Pastoral pipeline: Will there be enough ministers to serve the Presbyterian Church?


The premise is this: With a surge of retirements approaching, and fewer people going to seminary, the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) is facing an impending, potentially severe shortage of pastors.

Lee Hinson-Hasty, senior director of Theological Education Funds Development at the Presbyterian Foundation, has been making that case in recent months — at the 2017 NEXT Church national conference, at Big Tent and elsewhere. Easily three-quarters of the Presbyterian pastors currently serving congregations will be eligible to retire over the next decade, Hinson-Hasty contends. Retirements and deaths are outpacing ordinations;  a new research study reported by the New York Times in June, citing the work of Eitan Hersh, a political scientist from Tufts University, and Harvard doctoral student Gabrielle Malina, found the median age for pastors in the U.S. (not just Presbyterians) is 57; and Hinson-Hasty and others have begun to argue that a pastor shortage may not be far off.

What might the shortage look like?

The Board of Pensions is studying the issue, with its leadership intending to talk about the data and its implications sometime this fall. The Way Forward Commission is asking what changes need to be made to support ministers who may not have traditional full-time calls, and to encourage innovation in changing contexts of ministry.

Not everyone is as certain as Hinson-Hasty that a pastor shortage is pending – in part because another piece of the puzzle involves 50 years of declining membership in mainline Protestant churches. Over the past two decades, the PC(USA)’s membership has dropped from 2.63 million in 1996 to 1.48 million in 2016, a decline of 43 percent. The reality is that most PC(USA) congregations are small, some will inevitably close and many can’t afford to hire a full-time pastor. So as more PC(USA) ministers retire, will the full-time jobs in ministry also vanish as those pastors leave?

Online discussions of bivocational ministry draw heated comments. Some herald it as creative, and point out that it’s long been commonplace in many immigrant fellowships and for congregations of color. Others criticize it as essentially “adjunct ministry,” pushing pastors with graduate school educations (and often significant debt) to accept part-time pay for what too often comes with the expectation of full-time availability and commitment.

There’s also the question of what kind of narrative the PC(USA)’s leadership is advancing – both for people considering becoming ministers, and for congregations and Presbyterians trying to identify and encourage those with gifts for ministry.

The message from the denomination’s national staff has at times been cautious – in essence, to warn those considering seminary that the jobs might not be there once they graduate.

For example, in 2010, Marcia Clark Myers, who was then-director of the PC(USA)’s office of vocation, told Religion News Service, “We have a serious surplus of ministers and candidates seeking calls,” with four ministers for every opening.

And it’s still true that the number of candidates seeking calls exceeds the number of positions available, according to the count kept by the PC(USA)’s Church Leadership Connection – the denomination’s system for trying to connect congregations seeking pastoral leadership with candidates seeking a call. As of August 2017, for example, Church Leadership Connection listed 569 open positions, compared to 2,020 people seeking a call.

Some, however, contend that to offer a continuing discouraging narrative of an over-supply of ministers is not wise.

Ted Wardlaw, president of Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary, said Hinson-Hasty’s contention that a pastor shortage is on the horizon is both accurate and “not a news flash.”

“As far back as 15 years ago, when I came to the presidency of Austin Seminary, thoughtful people were predicting that, across the next decade and beyond, some 80 percent of our parish clergy would be starting to retire, and that we would be wise right now to be thinking about that,” Wardlaw said. “But it strikes me that, at the highest levels of our denomination, that message didn’t get through. And so at the exact same time that this 80 percent retirement statistic was being identified, from my point of view, the message coming out of our Louisville headquarters was short-sighted and counterproductive.”

Those expressing a curiosity about ministry were essentially told “that the church is dying, and that if you can do anything other than go to seminary, you ought to.” With that “narrative of negativity,” Wardlaw said, “my personal judgment is that they missed the boat a decade ago, and we’re paying the price now.”

