Will there be enough ministers?

March 15, 2017 by Lee Hinson-Hasty

Editor’s note: Lee Hinson-Hasty was invited to present at NEXT Church as an Ignite speaker. Ignite speakers are given seven minutes to present an idea designed to spark conversations. Lee’s talk is a place to start discussing the needs of the church. Please join us as we answer this important question.

Will there be enough ministers to support the needs of Christ’s future church? I have studied, researched, and prayed a version of this question as a pastor, campus minister, and serving in theological education ministry for the PCUSA – most recently at the Presbyterian Foundation as well as on the board of the Forum for Theological Exploration.

We experienced a watershed moment in 2005, we had more women candidates than men for ministry for the first time.  Five years later one of my described a high water mark for ministry of word and sacrament this way, “We have a serious (What?) …… that’s right, Surplus of ministers and candidates seeking calls.” I questioned that statement then and I question it now.

Up until then we were not talking about the impact of different-sized generations. This 2015 Pew Research Center U.S. population study makes clear that those currently 53 and over are part of generations rapidly declining in the overall population, especially Baby boomers. Once the largest generation, these children of mostly the 1950’s have recently been surpassed in the U.S. population by highly diverse millennials, but not necessarily in our churches or church leadership positions. Right?

A PCUSA study on age distribution of ministers published in 2011 makes at least one unavoidable point clear that many have not considered:  There will be a wave of PCUSA ministers eligible to retire over the next decade. More than 80% eligible to retire. In fact, although this study has not been updated, the pattern is clear. What generation is this? … Baby boomers, right. They sometimes went to seminary as a second career, many were women, but now they are approaching if not past retirement age. Maybe you were paying attention and not like me, shocked when seeing this for the first time. And look at the age distribution of those 50 and younger. Will we have enough ministers to meet the needs of Christ’s future church?

Before you give your final answer to that question consider the potential drought in candidates for ministry in the PCUSA.    In 2010 we were at a high mark for the 21st century, nearly twelve hundred.  The pool of candidates sharply reduces from that point forward. By December 2016, the number of candidates was almost cut in half to 658.  Many of these candidates are still in seminary but some have completed their degrees.  We know that over the last three years over 80% of PCUSA seminary students are placed in jobs or into further study within a year of graduation.

Another way of looking at this is comparing the number of ministers who have past from this earthly life and those that are just entering ordained ministry. Deaths began outpacing ordinations in the PCUSA in 2009 and the gap is clearly projected to grow.

A January 2017 Barna group study entitled “The State of Pastors” echoes these observations.  They call it the “graying” of Protestant ministers. As striking as the 1992 and 2017 comparisons are, Presbyterian pastors appear to be even older on average.

So Will there be enough ministers to support the needs of Christ’s future church?

What will the future church look like?  Here’s where NEXT Church seems like the perfect place and space to be asking this and previous questions.

Here, questions are welcomed… even encouraged. One thing 2008, 2016, and many years in between have taught us is that the world is becoming ever more complex. Presbyterians are known for stepping up in times like these and leading decently and in order: we form Way Forward Committees and Vision 2020 Teams, we elect co-moderators that give us a glimpse of what could be racially, ethnically, culturally, and generationally.

However, none of us know for sure what’s NEXT exactly in Christ’s future church, congregations, and ministries. If we match the population we will be younger and more diverse, but that does not seem to be happening.  What will sustainability look like?  More smaller churches; more and larger large churches?; Both? Neither? What about rapidly changing political, social, racial, global, and financial contexts?  Unexpected gifts and gut checks are clearly ahead.

One thing I think we do know is that we will need guides on this chaotic journey, the people of God in all generations have called and prepared leaders for times like this. Guides help us navigate dangerous rapids that ebb and flow with no apparent order or decency. Guides who think critically, exegete scripture and society, make a case for the gospel persuasively, lead creatively, and faithfully teach others to do the same.  Whitewater experts all agree, the fewer prepared guides on the river, the more danger everyone on the river will encounter.  So, where will those new guides come from in the next decade and beyond?

The take away from this hard to decipher slide from the Barna Group may help.  Those who have been called into pastoral ministry almost all attended churches as children, nearly half grew up in a small church, they considered their congregations healthy, and nearly 75% were active in youth ministry.  The title to this slide should be revised in this audience.  I feel sure you know one or more children or youth with gifts for ministry. Maybe they are janitors like we heard about this morning, community organizers, immigrants, or refugees.

Will there be enough ministers to support the needs of Christ’s future church?  We are not the only ones wondering. Our close partners in the 90% white Evangelical Lutheran Church in America have been working on this question.

A comprehensive study released in April of last year considered an extensive list of factors at play including the financial position of congregations, cultural and racial dynamics, the number of churches who have left lately and others destined to close. They looked at generational shifts, bi-vocational ministry, and seminary enrollment trends. Here’s what they say in conclusion:

The church needs more persons who will consider ordained ministry and become ordained pastors.  Clearly, those concerned about the future of the church should seek out and encourage people they believe might be good pastors and open to the call. Programs to do so should be encouraged and supported by the church.”

Will there be enough ministers to support the needs of Christ’s future church? Ultimately, the answer is up to church leaders like us. I invite you to join me in supporting future ministers, whoever they are.  God only knows… and God, I believe, is waiting on us to respond sooner rather than later.

Please stay in touch about this and other questions that matter to you.