Perspectives on the young clergy crisis

December 10, 2011
The Rev. Teri Peterson leads worship

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.

Do I have something against people over 65? Of course not. I also have sympathy for people who have seen their retirement savings dwindle over the last four years. I know that many people have great energy well past the age of 65. So why would this situation be a problem?

Like all denominations, the age of our worshipers is increasing. The median age of a Presbyterian in the pew is 61. Half of our membership is over the age of 61, and four out of five worshipers are over the age of 45. Jackson Carroll points out that the age of a congregation will often reflect the age of its pastoral leadership. 

So, if we’re trying to imagine a compelling vision for the church in the years to come, we'll need to reach the next generation. But that's hard to do when

•Half of our congregations may be served by pastors and laypeople who are 65 or older

•The other half of our congregations are being served by people who are about 53

•Younger pastors can’t find calls and are forced to take up other employment

•Many younger pastors who do get called to pastorates drop out within the first 5 years of ministry. 


Occupy Witherspoon Street

Speaking as a "young" (30) clergy person who is fortunate enough to have a great congregation to serve, this situation makes me really angry. I understand that there is no one to villainize here. I am not "blaming" any one in particular, because I get how tenuous the financial situation of many of our older clergy can be.

With the necessary disclaimers out of the way, though...

It is outrageous that the PC(USA) has a climate where many with the gifts and desire to serve in ministry are being enouraged to go to seminary on their own dime, becoming deeply indebted and then systemically excluded from positions that earn a living wage. Furthermore, the solutions ordinarily proposed for this problem are either:

a) limit seminary enrollment ie: strangle the vine that is producing so many who want to serve the church. We were told the harvest was plentiful but the workers few and we want to reject the laborers who show up? Send them away so we can continue to squabble over this shrinking pie? Are we mad?

b) encourage entrepreneurship among the younger set. In principle this is a solution I am in favor of. I WANT to plant new communities and experiment with new models of church, but then there is that whole debt issue. Basically we are being told to bear all the burden of our own training and preparation and take all the risk of new ventures without any institutional support. It isn't even clear for many that they could get ordained that way since it would entail starting without a certified call.

From where I sit it looks disturbingly similar to Wall Street. The very people who have been in leadership during the most catastrophic decline of our history are not only STILL in leadership, but they have successfully placed all the debt and burden for the broken system on the shoulders of the next generation.

institutional support?

I wonder how this is different from any other discipline. Right now universities are turning out too many Phd's in English for the market to employ. So alas, only the best or most well connected get jobs. The rest go back to making lattes. Would it be better to limit phd's in English?

You propose entrepeneurship. Okay. With institutional support. Have you checked out how many desks sit empty at your denominational headquarters now? Who else would you like to de-employ in order to support the new clergy with big ideas?

Basically, you are asking that we help pay off your loans.. Yours, and every other new seminary grad with an idea to start a new ministry. And you'd like us not to reduce the number of seminarians. I'd just like to know, where is that money supposed to come from?

Can you make a case for this being a better use of mission dollars than any one of a billion other things the church could be doing, and right now struggles to do?

I'm not saying NEVER support an entrepeneurial young minister. Some of this is actually happening already. But there is never going to be enough -- because there are competing needs and diminishing resources, and way too many unemployed and underemployed clergy.

I propose we do a number of things. Lower our intake, support what we can and should, and do not falsely encourage people into a job market that is tightening.

But seminary faculty, who also like their jobs, aren't going to love having smaller student populations either.

Where is that money supposed to come from?

Yes, our bureaucracy is shrinking, and it should in some cases (if our churches are membership is decreasing, our governing bodies should as well).

We don't have money now... but in the years to come, we will have many resources available (mainly in buildings and property). This is different in different denominations, but in the PCUSA, we own the property. Last year, we lost 97 churches (most were closed), and more will be closing each year... I don't think that denominations should be in the business of closing churches, but when churches ask to be closed, we can be creative with the resources. That's a tremendous amount of resources. 

We can do all sorts of things with our buildings--in prime areas we can lease them out, use them for businesses, make them into apartments, sell them, or allow new congregations to form in them. 

The point is that we might not have the funds right now, but vision comes before money. If we do not have vision for reaching out to a new generation in the next twenty-five years, then we will end up with a pile of money, property, and buildings--and no people.

Predicting the future of the PCUSA

Indeed, this respondent probably captures the future of the PCUSA "money, property, and buildings - and no people."   The PCUSA is shrinking because it's seminaries are largely producing pastors that are proclaiming an empty Gospel: a Christ totally disconnected from Jesus, and teaching separated from the authority of scripture.  Unfortunately, evangelical, orthodox seminarians are impacted by this shrinkage as well.  The transition will be painful.  These students will eventually seek out other seminaries, and other institutions to serve in.

The PCUSA will eventually shrink into irrelevance in the model of the other mainline denominations.  The Spirit will be at work elsewhere, and will say to the PCUSA "good riddance."


Whatever this crisis is about, it is not about the seminary's distance from the 'true" gospel.  I sit in meetings and conferences on a weekly basis where seminary faculty wrestle mightily and prayerfully over the scripture and the Spirit's work in our midst.  These are people are not perfect, but on the whole they faithfully seek God and serve neighbor with their hearts, minds, souls and bodies.  Your post displays profound ignorance. 

It's not 1647 anymore

The PC(USA) preaches the gospel; what it doesn't do is pretend it's still 1950, or 1647, or 420 AD, which some people apparently require as a mark of faithfulness.


@Michael_SC - I would love to know where you worship then, because as I travel the country speaking at different events and worshipping at different Presbyterian Churches, I have found few churches that a person from 150 years ago could not walk into and feel right at home, as though nothing has changed.  The music is the same.  The Design of the sanctuary is the same.  The liturgical pinings are the same.  And it seems in many that the people are the same as well. (joking, but not really).  The only difference is their pastor - if they can afford one.

The conservatives are losing too.

There is mounting evidence that evangelical young people are moving away from their churches too.

See the recent study by Barna. It seems that someof the conservatism you think willsave us -- isn't working out so well.

Sounds good

Sounds good. That won't help the young seminary grad who posted the first comment, but you are right, vision first.

I'd just like to see that somehow connected to your projections. Is anybody doing a study of what you say here? Here in the rustbelt, churches are emptying -- but so are communties. So much of our demographic losses are in rural communities -- without large buildings, or clamoring apartment hunters. I'm sure you are right, I'm just thinking the picture looks different from DC than it does in rural Ohio.

I see people so desperate to believe that brilliant success is just around the corner, they don't wanna look at what may be hard truth. So much money could now be saved if we'd let go of the idea that 12 mainline churches in a small city are going to start thriving in just a few years, and combined our efforts. Planned for death, in fact. Instead of just letting it creep up on us.

Hence, why don't we shrink those seminary classes, and support fewer students, well?

No to shrinking seminary classes

You question is logical only if the only thing seminaries did was to serve a need that is somehow generated elsewhere.  However, cutting back seminary efforts is much like eating your seed corn.  Seminaries at their best, create students who can grow churches and congregations.  Additionally, for several generations now seminaries have served purposes in addition to training pastors for existing churches.  Some students come to seminary with little professional expectations, to deepen their intellectual and spiritual formation in a way they could not in congregations.  Some come to seminaries in preparation for work in non profit organizations.  Like it or not, seminaries are places in which the intellectual life of the church nurtured.  Without seminaries, the books pastors read would be seriously impoverished. You may be unhappy with how seminaries have been slow to respond to the changing needs of the church, but, whether you know it or not, this economic downturn has forced seminaries to become more attentive and nimble.  

Not all or nothing

Just to clarify: I didn't suggest closing all the seminaries, or dismiss any idea of retooling. I think it is wonderful if students attend seminary and work at non-profits. In fact,Iwonder if we don't need to redouble efforts -- along the lines of the old Rockefeller Fellowships, which allowed people to attend seminary for a year. People like Al Gore were the products of that fellowship.

What it seems we can't do -- is continue to turn out MDivs who hope they will have lifelong careers in church ministry, with the institutional support of yesteryear. Non-profits are not historically well-paying either -- so graduating in deep debt just doesn't seem to be workable.

We have dozens of tiny seminaries across the country who do a wonderful job of providing theological educations to people in their areas. Unfortunately, those students often graduate in debt, and distressed, if not bitter about the fact that there are no jobs to help them pay off that debt. God "led" them to that place -- to incur the debt, to put in the hard work -- and they can't figure out where the jobs are. It must be someone's fault -- pace some of the comments here.

I'm suggesting the fault is in part a failure to convey the truth about the realities of the institutional church, and about student debt. It is terrible, yes, but it is a fact to deal with.

Buyer Beward:

I still would like to have a Bentley or Lamborghini. I would gladly take a Maserati or a Morgan Roadster. The reality is that I cannot afford my 14-year-old Ford Ranger.  

Ministry does not guarantee a sustainable income. Many members of congregations like little family or slightly larger (I forget the technical term) but unsustainable churches. These might well best be served by older clergy who have retired from sustainable work. The model of part-time, licensed ministries might make sense.

My old seminary offered a one year degree for someone to try out seminary-like the Rockefeller Fellowships. It was a generous offering with a scholarship.

I do not find entrepreneurial style ministries a problem—at least necessarily a problem.  

I know that I refused to finance seminary with debt. I did borrow $500 and that took a long time for me to repay. Teaching reduced the amount by 20 percent for each year I taught school and that paid about $300.

I found many seminarians had romantic notions about ministry, while others planned to serve rich congregations. Some seminarians seemed to me cynical but realistic.

If you want to serve a small and poor congregation, get a job. Work as a chaplain for hospice, sell insurance, work as a probation officer or a teacher or a police officer.Work at Penney's. Get a job.

One needs to shop seminaries. A doctorate in ministries from Eden is pricey; one from Louisville Presbyterian is quite reasonable. Pacific School of Religion has terrific programs but they charge a pretty penny.


Wall Street? REALLY??

Boy, I was with you until that last paragraph. What - somehow the current leadership of the Presbyterian Church (boomers, by and large), are cheaters and liars, more than willing to rip off the rest of the church to satisfy their own greed/needs? What does it sound like when you ARE blaming and villianizing others? In particular, I'd love to hear specifically how you imagine the boomer generation has "successfully placed all the debt and burden...on the shoulders of the next generation." What the heck?


Is this a serious response?

