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Hope and challenge: Vocation within the PC(USA)

There is good news to report! The majority of ministers ordained in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) in the last decade were in their 20s and 30s, and most are serving in positions with benefits provided through the Board of Pensions.

Still, there are challenges. We are ordaining fewer ministers each year, and of those ordained, access to full benefits and equal compensation is not consistent across gender and age.

While the Board of Pensions is bringing forward multiple programs to encourage new calls for ministers, congregations and presbyteries will have to create innovation on the ground. Seminaries have a key role to play, as do our ordination candidates themselves.

Let’s take a deeper dive into the data and be open equally to positive surprises and predictable disappointments.


During 2017, the board worked with the Office of General Assembly (OGA) to develop the most comprehensive vocational data set on PC(USA) ministers in a generation.

By combining data from both agencies, we were able to trace the career path of every minister ordained by the PC(USA) from Jan. 1, 2007, through Dec. 31, 2016. This data set will be updated annually to keep this longitudinal database current.

To augment this information, the board continues to examine compensation by job code, geography, church size and minister’s age and gender. In addition, the board has compiled data on every congregation within the PC(USA), tracking self-reported membership, budget and pastoral leadership configuration.

In all cases, we have examined the universe of the relevant population. So the statistics presented here are not a sample, but actual percentages based on actual observations.

Combining our agencies’ data has provided new insights into ministry attrition rates. It has also revealed a clear gender gap in opportunity and pay and a need to recruit and retain new ministers to lead the people of God.

A word of caution is in order. While the board worked with OGA in combining data, it is not possible to compare numbers between reports or studies. For example, OGA reports ordinations in the year they are reported to OGA; this new study tracks actual ordination year. The timing of OGA’s reporting of ordinations ensures that the name of each newly ordained minister appears in the General Assembly minutes. OGA is appropriately valuing inclusion over time period accuracy.

A similar comment applies to ministers’ ages. Board data focuses on the parish job codes of pastor or co-pastor (101), associate pastor (103), interim pastor or interim associate (105), temporary pastoral relationship (108) and designated pastor (191), for a total of 5,660 ministers as of Jan. 1, 2017. OGA reports all ordained ministers who are members of presbyteries, for a total of 19,720 as of Dec. 31, 2015.


During the 10 years from 2007 to 2016, the PC(USA) ordained 3,100 new ministers. Of that group, 1,597 (52 percent) were female and 1,503 were male (48 percent).

The average age at ordination was 39.1 years. In fact, 60 percent of all new ministers were in their 20s or 30s. Men on average were younger (age 37.5) than women (age 40.6). By comparison, a recent study reported in “The future of the Episcopal Church’s clergy,” by Cameron Nations, found that average age at ordination has “held pretty steady at about 50 years of age.”


Other hopeful patterns emerge in considering the ages of benefits plan members serving in the five parish job codes of pastor, associate pastor, interim pastor, temporary pastor and designated pastor. Our ministers are younger than we might have thought. There are 5,660 plan members in these job codes, with an average age of 54. Of that total, 46.5 percent (2,632) are 54 or younger. Only 668 (11.8 percent) are over age 65. While the Episcopal Church reports 287 clergy under age 35, OGA reports 610 pastors in that age range.

We are also doing relatively well at providing benefits to newly ordained ministers. Of those ordained between 2007-2016, 69.2 percent receive benefits through the board. For those less than 40 years old, 82.6 percent are in benefit-bearing calls. For those over 40 at ordination, 64 percent receive benefits through the board.

Age is a stronger indicator than gender that a minister will be called to a role that includes benefits. Of those under 40 at ordination, both men (86 percent) and women (78 percent) received benefits at a higher rate than did men (77 percent) and women (62 percent) overall.

Our stringent ordination requirements, connectional polity and Reformed understanding of community likely contribute to keeping attrition down. We followed the vocational path of each of the 1,736 ministers ordained in the years 2007 through 2011 for five to nine years. At the end of the study period, Dec. 31, 2016, 74 percent were in an active job code or honorably retired. Thus, only 26 percent of all those ordained had disappeared from any ministry category within the PC(USA).

There is another statistically important factor: provision of benefits. Of those who received benefits as part of their call, just 24 percent were neither in an active job code nor honorably retired at Dec. 31, 2016. For those who never received benefits through the board, that figure was 36 percent — a 50 percent greater prevalence. Full participation in our benefits, part of our larger community of care, is associated with substantially better outcomes.


While there is a lot to make us hopeful, the data clearly reveal challenges. Our denomination must wrestle with a potential deficit of future pastoral leadership. We must confront the economic reality of small congregations and the persistent, pernicious gender gap in opportunity and compensation.

For the last 10 years, annual ordination numbers have been declining, from a high of 374 in 2007 to a low of 198 in 2016. Retirements, by comparison, averaged 476 a year during the same period. While there is no retirement bubble moving through the system, the gap between retirees and ordinations is growing annually.

OGA reports that at 2016 year-end, there were 653 candidates for ordination. Another 839 individuals were in the system as an inquirer or inquirer/candidate. OGA further reports that 62 percent of the two groups combined were in their 20s and 30s. How do we square the need for more ordinations with a pipeline of candidates that otherwise seems sufficient?

