Thoughts About Young Clergy

Carol Howard Merritt has a post up about the young clergy crisis.  Here’s a bit of her post:

Since I’ve been chairing a national Presbyterian Church (USA) committee on the Nature of the Church for the 21st century, I’ve been gaining a different perspective on many of the larger trends of our denomination. One thing that has been difficult to realize (and equally difficult to communicate to the larger church) is the young clergy crisis.

Why would I call it a crisis? We’ve known for a long time about the startling decline of young clergy. The drop-out rates don’t help (I can’t find hard and fast stats on this… but some claim that about 70% of young clergy drop out within the first five years of ministry, usually because of lack of support or financial reasons). The average age of a pastor in the PCUSA is 53. And I’ve realized that the age of our leadership might be much higher.

Over half of our congregations cannot afford a full-time pastor and many associate pastor positions were cut during the recent economic downturn. These are churches where seminary graduates would normally be heading, so what are the congregations doing instead? Many of them are hiring retired ministers or retired laypeople to serve these churches while our younger pastors remain unemployed.

The post has garnered a lot of fellow young clergy and the like agreeing with her.  In some ways, I agree as well.  Mainline Protestant denominations don’t do a good job with younger clergy.  Churches are cutting Associate Pastor positions, which in many ways have been the entry point for young pastors.  Also, denominations and seminaries need to deal with the ongoing debt issue.  Many people (myself included) come out of seminary with a lot of debt.  These young clergy then need to have a well paying call to help pay off the debt.  Then there is a silent generational conflict going on with Baby Boomer pastors on the one side and GenX and Millenial pastors on the other and right now the Boomers are winning.

However, this posts brings up a lot of thoughts.  First, what is causing young pastors, even those who are in pastorates, leave after five years? Also, I think the reason some churches pass on young clergy in favor of a retired pastor is simply cost.  A pastor in their 20s or 30s probably have kids and a mountain of debt.  Congregations with shrinking budgets can do the math.  They look at a retired pastor who is probably already getting their pension and social security is a far cheaper alternative.  If you are the chair the church board or clerk of session, you have to find a way to keep a building from falling down and also find ways to support the pastor financially.  Something has to give.  This is a long way of saying that when young pastors get passed up, it’s not that laypeople don’t like them, it’s they think they can’t afford them.

Actually, a lot of this problem is financial; churches are low on funds, and pastors have lots of debt.  That’s not a good mix.

As I was reading this and seeing some of the comments, I kept feeling as if some of the young clergy feel that they are owed a job by their denomination.  Maybe I’m wrong about that, but it’s something I keep picking up from the conversation.  It’s also something I’ve seen in myself.  We rack up a lot of debt and go through a lot to become a pastor, so doesn’t the denomination owe us in some way?

Yes and no.

I think that if people feel called to the ministry, then denominations really have to work at making the cost of seminary less prohibitive.  Louisville Seminary is planning on going tutition-free in 2014.  I think we need to find ways that the cost of a seminary education can be dramatically reduced for students if not free.  Of course, that means churches and denominations are going to have to raise money to create some massive endowments to make this possible.  But I think it can be done.

However, this also means that young clergy are going to have to be more flexible and more willing to advocate for themselves.  Even if the cost of seminary is lowered, most young pastors are going to want a good salary, something that still might be out of reach for some congregations.  This might mean that we have to be willing to be bivocational (something that still seems like a dirty word in Mainline circles).  If we really feel called by God, then we need to be creative in fulfilling our call.

Younger clergy also need to stop complaining and start agitating.  Far too often young clergy like to complain about not being taken seriously and the like, but how often to do we speak up at denominational events?  How often do we take part in the denominational structure?  Do we band together to work for change, or do we whine and complain, expecting the higher ups to pay attention to us at some point? To that end, I want to share this post from Methodist pastor Steve Bruns:

If you are a part of the young clergy demographic, think about your church situation. When you sit down with your nominating committee to help select leaders for the coming year, do you immediately pick the people in your congregation who are constantly complaining that things ought to be different, or do you pick the ones that have a similar vision that you do?

Now I am not advocating we simply be good little clergy and always do what we’re told by the powers that be, but perhaps we can communicate a little better the issues we see. Instead of complaining so much, let’s get excited about evangelism. Instead of griping about the decline and fall of the United Methodist Church, let’s get people on board with our vision and potential for revitalization and church planting. Instead of pointing out (continually, ad nauseam) how we are discriminated against because of youth and inexperience, let’s admit we haven’t been around the block yet, find older clergy who have similar vision and passion as we do (they are out there), and seek to be discipled by them.

His words might be harsh, but he’s on to something.  It can be frustrating and hurtful to have gone through all the stuff you have to do to be a pastor and then not get noticed by folk.  I know, I’ve been there.  But at the end of the day no denomination owes us anything.

The days when a young pastor could just go to seminary and then go to a call at church immediately following seminary are over. In this DIY era, we are going to have to advocate for ourselves and also work at being more creative.  We may have to go back to being tentmaking pastors, or create our own ministries.

I wish I had better news.

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About Dennis

Dennis is the Pastor at First Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) of St. Paul in Mahtomedi, MN. He is the husband to a wonderful man named Daniel, staff to two cats, lover of cars, the Detroit Tigers and all things Star Trek.

5 responses to “Thoughts About Young Clergy”

  1. Abby King-Kaiser says :

    Thanks for sharing! I felt encouraged by Carol’s post in knowing that I am not alone, but yours also speaks truth. I agree with both. I don’t feel that my denomination owes me a job. I am only 3/4 time pastor (b/c of church finances), which leaves me time to parent my one year old. Before the kid, it gave me time to be an artist for pay, a developing second vocation that I am intentional about seeking. The day I started seminary, the president preached on how we will all have to build the ministries we want to serve. This has stayed with me.

    Thanks for deepening the conversation and pushing us a little further!

  2. Sarah Louise says :

    Good stuff. I commented on Carol’s blog, but I read your post first. As a librarian with a lot of student loans (in a field that doesn’t always have the $$ to hire new librarians) I get it. Going to school can’t be about coming out with a good paying job, but with the skills to make a life, make a living. And in tough times, I think folks are apt to listen to those who are scraping by and making it work. I know I am.

    These are tough times.

    Thanks for what you do.

    xo,
    SL

  3. Tony V says :

    Let me rephrase how your paragraph reads to a young pastor.

    The days when I AS a young pastor could just go to seminary and then go to a call at church immediately following seminary are over. In this DIY era, YOU are going to have to advocate for YOURselves and also work at being more creative. YOU may have to go back to being tentmaking pastors, or create YOUR own ministries.

    So yeah, there’s a definite generational divide here.

    • Dennis says :

      Tony,

      You should know that I am a GenXer myself (I’m 42). So this isn’t some Baby Boomer speaking down to younger generations. What I said was referring to me as much as any young pastor. I didn’t get a church right after seminary and I am a tentmaking pastor.

  4. Kate Sweet says :

    Dennis, I read this same post from Carol Howard Merritt’s blog a few days ago, and the issue has been rolling around in my mind ever since. I’m a young seminary student in Seattle (and also pursuing ordination with the Disciples), and so this is close to home. I ended up commenting on the response feed on her blog, so I won’t go into too much detail here, but one thing that I desperately hope for is for cooperation between the generations. I’ve looked through some of your recent posts, and I’m extremely encouraged by the imaginative ecumenical experiment that your congregation will begin soon. I hope to hear more about how it’s going on your blog here. Grace and peace to all of you as you pursue this new expression of faith!

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