Where is God in all this? Why don't you pray and ask the Lord to open a door for you, until then ask our Triune God to provide a place where you can work and earn enough to live.  Why not get on your knees and repent of a presumptious entitlement attitude, but rather be thankful and willing? Why not spend time in repenting before Jesus?

Hello. I'm still here in the room.

Um... I didn't drop out within the first five years: this past summer I was forced to resign and now can't find employment or anywhere I would like to go.  Questions about what a church might want to do to grow disciples, or reach out to the community, or even to spend time together as a community to strengthen their own bonds were apparently much too challenging.  I am a gifted minister with so much to offer in hope, love and a heck of a lot of skill.  But more than concerns about finance and age, I don't see a church who wants ME there nor the way that I can help a church live on into the future.  Thus put, what concerns me isn't the decline in numbers of young clergy, but the fact that so much of the church doesn't care that we exist or think we have anything to offer.

Yes... sadly... you're not

Yes... sadly... you're not alone with that frustration.

Peace to you in your transition... I know that sounds trite with what you're going through. But it is sincere.

Hopeful response....

Almost immediately after I posted, people were tweeting, wanting me to offer some solutions. I will! Look for them on Monday.

Or maybe Tuesday...

So I wasn't able to get to the follow-up post today. But I'll be on it soon!

I said this on the UCC 2030

I said this on the UCC 2030 site, but I wanted to add it her

Good article. I think one thing a lot of local parishes don't understand is that we do not have anyone pay for our seminary. So we usually have to take out loans. And when we get out we have to pay them back. I'm very blessed to have a full-time call and generous parishioners, but until last year they had no idea most young clergy had to also make significant student loan payments out of their salaries. 

Add to that churches that sold their parsonages because earlier generations didn't want them, and you have a generation of clergy with debt-to-income levels that will not allow them to do anything but rent an apartment in the town they serve. So neither the pastor nor the church is gaining equity in anything and young pastors with families are turning down places they can't afford to live. 

I think one thing that would help would be more of an effort to educate search committees about the reality of not just under-40 clergy, but clergy of every age who have recently graduated.

A piece of the solution lies with the Board of Pensions

Remembering that one of the reasons for creating Social Security was to deal with unemployment during the Depression by getting older workers the funds they needed to retire, a piece of the solution lies with the Board of Pensions (as far as PCUSA Presbyterians are concerned).

1.  At present, the Board of Pensions actually provides significant incentives for retired pastors to keep working and for churches (in some circumstances) to hire a retired pastor over a younger one.  I would propose the following (for starters):

a.  (This is counter-intuitive)  Raise the normal retirement age so that it is synchronized with Social Security.  Few pastors can afford to retire in advance of their full S.S. age, yet the BoP grants pension credit bonuses to pastors working past 65.  I, for example, am in the age bracket where 67 will be my S.S. age.  In the present system, when the time comes I will get a bonus in my pension credits for working those two years from 65 to 67.  Recalibrating my base pension to 67 instead of 65 will put the pension fund into surplus, giving the BoP funds it can use to do the following:

b.  Incentivize early retirement.  In other words, recalibrate normal retirement to stay in lock-step with Soc Sec ... then use the actuarial gain from this maneuver to fund the ability to give a bonus for early retirement.

c.  Create a class of income similar to the FICA offset that is used to pay down seminary loans.  Like the FICA offset, this amount would be taxed as cash salary by the IRS, but would be exempt from BoP dues, saving churches 32.25% on the amount in this category - which hopefully they can then pass onto the pastor, helping pastors pay down loans more quickly.

d.  Eliminate all exceptions that ever allow churches not to pay pension dues when employing retired pastors.  (Right now, a church hiring a retired pastor in a non-installed capacity may be able to avoid paying BoP dues.)

These are some top-of-mind steps to help open up positions.  This is half the problem.  The other half is...

2.  Our younger pastors, IMO, need far better training in three core areas: leadership, communication, and administration.  There are, in my experience, two major myths: one, that it is easier to start new things outside of an established church than within one.  It is hard to overestimate the value of a facility, infrastructure, and people.  The resistance to new things is to be overcome with leadership.  Leadership is the art of getting people to voluntarily go where you want them to go.  The second myth is that a new generation can only be reached with a radically new way of doing church.  Again, not so.  This is not to deny the very stark reality of generational differences, but these differences are actually not intrinsically related to worship style or a rejection of traditional doctrine.  One need only look at the success of Redeemer in NYC to see a church that is very traditional in many ways yet broadly appealing to both younger and older - especially younger.

A capable leader understands that if a congregation won't follow, it's her/his failure as a leader, not their failure as a congregation.  A leader also has to be a very effective communicator and a leader knows the resources s/he has at her/his disposal (administration).

Finally, you have to work hard.  IMO, obsessively hard.  My congregation was a long- established church that had declined 75% from its peak in the early 60s.  Our traditional service is growing.  We now have a contemporary service as well - something the old-timers once would have guessed would be an "over our dead bodies" happening.  But we did it.  The contemporary service is accepted by the traditionalists because it is positioned as an addition, not a replacement.  The traditional service provides the infrastructure that makes the contemporary service cost-effective.  A single donor paid for the A/V installation for the contemporary service ... and he rarely attends it.  He prefers the traditional service.  And a part of the (unspoken) deal is that my work on the contemporary service (which many refer to as "my thing") is "over and above."  In some ways I'm a tentmaker in my own church where the traditional service is my "day job."

