PHILADELPHIA – John G. McFayden, vice president of church relations, provided an update on prospects for the newly ordained within the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) to the Social Responsibility and Church Relations committee of the Board of Directors of the Board of Pensions (BOP) meeting in Philadelphia.
The conversation centered around the demographic study of 2010 and 2011, BOP data, and anecdotal material provided by the members of the committee and staff.
McFayden started with a refresher on the data, including the fact that there were 526 new plan members in 1987 and in 2010 that number was 138. He also reminded the committee that the average age of the person entering has increased by 8 years and whereas 296 people re-entered the plan in 2005 only 182 re-entered the plan in 2010. McFayden said, “That is a significant reduction in those returning to the plan after leaving it for a period of time for various reasons.”
His sobering report continued with another look at the age distribution of ministers in the plan and the statistic that “something like 5,000 ministers could retire within the next 10 years.” He noted that “people are now retiring older — because although they can receive their full BOP benefits at 65, they have to wait to 66 to receive full Social Security benefits.”
From the retirement end of the spectrum, McFayden turned to the front end where people are entering the ministry.
Not only has the number of candidates decreased markedly over time, so, too, have the number of ordinations. McFayden pointed out that there is “a pretty significant discrepancy between candidates and ordinations … half of those people who are newly ordained are not coming into the plan.”
Lindley DeGarmo asked, “Is that because ordination is now so much more flexible?”
Brian Ellison answered, “There is no question that is the case.”
Andy Browne then contributed that “in one presbytery six of seven ordinands at one meeting were to non-traditional, non-parish positions.”
McFayden added that an executive presbyter in “one presbytery with 60 candidates makes the point of asking them, ‘What do you expect to do and how do you expect to support yourself?’ He explains that there is a very high likelihood that they will not receive calls to fully-funded positions with benefits.”
The conversation turned to those mandated into the plan: installed pastors and associate pastors. McFayden pointed out that the plan has experienced “a loss of 1,800 positions since 1997; down to 6,600 at the end of 2012.”
“Because churches at the smaller end are saying we can no longer afford to call a pastor with benefits. We are also hearing that middle and large size churches are eliminating associate positions or moving to non-ordained positions,” McFayden said.
Looking at the data as a whole, one might find reason for optimism in the coming years. But, McFayden warned, “Those retiring may open up positions, but the last table shows that some of those churches that currently have a called installed pastor are on their last full-time called installed pastor. When that person leaves that position, the church does not intend to refill that position in the same way.”
The Church Leadership Connection provides continually updated information in this area. As of today (6/27/13), 1,984 ordained ministers are seeking positions. There are 471 positions available. For the 324 persons seeking their first call, 140 positions are available.
There’s now a name for those in the gap: N.O.N.E.S. or Newly Ordained Not Earning Salaries. McFayden said, “These people have prepared and feel enthusiastically called to ministry, and they are going to find ministry to do.” Quoting PCUSA Stated Clerk Gradye Parsons, McFayden asked, “What do we do as the church to help and support them?”
Turning to his colleagues, McFayden said, “A question for us as the board as we look into the future and do our strategic planning, we must be cognizant of this group and ask what can we do?”
He observed, “The plan was built at a time when people finished seminary at 25 years of age, took a call to a congregation, served for 35-45 years, and then retired with full benefits. That is no longer reality for many people. So, do we take fresh looks at enrollment eligibility requirements? What’s feasible? As we continue to trace these emerging patterns, what are some potential new products that can support this group of people? Do we offer consultative or coaching services? Do the state exchanges offer an opportunity to cover their medical needs? Are we prepared to coach them through that? Are there ways to allow them to plan for the future through participation in retirement savings program?”
Concluding, he said, “These are big issues that are on the table.”
Ellison replied, “I have no answers to those big question,s but I affirm the need of the board to address this. I don’t know anyone in the church that is taking a comprehensive look at this. I think that NEXT Church is on the leading edge of talking about the future reality that ordained or non-ordained ministry will look different. Maybe it would be worth considering connecting with that group.” He then observed that one of the people in the new Pastor Advisory Group II is a co-chair of NEXT’s conference planning team, Chad Herring.
DeGarmo noted the logistical and communication challenges that the emerging ministry models present, saying, “If you think of how hard we have to work to keep our members informed now, the more fragmented mode challenges us to get information across. It would seem that the onus is going to be greater and greater at the grassroots level as the church becomes more grassroots than the traditional structure. As the Christian community forms they will need to recognize that – as they include a teaching elder, they may need to participate in supporting a bi-vocational career – even returning to the frontier model of a chicken on the back porch.”
John Huffman, who also sits on the board of Fuller Theological Seminary, drilled down even further beyond first call and ordination to seminary itself. He said, “The question now is, ‘So, why go to seminary?'”
Referring to the Association of Theological Schools, he continued, “ATS is looking at a massive decline in seminaries across the board because you catch on pretty fast that if there’s not a job when you get out why ever go in?” He said that ATS expects “20 percent of all seminaries will be out of business in the next five years.”
John Hougen opined, “My hunch is that some of these key indicators are even more acute than they were even in 2010.” Browne said that the information would be refreshed within the coming years.
The Board of Pensions is one of the six agencies of The Presbyterian Church (USA) and is governed by an elected board of directors. The board is meeting in Philadelphia, Pa., through Saturday.
Read more of Carmen’s coverage of the BOP meeting: