Big Tent Takeaways

July 17, 2017 by Lee Hinson-Hasty

For nearly two hours at Big Tent, I engaged in a refreshingly honest and hopeful conversation about the future leaders of Christ’s church in a workshop called The Changing Face of Ministry:  Understanding and Supporting the Future of Ministry in the PC(USA). My colleague and partner for the workshop was Tim Cargal, Assistant Stated Clerk, Preparation for Ministry/Exams in the Office of the General Assembly.

It was wonderful to see the conversation draw in a great diversity of people. The mix was across a wide variety of leaders and layers of the church, including a broad diversity of race, ethnicity, education, geography and age (and beyond). Gathered in the room were seminarians, recent graduates, active pastors, retired pastors, mid-council executives, ruling elders, committee on preparation for ministry members, Vision 2020 team members, Presbyterian Mission Agency and Board of Pensions staff, and more.

The group was certainly educated on the state of theological education, but we still surprised them with a few details. They were not surprised to learn that 75 percent of teaching elders (pastors) in the PC(USA) will be eligible to retire by 2030. In fact, one mid-council executive is seeing exactly that percentage eligible to retire in their own Presbytery. That statistic is gleaned from a 2011 Board of Pensions study.

It did alarm our audience to see the national trend of a decreasing number of inquirers and candidates. One Committee on Preparation for Ministry member told us their Presbytery has no candidates or inquirers right now. None. And that Presbytery includes a major American city with a population over two million!

One of the brightest trend we’re seeing is that the group of seminarians graduating today are more diverse than in years past. Thirty-four percent of 2016’s inquirers and candidates were white men; 43 percent are white women. Ten percent of inquirers and candidates are Asian, and seven percent are African-American; 4 percent are Hispanic and 2 percent are other ethnicities or races.

Comparing that to active teaching elders you can see a huge shift. Sixty-three percent of active teaching elders are white men, and 25 percent are white women. Six percent are Asian, 3 percent are African-American and 2 percent are Hispanic.

This means we’re doing a better job as a church of sending the message that all are welcome to serve in God’s church, and it also means we’re providing the ministers that are needed to many different congregations and emerging populations.

Seminaries are diversifying just as the world around us is – perhaps not as fast as the world, but the numbers give us much hope.

We were also able to discuss a myth we’ve heard often: there aren’t jobs for seminarians. That’s simply not true. Several recent seminary grads in the room said the demand is there, based on their own experiences. And even if some churches merge or close, there are so many retirements coming up that there are plenty of congregations that will need staff.

Along the way, we took some time to discuss potential solutions. From our audience came two I hope will gain some traction that I’ll share with you here.

The first idea: We need to find a way in the PC(USA) to assess vitality and ability to afford to be a healthy call for a first-time pastor. It’s not just about money. Presbyterian organizations should build assessment tools that will help congregations accept and support a pastor who is straight from seminary.

That idea is exceptional because it acknowledges that there are factors beyond price tag that influence if a church can host a newly ordained pastor. Not every church is a good home for a new pastor – but these churches could be with strong self-assessment and education on what new pastors need from congregations. It could provide a mutually beneficial relationship that pays benefits for years to come.  I am pleased that there are some groups already working on tools like this now.

The second idea: We need to lower the bar financially for ordination ministry. Some new pastors have debt from both college and seminary. We need to do all we can to ensure these pastors aren’t burdened with more than they can handle when just starting out. We also need to lower the bar for retirement so that pastors who would like to retire can afford to do so.

In my next post, I’ll share with you my two ideas for how to attract and shepherd the next generation of pastors in Christ’s church.