There’s also the matter of moving beyond the church as it is now to what it could potentially be – the vision that some Presbyterians have for a different way of being that could affect whether congregations could afford to call a pastor. Perhaps, they say, bigger, wealthier congregations could do more to share resources with smaller ones; there could be less of gulf between the top-paid pastors and those making the presbytery minimum; the denomination could consider collaborative new ways to fund seminary education, so students would graduate with less debt; medical and retirement benefits might be made available to ministers doing part-time or church-planting work.

Carol Howard Merritt, an author and minister, led a special committee on the “Nature of the Church in the 21st Century,” a committee that the 2010 General Assembly created and that reported to the assembly in 2012. That committee encouraged the denomination to consider new approaches – but many of those ideas have not yet taken root.

When young people are excited about ministry, “we tell them go do something else – do anything else, there’s no future in this,” Merritt said. “We’re going to have to think of a different story other than we’re on our way out, we’re going to die, we’re going to close the door on the way out. … I wish there was somebody who is looking at this strategically.”

The factors at play

The prospect of a pastor shortage is a complicated matter for the PC(USA) – not a sound bite. Here are some of the interlocking pieces.

The mainline pastor is aging •••••••••••••••••••••••••••••••••••
Some refer to this as the “greying” of the pastorate – with the average age of pastors rising, and more eligible to retire.

The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) has looked comprehensively at supply and demand statistics, and a March 2016 report found a 43 percent decline in the number of ordinations in the ELCA from 1988 to 2013. By 2013, the average age of ELCA ministers had increased to 54 years old, with about a third of active pastors being over age 60 (“active” meaning: not retired). The number of ministers retiring is increasing, the report states, and projections are that more than 2,000 will retire from the active roster between 2015 and 2019.

“There is a shortage of pastors in the ELCA which began to develop in 2012, and it is quite probable the shortage will intensify,” wrote Adam DeHoek and Kenneth Inskeep, of Research and Evaluation in the ELCA Office of the Presiding Bishop.

A 2017 report from the Barna Group, called “The State of Pastors,” found that the median age of Protestant pastors overall has risen from 44 to 54 over the past 25 years. “Only one in seven pastors is under 40, and half are over 55,” the report states. “The percentage of church leaders 65 and older has nearly tripled, meaning there are now more pastors in the oldest age bracket than there are leaders younger than 40.”

The PC(USA) reported having 20,383 ministers in 2014, of which 12,183 were active (that’s the last year in which the annual statistical report broke out those numbers in that way).

In 2006, the denomination had 13,693 active ministers – so over the past decade, the number of active ministers has declined by roughly 1,500. Of the active ministers, more than a quarter (including a third of the women) were working in roles outside the local church (meaning: not as a pastor, co-pastor, associate pastor or in a temporary pastoral relationship).

In December 2016, the PC(USA) had 19,720 ministers, according to a workshop presentation that Timothy Cargal, an assistant stated clerk in the Office of the General Assembly, responsible for overseeing preparation for ministry, gave with Hinson-Hasty at Big Tent in July. The PC(USA) stopped tracking retirements because “retirement” can mean different things – everything from full retirement to someone working as a supply pastor, Cargal said. But nearly half (49 percent) of the PC(USA) ministers in 2016 were age 66 or older, he said, and by 2026, only a quarter will be under age 66.

“We have not actively had a formal national recruiting effort (to get more people to consider the ministry) since the early 2000s,” Cargal said.

Asked to describe what they are seeing on the ground, those attending the workshop said: more churches that can’t afford to call a pastor; more retirements; more part-time ministry positions. One man described “an exponential interest in part-time calls and creative yokes” of congregations. Someone from a small presbytery predicted that probably three-quarters of the ministers from that presbytery will retire in the next five years.

