What is the future of pastoral leadership in the PC(USA)?

Responding to an article previously published by the Outlook, Lee Hinson-Hasty ponders the future of pastoral leadership. Are we asking the right questions? Are we looking at the right data? Are we investing in future leaders?

Photo by Isaac Smith on Unsplash

Andrew Whaley’s observations in his Outlook article published July 12, 2022, about declining enrollment at his alma mater seminary raises important questions for the church broadly. After noticing how the picture of the graduating class included in his alumni magazine included fewer and fewer students, Whaley researched his alma mater seminary’s digital archives. He correctly found a drop in class size over the last 10 years and back as far as the last 50.

However, seminary graduation rates are just one metric in a larger pastoral leadership system in the PC(USA) and ecumenically. There are other questions that need addressing including but not limited to:

  • How many pastoral positions with full pay and benefits do we have open now and will we have in the future?
  • What leadership characteristics are needed for the next generation of pastoral leaders?
  • What do we know about those who are in the process of being ordained and have graduated seminary?
  • What are the economic realities for those considering pastoral ministry — those in seminary now and those serving now as pastors?
  • Moreover, what are the pastoral leadership needs in our mainline partners, especially our PC(USA) Formula of Agreement ecumenical partners where we have an orderly exchange of ministers?

As a denomination, we know how to strategize from studying statistical trends, addressing what they suggest and using what we learn to answer critical questions. Although some national agencies collaborate on data, there is no one place to find answers. Probably the best information on Presbyterian pastors currently serving is the guide “Living by the Gospel: A Guide to Structuring Ministers’ Terms of Call.” Authorized by the 223rd General Assembly in 2018 and updated annually, this document provides lots of relevant data points that have been verified by the Board of Pensions.

However, “Living by the Gospel” is limited to those currently serving in ministry. We are left with many unanswered questions, especially about those retiring and those considering ministry. Unfortunately, this results in the circulation of multiple narratives, some misinformed by anecdotal evidence, that often guide how we think about pastoral leadership. What is happening in one part of the church may be drastically different from another.

What if we worked together to find researched answers to these questions and others? Each affiliated entity, agency, mid council, educational institution, network, organization and individual would then be able to work off the same datasets to analyze the relevant information and consider how within their mission they could best strategically address the challenges and opportunities ahead for the whole church. That would certainly include initiatives and actions to support future pastoral leaders God is calling now. I am pleased to report a collaboration like this is something the Committee on Theological Education has been discussing.

Theological schools have a model that offers a glimpse into the possibilities of partnership and even into some dynamics in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). Two years ago, the Association of Theological Schools (ATS), a network of and accrediting agency for 270 seminaries, launched a “Data Visualization Tool” that makes it easier to track many educational trends like enrollment, graduations and if graduates have a job based on their degree earned. For example, the tool shows those enrolled and graduating from Master of Divinity (M.Div.) programs has been on the decline for almost 20 years across all ATS institutions. For aggregated PC(USA) seminaries, those completing M.Div. degrees is down significantly since 1988.

For over two decades, I have been tracking seminary graduates and pastoral placements and am convinced that the calling of the next generation of pastors is being taken for granted by the church broadly and the PC(USA) in particular. While we can celebrate a handful of places and congregations where vocation discernment is robust, in most congregations, it is non-existent. The result is fewer seminarians and, not surprisingly, fewer potential pastors. Addressing these more systemic questions will require much from seminaries, who are already working on this and stand ready to help the church. More difficult will be shifting the culture of call in the PC(USA).

Whaley asks, what is the future of my seminary alma mater? Maybe his question leads us to a larger question for all Presbyterians: What do we want the future of pastoral leadership to be in the PC(USA)?

Here are a few snapshots of statistics that I learned from the ATS data tool that speak to the trends Whaley named. Keep in mind that these are not all Presbyterian M.Div. graduates but all graduates of Presbyterian seminaries. They come from a variety of ecclesial traditions and are one of the best ways Presbyterian-related ministries broadly serve the ecumenical Christian church.