Summary: the Board of Pensions holds some of the keys to opening up positions.  But unless the younger pastors are properly trained and have the right mindset to move into those positions and thrive, it won't matter.

A piece of the solution lies with the Board of Pensions

Wow... I'm not one who usually responds to replies. However, I just have to thank you for your analysis on this.  As a clergy under 40 who has written a proposal to offices in the GA around this issue and as someone deeply concerned about this situation I found your insights and story very helpful and encouraging.  Thanks again.

Leadership means...

Hello, I'm the one from above who is still in the room.  Over the past few days I have been particularly stuck on this comment of yours:

"A capable leader understands that if a congregation won't follow, it's her/his failure as a leader, not their failure as a congregation.  A leader also has to be a very effective communicator and a leader knows the resources s/he has at her/his disposal (administration)."

Now if I understand you correctly, the congregation and it's system played no part in why I was asked to leave my position, right?  The fact that trumped up lies I could sue over were brought in a petition against me that had nothing to do with my time there at all is also my failings to communicate effectively or work hard enough?  And the congregation still bares no responsibility in what happened even though over the last 25 years the same group of people have been allowed to attempt to kick out six pastors and succeeded with four of them?  I'm not even going to go into the sabotage that occurred from the moment I arrived displaying itself in basically what I perceived as playing possum since I suspect you could come up with ways that all that was my fault as well.

So am I really understanding your assumptions correctly?  Because, see, in my pastoral family we have a different way of seeing getting fired.  In a similar vein to black pastors in the south getting arrested, getting fired as a pastor can be a badge of honor. It means that I was saying something right, some truth they didn't want to hear, and though I really never wanted to be one, like the prophets of old I paid for it.  For the record if I remember correctly, I believe I was at the end of my time being under care of the CPM of Palisades Presbytery during the beginning of your tenure as chair of that committee.  Just thought you might be interested in the connection.

And Carol, thanks for your words of comfort.  I really appreciate them.

What was your goal?

Of course it can be a badge of honor to get fired.  Or get arrested.  In such circumstances, it should be the person's goal to achieve this outcome, believing that the greater good is served by the notoriety of being treated unjustly as a means of exposing the injustice.  In which case you've done what you felt compelled to do - but don't complain about it.

OTOH, if your goal was to lead the congregation into a new way of being, a new understanding of the demands of the gospel - it doesn't sound as if you achieved it.  IOW, if you're called to be a prophet, be a prophet.  If you're called to be a pastor, be a pastor.  (This is not to say that elements of each aren't always a part of the job, but you probably get my drift.)  As an oversimplification, pastors push people only as far as they can; prophets push for the max regardless of the outcome - both are pushing in the same direction.  Which do you want to be?  In which mode will you find the peace of the gospel for yourself?

I have no means to evaluate what you faced.  But to be frank, your reply seems to place 100% of the responsibility on them - and you were their leader.  Sure, it may well be that their congregational system was sick beyond your ability to deal with effectively.  But a pastor has some responsibility for getting into such a situation.  Hopefully you learned from the experience.

In the midst of what I feel

In the midst of what I feel is condescension and paternalism, there is a grain of truth in what you say, but you only have part of the information and seem to be much more interested in declaring what I am or am not as opposed to engaging me and my experience in conversation.  Not only have you chosen to have no means to evaluate what I have faced, but you apparently have not experienced anything similar either.  I wish you grace and peace when your journey takes you there as it does to all pastors at one point or another.  The church is a fickle and sometimes vicious bride. 

pastor eating churches

I am one of those mid-50s pastors who has served for 26 years...and I can attest that there are pastor eating churches.  I have watched friends and colleagues be chewed up and spit out by congregations that are so dysfuntional that they would have shown Jesus the door.  One example...a member of one of my congregations had been a PCUSA associate pastor.  He had served well.  He was asked by his COM to take a small congregation in the presbytery.  He gladly agreed, not being aware that the church had a history of turning over pastors every three years...and tearing up the pastors at the same time.  My friend was no exception.  When the church tore up my friend the COM and Executive Presbyter then declared that my friend was not fit for ministry and ought to set aside his ordination...which he did.  Fast forward 25 years when I met him.  With some help he took up his ordination again (he had worked as a librarian) and served, very successfully two congregations which loved him and appreciated his gifts.

My hope for you is that you will find an advocate who can help you find a place in which you can continue to live out your ministry.  

I am over posting here because I sense a frustrated sense of ent

It is very hard to earn a living. I am not joking when I muse that a good sideline for some pastors might be working as an embalmer or funeral director or providing weddings services (I cannot recall the correct term) or being a drug counselor.The mainline is not going to return to what it once was. The Disciples bid to start 1000 new congregation charms me but it is not going to happen.

Over twenty years ago, I belonged to a search committee for a congregation from the United Church of Christ in New Orleans. A fellow member of the committee was a graduate of Union Theological Seminary in New York, John had a major influence on whom we took a close look and on whom we finally selected.  We eventually looked at ten people and then at the last moment, one more candidate. All of the candidates impressed me. All of them were graduates of good seminaries or even top-of-the-line schools.

