(By Leslie Scanlon, The Presbyterian Outlook). The premise is this: With a surge of retirements approaching, and fewer people going to seminary, the Presbyterian Church (USA) is facing an impending, potentially severe shortage of pastors.
Lee Hinson-Hasty, senior director of Theological Education Funds Development at the Presbyterian Foundation, has been making that case in recent months — at the 2017 NEXT Church national conference, at Big Tent and elsewhere. Easily three-quarters of the Presbyterian pastors currently serving congregations will be eligible to retire over the next decade, Hinson-Hasty contends. Retirements and deaths are outpacing ordinations; a new research study reported by the New York Times in June, citing the work of Eitan Hersh, a political scientist from Tufts University, and Harvard doctoral student Gabrielle Malina, found the median age for pastors in the U.S. (not just Presbyterians) is 57; and Hinson-Hasty and others have begun to argue that a pastor shortage may not be far off.
What might the shortage look like?
The Board of Pensions is studying the issue, with its leadership intending to talk about the data and its implications sometime this fall. The Way Forward Commission is asking what changes need to be made to support ministers who may not have traditional full-time calls, and to encourage innovation in changing contexts of ministry.
Not everyone is as certain as Hinson-Hasty that a pastor shortage is pending – in part because another piece of the puzzle involves 50 years of declining membership in mainline Protestant churches. Over the past two decades, the PC(USA)’s membership has dropped from 2.63 million in 1996 to 1.48 million in 2016, a decline of 43 percent. The reality is that most PC(USA) congregations are small, some will inevitably close and many can’t afford to hire a full-time pastor. So as more PC(USA) ministers retire, will the full-time jobs in ministry also vanish as those pastors leave?
Online discussions of bivocational ministry draw heated comments. Some herald it as creative, and point out that it’s long been commonplace in many immigrant fellowships and for congregations of color. Others criticize it as essentially “adjunct ministry,” pushing pastors with graduate school educations (and often significant debt) to accept part-time pay for what too often comes with the expectation of full-time availability and commitment.
There’s also the question of what kind of narrative the PCUSA’s leadership is advancing – both for people considering becoming ministers, and for congregations and Presbyterians trying to identify and encourage those with gifts for ministry.
The message from the denomination’s national staff has at times been cautious – in essence, to warn those considering seminary that the jobs might not be there once they graduate.
For example, in 2010, Marcia Clark Myers, who was then-director of the PCUSA’s office of vocation, told Religion News Service, “We have a serious surplus of ministers and candidates seeking calls,” with four ministers for every opening.
And it’s still true that the number of candidates seeking calls exceeds the number of positions available, according to the count kept by the PCUSA’s Church Leadership Connection – the denomination’s system for trying to connect congregations seeking pastoral leadership with candidates seeking a call. As of August 2017, for example, Church Leadership Connection listed 569 open positions, compared to 2,020 people seeking a call.
Some, however, contend that to offer a continuing discouraging narrative of an over-supply of ministers is not wise.
Ted Wardlaw, president of Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary, said Hinson-Hasty’s contention that a pastor shortage is on the horizon is both accurate and “not a news flash.”
Let’s cut to the point. In a denomination of ‘officially’ 1.3 million, 70% of said operational churches under 100, where most if not all recent seminary graduates fancy themselves “social justice’ warriors or pine for careers as career academics in the insular school houses of liberal Protestantism. Would you be busting down the doors to hire them? I find it ironic that various religious groups such as LDS (Mormon), Jehovah Witness, and the greater part of the largest Protestant sect in America, Pentecostalism get along quite well without a professional clergy class. Any business model of professional ministry that chooses to price itself out of the market by the associated costs of employing said group is not long for this world, by any objective measure of what the market will bear in terms of costs to the employing organizations.
As far as the Administrative State PCUSA, the singular collection of folks who should be most concerned should be the Board of Pensions. As more and more employing or potentially employing churches drop off their grid for dues collection purposes. As more and more PCUSA clergy find their services either inaccessible or unaffordable or irrelevant to their calls or career patterns, who exactly will be paying for the future obligations for its past, current and future retired demographic groups, which in many ways resemble an inverted pyramid. At some time in the future, all will seem to be going well, until it is not. Ask many retired ELCA clergy and their vested pension plans when their plan hit some issues a number of years ago. Just saying.
Here’s a solution to the pastor shortage that I am quite certain has not crossed the minds of the bureaucrats in the Presbyterian Church (USA):
Rescind §G-4.0203 of the Book of Order, and allow those Evangelical congregations who cannot afford to purchase their own property and/or cannot find an Evangelical pastor to transition out of the PC(USA) and into the ECO, the EPC, or the PCA, there to either hopefully find an Evangelical pastor to preach the Gospel of Jesus Christ to them and exercise pastoral care for them, or else merge into a healthy, vibrant congregation that otherwise might not be able to afford to purchase its own building just yet, and thereby benefit from pastoral oversight and strong Biblical preaching, the likes of which are not to be found in the PC(USA) today. After all, there is no unity between Evangelicals and Liberals in the PC(USA), nor has there ever been, and forcing a false unity upon Evangelicals by imposing a trust on their churches’ property is failing utterly to create it. Furthermore, Liberals’ insistence on bringing the PC(USA) into organic unity with the world’s ways of thinking (rejecting the Biblical account of Creation for evolutionary theory, adopting critical methods of interpretation that undermine the Church’s faith in the reliability of the Scriptures, rejecting Biblical sexual morality for the world’s sexual immorality, and rejecting the Gospel of Salvation from Sin and Death through faith in Jesus Christ’s Atoning Death on the Cross and Life-Giving Resurrection in favor of a false gospel of liberation from perceived social ills that ultimately fails to liberate anyone from sin and death), failing utterly to recognize that the world in its wisdom does not know God (I Cor. 1.21), is ultimately what is driving Evangelicals from the PC(USA), while at the same time failing to give to those who would otherwise agree with them any compelling reason to be Christian.
But of course, the Theologically Liberal hegemony in the PC(USA) is not truly interested in promoting the spiritual health of Evangelical congregations within the denomination’s pale; only in forcing them into its worldly “Big Tent” philosophy of unity, which holds truth and error on a par. Rescinding the denomination’s immoral property trust clause (which insists that the local congregation holds its property in trust for the sole use and benefit of the PC(USA), despite the fact that the PC(USA) never contributed financially to the purchase or maintenance of the vast majority of congregations’ property) and allowing congregations to depart in peace, without exacting a proverbial pound of flesh from them, is quite simply something the Liberal hegemony would never willingly consent.