Changing patterns of seminary enrollment •••••••••••••••••••••
In the U.S., it’s not accurate to say unequivocally that seminary enrollment is declining, although for most of the last decade that has been the trend. But enrollment in master of divinity programs – the degree program preparing people to be ministers – is dropping overall among the 247 accredited schools in the United States and Canada that were members of the Association of Theological Schools in 2016.

Collectively, seminaries in the U.S. and Canada have recorded nearly a decade-long decline in enrollment, from a peak of 81,180 in 2006 to just 71,790 in the fall of 2014, a drop of about 11 percent. Over the last two years, however, seminary enrollment has perked up a bit – rising to 72,372 in 2016, an increase of close to 600 students (or 0.8 percent).

Those overall numbers don’t tell the whole story, however, because tucked within them are other distinct patterns of change.

Most significantly for the discussion about a potential minister shortage is this: Enrollment in master of divinity programs has shown a steady decline – down from 34,935 students in 2006 to 29,390 students in 2016 (a decline of 5,545 students).

And enrollment declines have hit mainline Protestant seminaries particularly hard.

“Overall, enrollment in MDiv programs has declined by 14% in the last decade, but the decline is not evenly distributed across the three ecclesial families in the ATS membership,” according to a March 2017 report from the Association for Theological Schools. “MDiv enrollment has declined 24% among mainline Protestant schools and 6% among evangelical Protestant schools (which account for 65% of ATS enrollment), while it has grown by 9% among Roman Catholic schools.”

At mainline seminaries, the master of divinity is the “bread-and-butter program,” enrolling about three-quarters of all students and serving as a prerequisite for ordination, so an enrollment decline there produces a significant impact for those schools, according to a 2013 report from the Auburn Center for the Study of Theological Education.

What enrollment gains seminaries have made generally come from other degree programs – notably, professional master of arts programs such as programs in leadership, counseling, Christian education or intercultural ministry.

Another trend in overall seminary enrollment: Fewer whites, but more people of color are going to seminary (reflecting demographic shifts in the U.S. as a whole). The enrollment of racial/ethnic and international students, many of whom are students of color, has grown from 9 percent in 1977 to 41 percent in the fall of 2016, according to the March 2017 Association of Theological Schools report.

The largest age groups in seminary are students in their 20s (about 30 percent of those who reported their age) and those over 50 (about 22 percent of those reporting age) – with the over-50 group being the fastest-growing segment.

About 29 percent of master of divinity students are women – but at mainline Protestant schools, that figure jumps to about half.

Overall in seminary enrollment, “there had been a decline for a while, but we’re kind of reaching a plateau,” said Jo Ann Deasy, director of institutional initiatives and student research for the Association of Theological Schools.

“Underneath it, the makeup is changing quite dramatically,” with more students finding work outside congregations,” Deasy said. “The reality of people coming to theological school for graduate education, wanting to do something with a ministry vocation, is very vibrant. That is just not taking the traditional form” of pastoral ministry.


Fewer people are choosing pastoral ministry ••••••••••••••••••••••••••
With fewer people from mainline denominations earning master of divinity degrees, naturally fewer are being ordained. Another noticeable trend, even for those who do earn master of divinity degrees, is “a decline in the number of students pursuing pastoral ministry,” Deasy said.

In 2016, the PC(USA) ordained 215 ministers – down from 249 in 2015 – and had 632 candidates for ministry. That decline in the number of ordinations continues a pattern going back at least a decade: In 2006, the PC(USA) ordained 375 new ministers.

According to the ATS data, of those graduating in 2015-2016, just over 60 percent of the men and only about 40 percent of the women said their vocational goal was to work in the parish, Deasy said. Another chunk – about 15 percent of the men and a little under 10 percent of the women – were undecided about whether they wanted to do congregational work.

While the largest groups included in the ATS data are evangelicals and Roman Catholics, “men are much more likely even in mainline schools to be considering pastoral ministry than women,” with a gap of more than 20 percent, Deasy said. “I do think that has to do with placement issues. We know that women have a harder time finding placements when they’re graduating.”