John defined some internal criteria that simultaneously amused and annoyed me. He eliminated all candidates who were graduates of West Coast seminaries. He eliminated all candidates who had earned academic doctorates after earning divinity degrees. He eliminated all candidates who had left parson ministry to work in something like Habitat for Humanity. He eliminated all candidates who were married to clergy. That took care of almost all of those on our initial list.

The first final selection got a vote of 11-0. That candidate was graduated from the Divinity School at Harvard University. What caused reservations were three factors. His hobby was hunting. He enjoyed playing board war games. He sent us four sermons, two of which implied that he might have taken the resurrection literally, though I did not think that he did. Eventually, a last minute submission got 10-1 votes. I was the dissentient voter and I liked the last minute choice as much as did anyone else. We hired (called) a middle-aged almost New Age sounding fellow who died within three years of his call.

I don’t think any of the candidates not called had any idea really why we did not select him or her. I think that anyone of them would have been an excellent a pastor as did the one we selected. The young man who became the runner up went on to serve a congregation in Maine and he now serves one in the District of Columbia. The impressive level of candidates impressed me.  

Earning a seminary degree does not guarantee a job. I repeat that because that is important. Our little congregation in New Orleans was neither rich nor poor. It was neither large nor small. It was not especially theologically conservative or liberal. It was an old German church that had become more a residue of its locale with former Italian Catholic members. It did have a German connection. It did have a peace church link. It was, thus, a good test of what a candidate might have faced at time and maybe still does.

multi-vocational clergy, and clergy with rich spouses

I am a DOC minister currently serving Geneva Presbyterian Church (PCUSA) in Modesto, CA, as Director of Music.  

I've been serving UMC and now a Presbyterian Church in music ministry for a few years now, since the opportunities for serving a DOC church are few and far between in this geographical area.  I have been blessed greatly in this ecumenical ministry.  My wife has been serving as pastor of First Christian Church (DOC) here in Modesto.  Ministry has not provided enough gameful employment (or, perhaps I should say, not enough gameful compensation!  Churches are always happy to receive our services for free.), so we have basically taken turns having a full-time non-ministry job while the other serves in part-time or full-time ministry.  

My wife and I are in this geographic area to be near my parents, who are ageing.  We also feel a sense of call to serve this area as a "mission field."  And we want our two young boys to have a stable place to grow up and call home.  The city of Modesto is one of the hardest-hit in the nation with regards to the housing market, and we have been able to keep our home here for now.

First Christian will no longer be a worshipping community at the end of this year.  So, Molly and I may be in a position to start a new church soon, utilizing financial resources from the sale of First Christian's large church building in downtown Modesto.  (This, of course, will be up to the region who will be receiving the deed to the property and deciding how to dispose of it most faithfully.) We are already meeting with a core group of people to plan for this new church start.  

I suppose my wife and I are a living example of the challenges that younger clergy face.  But I'm not sure it should be called a "young clergy crisis."  Why don't we call it an "ageing church crisis," or an "ageing denomination crisis"?  Actually, I think its broader than both of these.  It's part of the large shift to a different model of pastoral leadership that requires a different sense of call, a greater commitment of personal resources and finances from clergy, and a commitment to ministry as a missional endeavor.  

Someone in seminary told me that "the church doesn't make a very good mother."  This was intended to mean that I shouldn't expect the church to take care of me as I entered ministry.  But I didn't really expect the church to be so needy that it couldn't take care of itself.  Churches and denominations are ageing, at which point they perhaps require the same kind of care and humble guidance that ageing parents need.  So, how can younger clergy provide this kind of care for older congregations, and also provide the leadership needed to assure the continuation of the Christian movements long into the 21st century?  This is a lot to ask, and can only be achieved with cooperation among the different generations of clergy that has been lacking to this point.  

We are serving in an "emergent system," like a forest full of trees that grow tall, live for many years, then die and fall, decaying to provide fertile ground for new trees to grow.  Let's not forget to see the forest, even as we grieve the loss of the trees.  And let's not forget to plant new trees in the soil that others have nourished.  

Seeking cooperation

Thank you for your thoughts. I've been following this thread of comments for a few days, as the topic is close to home: I'm a young seminary student in Seattle, pursuing ordination with the DOC, and as I work on "vocational discernment" I am becoming increasingly concerned with the reality of vocational ministry in this time and place. 

Reading all of these responses, I am also increasingly disturbed by the fractured relationships between the generations. We have fallen into an "us versus them" mentality, a mentality that I also see manifest in almost every sector of our culture (political, environmental, financial, etc). We are living in a fractured and frightened society.

Yet if we are to have any witness to Christ in 21st century America, I completely agree that cooperation and mutual imagination between the generations will be necessary. That being said, I think that it will be exceedingly hard work. We're all scared and taking this situation very personally, because it is personal. Calming an anxious system is never easy. It is a lot to ask, because it will take sacrifice and mutual submission from both sides.

Here in Seattle there are two churches that I can think of where I see this cooperation taking place. In one situation, an older, dwindling congregation gave their building and assets to a young church plant who rented a cafe space next from the congregation. Now this "blended family" worships together. In another part of town, an older congregation has allowed a young church plant to use their building. In return, the younger congregation has been helping the older maintain the building and are forging relationships with some of the elderly. Their connection has grown deeper than the building: the pastors and lay leaders from both congregations now meet together regularly and seem to see their unique congregational missions as symbiotic. These two examples give me hope as I consider where I may be heading.

