Over the next few weeks, nearly 3 million Americans will receive a high school diploma. If recent trends continue, record numbers of them will enter programs preparing for praiseworthy careers in law, health care and business.
There is another statistical trend, however, which is less encouraging—the decline in the number of students preparing for careers in community service, including the Christian ministry.
Shortages in many of the helping professions have been noted for some time. The nursing shortage is well-documented and has affected communities across the country for several years. Social work is facing similar challenges with many positions going unfilled. While teaching remains a popular career choice for many young people, the demand for new teachers over the next 10 years will likely exceed available personnel.
We might like to think that Christian ministry is exempt from such a trend, but we would be wrong. Indeed, as the evidence is accumulated and analyzed, it is becoming increasingly clear that Americans are facing a crisis in church leadership.
Only a few years ago, the clergy shortage seemed to be restricted to the Roman Catholic Church, a situation many blamed on the celibacy requirement. Today, however, many Protestant denominations find themselves in the same boat.
Data compiled by the Alban Institute last year indicates an alarming situation. The United Methodist Church has witnessed a decrease over the last decade in candidates seeking ordination, raising concern about the availability of future leadership. The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America has witnessed such a rapid decline in available pastors that many synods are already experiencing a critical shortage. The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A) is one of the hardest hit, with nearly a third of its congregations, mostly small rural churches, reporting no regularly available pastor. Most other denominations face similar challenges.
The Southern Baptist Convention appears exceptional with a healthy supply of available pastors. But even the SBC has seen a shift in numbers. Today only 11.5 percent of SBC clergy are under the age of 40, a figure suggesting that the largest Protestant denomination in America may be facing a leadership shortage in just a few years.
How should churches respond to the leadership crisis in the service professions and in our own congregations?
First of all, we must resist the temptation to panic. Strange as it might seem, these shortages bring positive opportunities for communities and churches alike. In a free economy, when the supply of a needed profession is diminished, there is a corresponding tendency for economic forces to compensate by increasing the value of that service. Thus, ironically, shortages in the helping professions may actually increase average salaries and over time stimulate growth.
In a similar vein, the clergy shortage may advance the role of women in ministry far beyond what any theological discussion has been able to accomplish. As ministers become relatively scarce, congregations that were previously reluctant to engage women in positions of leadership will have greater incentive to do so.
Likewise, lay leadership will become increasingly important in churches where professional leadership is only part-time or non-existent. Congregations will be forced to take greater responsibility for exercising leadership and generating vision.
But the possibility of some positive outcomes should not detract from the reality of the crisis. Churches should respond, and they will need to respond in new and creative ways.
Local congregations will need to take greater responsibility to provide vocational counsel to their young. Youth ministries, for the most part, have never emphasized career counseling. We have tended to assume that a person’s talents and interests are a sufficient guide to determine his or her livelihood.
But perhaps it’s time to reconsider. Perhaps it’s time for congregations to make clear that they are greatly concerned about how their members earn their living. Perhaps it’s time that churches recover a doctrine of vocation that emphasizes the important role of service in every occupation. A Christian view of work will always assess an occupation ultimately on the basis of its contribution to the well-being of the community rather than its potential for self-fulfillment.
Congregations will also need to become more intentional about identifying future pastors and leaders among their youth. The call to Christian ministry is something that can only originate with the Holy Spirit. But often the Spirit speaks most clearly through the insights and encouragement of those around us. Pastors and ministers of youth are the most effective mentors the church has for its future leadership.
Seminaries and divinity schools, which have historically shouldered the burden for producing the church’s leadership, will need to develop innovative strategies for introducing careers in ministry to Christian youth.
Rather than focusing exclusively on the young adults who are ready to enter seminary immediately, they will need to find ways to introduce a younger generation of Christians, in high schools and perhaps even middle schools, to the nature of the “call” and the prospects of a career in ministry. Fortunately, experiments of this sort are already underway.
The professions also will need to act. Virtually all of the service professions, including ministry, are beset by high rates of burnout. Support systems are needed to help practitioners cope with the stress of the workplace, and where such systems exist they will need to be improved.
In the weeks ahead, churches across the nation will appropriately honor their graduates. But encouraging a high school student to undertake a lifetime of service will take more than a good graduation address. It will take a community that models in its own life what it expects its younger members to achieve.
Ben Leslie is academic vice president and dean of the faculty at the North American Baptist Seminary in Sioux Falls, S.D.