Among younger seminary students, an even bigger percentage are working outside the parish after graduation – about half of students in their 20s, compared about 40 percent of those in their 50s.

Disparities in debt ••••••••••••••••••••••••••••••••••••••••••••••••••••••••••••
Another reality: For those becoming pastors, the minimum terms of call may not be enough for them to be able to pay back their school loans. There also are patterns of racial and gender disproportionality in who incurs debt.

“The students with debt are coming (to seminary) with increasingly more debt,” Deasy said. “So we’re seeing a pretty good polarization. Some come in with no debt and others with pretty significant debt.” Of African-American students, fewer than one in five accrues no debt in seminary. For white students, just about half incur seminary debt. And about a third of African-American students incur more than $60,000 of debt just from seminary, she said.

Women come to seminary with about the same level of debt as men do. But by the time they leave, the women tend to have taken out more loans than the men, Deasy said.

The research on whether debt influences the vocational choices theological students make after graduation is mixed, Deasy said. Some studies say it doesn’t, but she suspects “students are making choices so they can pay off the debt.” The rule of thumb: You can only make inroads on paying off the debt if the amount of debt doesn’t exceed your first year’s salary.

There are multiple roads to bivocational ministry, Deasy said. Some students prefer that path because “they never want to be a full-time pastor. Their goal is to always have a paying job somewhere else outside the church and to be doing church alongside that.”

Others become bivocational – or end up serving two or three or four congregations at a time – because that’s what the churches can afford. And for some who need to pay back student loans, working at a small church if there’s not a full-time call available is simply not an affordable, sustainable option.

Finding a job ••••••••••••••••••••••••••••••••••••••••••••••••••••••••••
This is sticky territory: whether seminary students will be able to find jobs (meaning: jobs with health insurance and retirement benefits) once they graduate.

At the same time that more Presbyterian pastors are reaching retirement age, which potentially would mean more jobs will open up for pastors, the PC(USA) has been losing tens of thousands of members every year (close to 90,000 in 2016) – which means fewer congregations can afford to pay a full-time time minister.

So will there be jobs for seminary students when they graduate?

Currently, the placement rate for seminary graduates seems promising. Presbyterian seminaries report that most graduates do find jobs related to their fields fairly quickly. According to Hinson-Hasty, 85 percent of those who graduate from Presbyterian seminaries find a job in a degree-related field within a year, and another 10 percent go on to further graduate school. “There is a myth out there that there are not enough positions for people to go into,” but “95 percent are doing something within a year,” he said.

There’s also a question of whether those seeking ordination are willing to go where the jobs are. Some seminary graduates have geographic constraints: They may want to stay in a certain region (sometimes, close to family) or may be reluctant or unwilling to move across the country to serve a small-town or rural church. The drivers for that can include personal preferences, but also often involve economics. If a pastor’s spouse or partner can’t find a job in the area, the family may not be able to afford to live on one minister’s salary.

Some are trying new approaches to addressing those problems – including finding ways to make those jobs in rural areas more appealing. A Lutheran superintendent from South Dakota, for example, started developing support structures to help new ministers, including providing financial resources to help them pay off educational debt and marketing it as a healthy and creative district in which to do ministry, “then the number of students who wanted to be a part of it skyrocketed,” Deasy said.

Despite all these complexities, “it’s not simply a math problem,” Hinson-Hasty said. “We’re talking about ecclesiology, about studying the church and what does it need.”

Patterns in congregations ••••••••••••••••••••••
There’s no question that many small congregations are facing challenges in being able to afford full-time, seminary-educated pastoral leadership.