I'm aware that it is probably so much more difficult to actually be out in the "thick of it", whereas I am still in the relative security of seminary. These bold words that I have said barely scratch the surface of the situation. However, I deeply desire for cooperation, and I wonder who will be the first to move toward peace and reconciliation within the Body of Christ.

Grace and peace, Kate

It's not an easy call. As a

It's not an easy call. As a librarian, I see some of the same issues in my field. People can't afford to retire, so they don't, and there are no opportunities for younger librarians even if we didn't have hiring freezes due to budget cuts.

There are a lot of good thoughts here in the post and in the comments and at (Which I read before I read this post, full disclosure.)

The aging of the church is a big deal, both in the pulpit and in the pews. I've been reading Dakota, by Kathleen Norris, and how the tiny country church of 25 members is the most vibrant church in the area.

I don't have any answers, but I am grateful for the thoughts of Carol, Dennis, and others. These are hard times. How do we get past them? How do we hire people that want to work, and how do we pay them a living wage? And how do we pay those student loans...We certainly can't pay them in cupcakes.

xo, SL


Clergy crisis

I am 57 year old Presbyterian woman pastor, 33 years experience, forced out of a 20 year position as Associate without cause, simply because the new younger head of staff did not want me to stay. (he has since been fired) No one wanted conflict, including me so I graciously left. But now after 3 years I cannot get anykind of position in the church or in the secular workplace. My PIF has been in literally hundreds of churches. You might suspect some secret indescretion or neglect of duty but that was not the case. I've been Moderator of the Presbytery, served at all levels of the church. There are 4 times as many PIF's on file as there are CIF's. It is true the retired clergy scoop up the Interim positions; so I do not get those either. So I'm at a loss. I'd retire but the BOP will not let us retire with full benefits after 30+ years of service. You have to be 65.  So I guess I can retire early, get food stamps and hope my brother does not kick me out in the street. 

The Young Clergy Crisis

Very powerful stuff here... to tell you the thruth, reading this makes me feel slightly bad about my own vocation, considering I just had my 48th birthday, and won't start Seminary until I am at least 51 (you see, I'm a policeman nearing retirement).

I wish I had an answer.

Reasons for aging clergy

I was in a non-denominational world for many years and recently have become on staff at a PCUSA church.  Since then I have talked to many younger leaders, and one of the biggest barriers I think is the system it is to become ordained. I have a Doctor of Ministry degree, yet still it is a giant hassle (and I say that word with respect) of all the tedious committee meetings, what those on the COM look for, the whole process is so incredibly slow - that the system seems to push away younger leaders who want to be in a thriving missional organization.

Perhaps the whole system is not effective in today's culture, and thus younger leaders have other alternatives of serving and being part of churches. Not that PCUSA should just not have any requirements, but I believe younger leaders today are less interested in denominational ties than they are to be finding a denomination or church which has a system of ordination and church comunities which are passionate about mission which means change will be normative. My experience is that change is so slow in the PCUSA, generally held back by older leaders who don't like change. So younger leaders are stuck and PCUSA isn't becomming an attractive alternative as a denomination to be serving in. That's the conversations I have been in at least here on the west coast with younger leaders in the PCUSA thinking of leaving or gave up on trying to become PCUSA. 

An ignorant post

I have to say that I find this article is full of profound ignorance regarding economics and a free society.  The situation is simple...people have chosen to pursue degrees in fields that have very limited opportunities.  Yet you are asking denominations and churches that have increasingly shrinking resources and opportunities to somehow create more?  Whatever happened to taking responsibility for your own choices? If I were to choose to pursue a career where I know that there is only one openning for every ten graduates, then this is my choice and my responsibility.  Once I complete my education, I don't then whine, cry, occupy... If one truly believes themselves called into full time ministry then it is incumbent upon them to prayerfully pursue all options.  Noone has guaranteed you or anyone else a salary?  Maybe tent-making is where you must start?   Maybe it is working at McDonald's, while starting a home church and evangelizing?  Why not work on a farm as a tomato picker, while reaching people who are lost in their sins and destined for hell, with the saving gospel of Jesus Christ?   

This kind of posting is representative of the kind of moral failure that exists in large portions of the younger generation in the western world.  Whatever happened to personal responsibility and the Protestant work ethic, which comes from a Reformed faith and John Calvin?

I also have to say, that I agree with the anonymous poster earlier.  Much of the decline of mainline denominations has to do with the fact that the biblical gospel message has been replaced with unbelief.  Progressive/liberal theologies are merely unbelief masked as belief.  Most of these seminaries and denominations merely hold on to the language of Christianity, but are in fact seminaries of Satan and churches led by anti-Christs.  I wear the moniker proudly of one who was black-balled by a mainline denomination..the PCUSA, because I would not modify the gospel in the slightest.  I took whatever work I could get, while volunteering joyfully with an evangelical church.  Then God opened the door for me as a pastor...blessings I in no way deserve.  I stand every Sunday morning and proclaim Jesus as the only way to the Father, calling people to repent and be reconciled to God through the only name by which we must be saved..Jesus!  


Work that must be done

Aye, and it's difficult and unpopular to proclaim the old ways, but it must be done.  I myself proclaim the classic, orthodox Geocentric Solar System, which apostate modern astronomy, with their new knowledge (so called) no longer believes.  I don't see why people think they have the right to change their minds about things when new understandings (so called) arise. There _can_ be no new understandings.