The research team examined congregational economics and leadership. If we ask about the nature of our congregations, we find that 72.4 percent have 150 members or fewer. Breaking that group into thirds, it is easy to see the impact of economics on pastoral leadership. As congregation size and budget decrease, the likelihood of calling a minister declines. For churches with fewer than 150 members, the pattern is clear: from 76 percent to 51 percent to 15 percent.

The chart below indicates that those congregations with the resources to call a seminary-trained, ordained minister do so. This model of life together is set forth in our polity and is the overwhelmingly preferred form of pastoral leadership. In fact, 72.3 percent of us are members of congregations with over 150 members, and 83.4 percent of us are in congregations led by an installed minister, with a sanctuary and a more or less balanced budget.

While the traditional form of church is far from obsolete for the majority of Presbyterians, the obvious challenge is connecting those seeking a call with congregations needing a solo pastor or an associate pastor at a cost that works for both minister and congregation.

Embedded in the data examined in this study is an unacceptable gender gap. Of the 3,100 ministers ordained during the study period, 954 have never received benefits through the board. In the excluded group are 603 women and 351 men. The most certain road to benefits is a call to pastor or associate pastor. Despite women representing the majority of ordinations over 10 years, only 37 percent have been called to these positions, while 50 percent of the men are serving as a pastor or associate pastor.

The patterns do not improve when we examine not just the recently ordained, but include the universe of benefits plan members in parish job codes. Average compensation for all women in the five roles is $55,672, which is only 85 percent of the male average compensation of $65,097. The pay gap is evident across most job codes and congregation sizes.

The one exception is the category of temporary pastoral relationship in large churches, where women outnumber men by a 5-1 ratio and are paid slightly more. Unfortunately, these statistics seem to confirm the widely held belief that women are offered contract positions that are not permanent at a much greater frequency than their male counterparts. (Pastor’s participation is the dues method for ministers calculated as a percentage of effective compensation consisting of 11 percent for pension, 1 percent for death and disability and 25 percent for family health coverage. All ministers installed in pastoral relationships are required to participate by the Book of Order. This requirement allows the board to use this dues designation as a proxy for installed pastors.)


Calling more ministers in such a way that they may have just compensation and thus devote their best gifts to ministry is our collective challenge. It has implications for every part of our system: congregations, presbyteries, seminaries and the board, as well as our candidates.

Pastoral leadership must become our first priority if we are to maintain a vital communion. We know this from new church development. We don’t first build a building and hope people will arrive. We commission a minister to build a community that may one day have a permanent building. In our 1001 New Worshipping Communities initiative, we seek to support leaders whose community may never have a building.

Responding to the need to nurture and sustain a new generation of ministerial leadership, the Board of Pensions is introducing an employer dues incentive program. Pathways to Renewal substantially reduces pastor’s participation dues for congregations of 150 members or fewer that have not had an installed pastor for at least two years and for any congregation with an installed pastor that expands its ministerial headcount. The newly employed minister must be under 40, the age group with the most candidates and inquirers and the least costly group for whom to provide benefits. If congregations feel they have a candidate who closely fits this description, Pathways to Renewal deserves special consideration. It becomes effective July 1, 2018.

The board has also dramatically expanded educational debt relief, from $10,000 to $25,000, tax-free to new ministers who qualify. Additionally, all new ministers who are enrolled in pastor’s participation will be invited to Presbyterian CREDO. This exciting program offers a weeklong conference focused on discernment for spiritual, health, financial and vocational well-being. The conference is followed by yearlong one-on-one mentoring and a second discernment conference aimed at starting our new ministers on a positive trajectory.

 All of these innovations are described in “Living by the gospel,” a guide for committees on ministry, committees on preparation for ministry and pastor nominating committees. “Living by the gospel” highlights how the church supports the well-being of ministers through the benefits, programs and assistance that are available in pastor’s participation. The appendices include information our research yielded on effective salary by job code, geography, congregation size and minister’s age and gender.

Seminaries must acknowledge their role in the formation and call process and not retreat to the comfort of seeing themselves as purely academic institutions. Candidates must work to counter the tendency to pursue ordination at all costs. Failing to understand the structure needed to sustain ministry will send attrition rates upward, leaving the church spiritually poorer and our new ministers burned out and disillusioned.

The board has developed a seminar for candidates in seminary that details both what they should expect from a call and how to go about asking for it. Each of our seminaries has been assigned one of the board’s church consultants to lead the seminar and then act as a resource for each graduate seeking a call.

Congregations, presbyteries, seminaries and candidates must reject the fear of scarcity and embrace the idea that there is enough for everyone. It is a lack of imagination to throw our hands up in despair and abandon the difficult pursuit of obtainable, sustainable vocation.

The board cannot create innovation within the church. No centralized agency can. Innovation is the job of ministers, congregations and presbyteries. However, the board has committed resources, organization and prayer to creating an environment where innovation and just compensation might coexist, to the glory of God.

FRANK CLARK SPENCER is president of the Board of Pensions of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.).

What are job codes?

 The Office of General Assembly maintains a directory of current and past ministers through the Denominational Rolls and Statistics. This directory includes the “authorized ecclesial occupational designations,” often referred to as the “job code.” These three digit numbers show the context of one’s ministry. Specific codes include pastoral roles (such as pastor, interim pastor or designated pastor), service to middle governing bodies, general assembly agencies, educational institutions, chaplaincies and validated ministries.