  • The clear decline in graduates from Presbyterian seminaries began after 2005 when 495 M.Div. degrees were granted.
  • In 2011, when Whaley graduated from seminary, 393 seminarians earned M.Div. degrees from PC(USA) seminaries, a 17% decline from 2005.
  • By 2021, that number dropped to 237 M.Div. degrees earned, or 45% fewer than in 2005.

A recent PC(USA) Research Services study pointed out that 78% of PC(USA) congregations with a pastor have a pastor with a degree from a Presbyterian seminary. Our schools are clearly leading theological schools in the U.S. and Canada by many measures and are attractive to a wide swath of persons preparing for ministry.

The schools are in covenant with the church to prepare students for ministry in many forms. In the PC(USA), we are clear about how we need those who are pursuing ordination to be prepared. The Book of Order lists requirements for ministry, including the areas assessed by ordination examinations, but aren’t those only minimum requirements? If you have read a Ministry Information Form (MIF) of those congregations and ministries searching for a pastor or leader lately, you know what I am talking about. Over 30 “Leadership Competencies” are described with only one or two matching our ordination exam areas for readiness for ministry. We are much more aspirational and hopeful when we think of the pastoral leadership traits we want for ministry today. But are we mentoring and educating enough of those who have these capabilities and capacities?

Committees on Preparation for Ministry are guides for candidates for ministry. However, Pastor Nominating Committees discern who God is calling as their future pastor. Then it is the congregations those graduates serve along with their presbyteries and communities that partner with and benefit from their ministry.

I say the above because, the Presbyterian Church cannot decide what the church needs and what God expects in the next generation of pastoral leaders in three years, the typical time needed to earn an M.Div. Discernment and mentoring are more like growing a grove of fruit trees that take years before production and less like a 3D printer that instantly provides the needed item. This means the strategic work, mentoring, and support must start today.

The urgency of discernment and mentoring is clear when we recognize that although we have 30% fewer congregations than in 2004, the number of advertised positions available on the PC(USA)’s Church Leadership Connection is only 22% less (857 in 2004 to 677 in 2022). However, during this same period, there are 44% fewer M.Div. graduates from PC(USA) seminaries. More alarming is the fact that this trend is taking a more dramatic turn downward in the last three years when we consider that in 2021 the PC(USA) ordained 156 new teaching elders, 30% fewer than in 2018 (224). We assume congregations close simply because of financial woes. They may also have trouble finding the right pastoral leader and as a result, have financial issues.

Educational and consumer debt is a suffocating factor holding many back from answering a call to ministry. This is especially true for persons in marginalized communities. An October 2021 Minister’s Survey by PC(USA) Research Services reported that “nearly 30% of all ministers, regardless of age or position, owe $50,000 or more for their own educational debt. This includes 27% of retired ministers. … Ten percent of all ministers between the ages of 30-49, who have outstanding student loans, owe more than $100,000 in educational debt. This percentage increases to 16% in those ages 50 and older.”

Most studies say this is primarily undergraduate debt, but seminarians typically must take on more debt to go to seminary too. Even if tuition is fully covered, they need money for living expenses. The Board of Pensions, Presbyterian Mission Agency, and others have debt reduction and loan forgiveness programs for those in this situation. However, the most financially prudent way to address this for the future of pastoral leadership is to reduce the full cost of attending seminary before any debt is incurred. That’s why I am so thankful for everyone who supports future ministers through gifts to the Theological Education Fund.

If we genuinely believe that leadership matters, then making the full cost of attending seminary more affordable to help our seminarians will also help the congregations and presbyteries they go on to serve thrive as well. Starting ministry on a strong financial footing allows ministers to pay closer attention to the call of the Spirit, free from the heavy burden of debt. Debt-free pastors following God’s call without financial distractions is the kind of pastoral leadership I would like to see in the future.

I wonder what else leaders in the PC(USA) want to know about the leadership landscape. If we had more data, what would that include and how should it be distributed? What strategy is your congregation, Presbytery or organization working on that would benefit from knowing more about the future of pastoral leadership in the PC(USA)?

We must act now to address future leadership needs so that future generations will see our investments bear fruit for God’s imagined future. My prayer is that equity, inclusion, justice, promise, truth and faithfulness will be thriving and growing then because of our well-researched foresight and bold action now. May it be.