Howdy Carol!

Why don't you couple this young clergy crisis with the cycle of senior pastors to do something significant (building project, major transformation project, etc) or looking for a new call every 7 years.

I would love to look at solutions as well, but I am in a Presbytery who does not see Evangelism and Church transformation as the job of the Presbytery.  I would think that those two things are the cure for the crisis in churches today.

Thanks for the article though.

Hey Rob! It's good to hear

Hey Rob! It's good to hear from you! Yes, evangelism, church transformation, and creative partnerships will be very important... How long do you think it will be before we realize that evangelism is a job for everyone??

CPM process

As an under-30 first-call pastor, I would suggest that CPM (in my presbytery of care and in those of many of my colleagues in seminary) is a large part of the problem.

My CPM undermined and discouraged me at every turn, largely because I was not a cradle Presbyterian and therefore my theology was suspect.  Ironically, my theology is much more in line with actual Presbyterian belief than many cradle Presbyterians, because I sought out the PC(USA) as a denomination in line with what I actually believed.  But I digress.

At my last meeting with CPM, they told me in no uncertain terms that I did not have the right gifts for ministry in a small church context.  I listed cross-cultural skills and ecumenical/interfaith work as two of my top skills, and was told that those are not what churches (especially small ones) in the Presbyterian Church are looking for.  They said that instead, the top skill for pastors in small churches needed to be hospital visitation.  I wanted to shout "This is why the church is dying!!" but I also wanted to get ordained, so I restrained myself.

Having ignored 95 percent of my CPM's advice and listened instead to the wisdom of seminary professors and other mentors who actually know and care about me, I am now happily serving a small rural church.

I would imagine that many of my peers who experience similar treatment from CPMs are so burnt out and frustrated with the church before they even reach the parish that it is no wonder few of us last 5 years, or give up on seeking a call at all.

I feel very blessed to be where I am now, but the process of getting here was not an experience I would wish on anyone.

As a young leader in PCUSA, I

As a young leader in PCUSA, I must say that this speaks volums to the problems we face as a denomination. However, I also do not think that every "young" person who is seminary educated is fit to be a pastor.  I don't believe that our ordination process really mentors or disciples people into leadership. I have been appalled by the behavior and attitudes of young seminarians while I attended seminary, and sometimes I wonder if "young" people do not get calls because of these attitude/bahvioral issues rather than because of age.

As someone who frequently is called to serve at the church/presbytery/GA level, I am well aware of the discrimination of young people; I face it all the time. Often time I'm treated like the "secretary" for the commitee or expected to grunt work because I'm "so good at it". 

All this to say, I'm not saying the discrimination of young folks in our denomination isn't real, but there is also a lack of prepared young folks who want to be clergy in our church. Mind you, there are some fantastic young pastors that I have high respect for, but for the most part, the young folks I went to seminary with, I would not want them as my pastor. 

Good people but not pastors.

I would have liked many of those with whom I did undergraduate
studies to have been my pastor but not most of those I met in seminary though
some of them probably became terrific pastors.

For one thing, many of them were avoiding the draft. Many were alcoholics (MOST likely). Many wanted to serve rich congregations and live well.

You Have Described a Trend

Put everything you have said together and you have the following:

1. Young people are forsaking the clergy

2. Many of those who graduate seminary drop out after a few years

3. Many of those churches are hiring retired ministers

4. Churches are maturing which means they are not attracting young people

The handwriting is clearly on the wall. The church is undergoing severe attrition and unable to muster the resources it needs to move forward. The above problems are not causes but symptoms of a deeper problem. That underlying problem or problems need to be dealt with.

Some suggestions:

1. Talk to people who have left to find out what caused them to leave.

2. Talk to those who seem to have no interest to see why the church no longer appeals to them (young people, primarily)

3. Research church trends to see if the PCUSA is different from other groups or part of a larger problem.

4. Take a good hard look at scripture with an eye to how the early church constituted itself. Why was their brotherly love so strong that it drew others? What did their worship and body life consist of? Did they have professional clergy? Or did the believers minister actively to one another? What made it so dynamic that it grew from 25,000 to 0ver 20 million and spread from Palestine north the Great Britain and east to India in the first four centuries?

5. Examine your motives. Do you just want to preserve a man-made institution or are you more concerned about spreading the Kingdom of God in whatever form that might take?

Young pastors

I am on  COM in my presbytery and can say you are right

On target. To cite just one example a small church was given a choice

Between a recent seminary grad with entrepreneurial skills

And energy and a recently retired pastor they chose the retired pastor

Enough said 

Random Thoughts

Some random thoughts: I took my major in religion at
a public university as preparation for seminary. I was not a great student but
I was a decent one and, in my youth, I was gifted. Yet, I dropped out of
seminary during my second semester. It was a very good one and one that
stressed practical aspects of ministry. It still does.

I had an academic scholarship and it was a generous
one. I also had a National Defense Student loan and access to more of them. Also,
I might have enlisted in military chaplaincy training which had been my aim
since the time I was still in high school, but I decided not to do that for
various reasons.

