator, but who cannot offer a full-time salary.
While we cannot know with certainty how the PC(USA) will look in the coming decades, we do know that a large number of clergy retirements are on the horizon. According to the Pew Research Center, for the next 15 years, roughly 10,000 baby boomers will turn 65 every day. The last boomer will cross that threshold in 2030. Even if, as the Pew report suggests, the typical Boomer understands “old age” to begin at 72, this wave of retirements should open up opportunities — particularly for mid-career pastors and educators. The seeker-to-open position ratio should also become more favorable for seminary graduates as this trend unfolds.
If seminaries had the ability to forecast accurately the nature and needs of the church and world when the Union Presbyterian Seminary time capsule is opened in 2112, or even one or two decades from now, they could structure their curriculum and internships accordingly. In lieu of a forecast, they can and they do move forward in faith, confident that they are participating in the inbreaking of the realm of God. In the meantime, seminaries continue to support the church, one graduate at a time.
SUSAN FOX is director of supervised ministry and vocational planning and professor of supervised ministry. LYNN MCCLINTOCK is associate vice president for alumni/ae development. They are both at Union Presbyterian Seminary.