Overall in 2014 (the last year for which the denomination reported the results in this way), the PC(USA) had 9,790 congregations. Of those:

  • Close to a third (3,132 congregations) had no pastoral leadership – they had no installed pastor or other pastoral leadership (such as a commissioned ruling elder, a pastor from another denomination or a supply or interim pastor).
  • Nearly a third of the PC(USA)’s 9,790 congregations (or 3,213 churches) had 50 members or fewer. Of those smallest congregations, only 376 (just over 1 in 10) had an installed pastor; 877 had other leadership; and 1,831 of the smallest churches (nearly 57 percent) were without pastoral leadership.
  • Close to another quarter of the PC(USA) churches (2,289 congregations) had between 50 and 100 members. Of those, just under 40 percent had an installed pastor.

Another way to look at it is how many ministers the PC(USA) has – and what kind of work they are doing.

At the end of 2015, the PC(USA) had 11,905 ministers who were active. That compares to 12,183 in 2014 – a decline of 278.

In 2014, nearly 40 percent of the active ministers in the PC(USA) served as pastors or co-pastors; just under 8 percent as associate pastors; and about 7 percent in temporary pastoral relationships, according to the denomination’s comparative statistics report (the last year that report has been produced in that format).

About a quarter of the denomination’s teaching elders (27 percent) served in the “other” category – which can encompass everything from serving in a validated ministry to teaching.

Some ministers work part-time or outside traditional full-time ministry. A hint at that: Some seminary graduates are ordained as ministers but don’t join the Board of Pensions plan (they may be working in positions that don’t provide benefits). At Big Tent, Cargal presented data showing the gap between the number of people being ordained in the PC(USA) each year and those becoming new members of the Board of Pensions plan (see graph below). In 2016, more than 100 people were ordained who did not join the plan (roughly half of all those ordained that year).

The Board of Pensions leadership is looking at the data – trying to analyze who is being served currently with retirement and medical benefits, and who is not, said Andy Browne, vice president of church relations for the Board of Pensions. It’s an issue in which Frank Spencer, the board’s president, is deeply interested, Browne said. It’s Spencer’s hunch, Browne said, that those the Board of Pensions currently serves “are folks who are disproportionately white and male,” and those excluded “are probably disproportionately people of color and women.”

What’s next? 

The questions involved in this conversation challenge Presbyterians to think of new ways of funding and structuring the church, Merritt said. Some with gifts for ministry get by with a patchwork of jobs; some new worshipping communities end up closing because they can’t raise enough money to keep going; some congregations own buildings but can’t afford leadership.

Now, “some pastors are being paid a lot, and some pastors are being paid incredibly small amounts” with “incredible inequities,” Merritt said. “And it’s often based on gender and race and ethnicity.”

Perhaps counterintuitively, given the statistics, some of those who work in theological education remain optimistic.

Wardlaw, for example, believes emphatically that the PC(USA) needs to take on intentionally and soon the systemic questions surrounding economics and an aging pastorate. He worries, but finds his spirits buoyed by the seminary students he meets every day.

“These are people who are amazingly talented, who just have it,” Wardlaw said. “They’re preparing for the church at the very same moment that we’re asking these challenging questions. They’re showing up right on time, they’re traveling lighter, they’re too young to remember the bygone days that a lot of us who are older lament. They’ve got boatloads of energy and creativity that the church needs at this moment.”

In congregations, “we ought to be trying to get back into the business of being encouragers of people who have gifts for ministry,” Wardlaw said. “I don’t subscribe to the notion that the church is going to cease to exist.”

Hinson-Hasty wrote his doctoral dissertation on changing the culture in the PC(USA) regarding vocation and discernment.

He sees a role in all this for ordinary Presbyterians – for people in every congregation, big or tiny, to mentor young people, to help them recognize and name their gifts for ministry and leadership, and to help them think comprehensively about the concept of vocation – about what gives real meaning and significance to a life and to work.

Not enough pastors? Some say, “let’s let the seminaries fix this” or “God will take care of that,” Hinson-Hasty said.

He remembered those who encouraged him to consider the ministry when he was looking elsewhere, how their care and discernment changed the trajectory of his life.

His view: Every Presbyterian has a role to play.