Even though I had worked as a student minister
during my undergraduate life, I had trouble living when I was in seminary. I
had lived well in undergraduate life and part of the reason was that by working
every two weeks at student churches, I had enough income to surpass what many
of my classmates earned from their student jobs. I found the undergraduate student
ministry wonderful and highly rewarding. I was able at the same time to take
part in campus ministry life—sort of a quirk because I had an old car and did
not have to buy one as my classmates had to do. I got the best of both worlds.
I do not think any training for ministry works that way now.  

I still don’t know what happened in seminary. I
think that my problems with unipolar depression probably played a hand. Anyway,
I had exhausted my considerable savings during my early second semester. I did
a lot volunteer political work with a Republican mayor but I did not find a student
ministry position until shortly before I left school. Yet, within three weeks
of leaving seminary, I had a job at a major advertising agency in a large city on
the West Coast. When I left seminary, I thought that one day I would return and
I had chances to do that but did not.  

Part of why I never returned had to do with the low
income pastors then earned, the high debt level staying in school would require
if I were not  enrolled for chaplaincy training,
the demands of student ministerial work, and such concerns. I had thought I
would avoid all that by letting the Army pay for seminary and then provide me a
locus for ministry.

For well over 40 years, I have not looked back so
much as just mused about ministry. My subsequent main career was almost a kind
of ministry. I felt is a religious vocation. I was delighted not to have to
deal with what pastors face but still get to do something akin to what they do.
 I loved what ministers studied. I did
not like the low pay, the spiritual, ethical, intellectual, and other
compromises that ministry seems to require, though I MIGHT be wrong.

I cannot image taking on ministry in our current environment.
This is not a careful response to the questions asked. However, it is
background. I was Disciples of Christ but also involved with Presbyterians. I have a Presybtierian, UCC, and Disciples background. There are differences but similairities.


cannot imagine taking on ministry in our current environment. This is not a
careful response to the questions asked. However, it is background. I was
Disciples of Christ but also involved with Presbyterians. I have a Presbyterian,
UCC, and Disciples background. There are differences but similarities


I would not want to become a pastor now unless I had considerable entrepreneurial skills. Congregations might pretend that they want scholar pastors but they rarely do. That is not bad; it just is. The Christian College of Georgia has a long standing sense of how to prepare licensed pastors for ministry to small congregations with pastors who can earn a living outside the ministry or some such model.Lexingon Theological Seminary is doing something similar. We might just not be able to afford what we want.

A bit more--a fragment:

Three friends about my age, two slightly younger and one slightly older, earned their degrees from theological seminaries. Two earned master of divinity or maybe bachelor of divinity degrees. One earned a master of sacred theology. Two were graduated from Harvard Divinity School; one was graduated from Union Theological Seminary in Manhattan. I think that each saw in seminary a fine form of education. None of them apparently ever intended to be a pastor, though one is an ordained Presbyterian elder. One works as an academic. One had a career in public service and politics. One works a film producer. All are political and religious liberals.

One paid for her education working as a computer programmer. I do not know how the other two paid for their studies. One is a woman. Two are men.

A slightly older mentor to two of these folks and to me earned his divinity degree from Harvard Divinity School. He died an ordained Presbyterian pastor but he worked most of his career as a professor of constitutional law.

I think that education in a theological school is a terrific place to study our culture and society. The mentor figure certainly believed that. I wanted to attend seminary and graduate because I shared this notion.

I do not know how one can justify paying for seminary studies. Perhaps, some people have the means; others of us did not. I do know that what little I studied in a semester and not even a half provided me with questions, intrigues, topic, and insights that have enriched all my subsequent days. Just watching some of my teachers at my seminary—Clark Williamson, Edwin Becker, Charles Ashanin, Calvin Porter, and several others was an immense boon to me. I know that one friend had the same experience with Richard E. Niebuhr and Gordon Kaufman. Anther had it with Paul Lehmann and James Luther Adams.  

Many pastors are never much more than bright boys but the churches do sometimes produce wise men and some of them teach in our seminaries. Think about spending time with Fred Craddock!  

There are romantic notions about churches—about congregations. Maybe, most congregations and those who would serve them cannot afford to sustain these notions. However, I understand why they persist.

I am not a wise man nor was I ever a bright boy, but I could have been an entrepreneurial pastor. There is a place for entrepreneurial pastors, though for me to have become one would have made it impossible to me to be the Christian I became. One has to come to Christ as he is—as one unknown--and one finds oneself in the journey.

I might have spent $32,000 on tuition for a seminary I like when I retired and it would have been money well spent. I did not do that. I do not regret not doing that but I understand anyone who would spend that money and much, much more. I love all but the last few lines (and those lines fine, just not necessary) of the great Philip Larkin poem “Church Going”. “Once I am certain nothing is going on/I step inside. . .  If only because so many dead lie round about.” Theological training is good but it is expensive—like that famous ointment.      


I think education in a theological school is good
because a seminary is a terrific place to . . . .

New of Continuing Problem:

The dropout problem is not new. I don’t know if this
is the case for Presbyterians but it is not new for Disciples. My prejudice, by
the way, is that Presbyterians were a tad better educated because they almost
always had at least one biblical language while many Disciples did not have
even one.

The Disciples, however, were often otherwise well
educated. I was part of a Presbyterian congregation once that had as members
five ordained Disciples—all but one of them a graduate of a seminary and four
of which had academic doctorates. All of them were employed and all but one was
prosperous. That one was a graduate student who later earned a good income.