Searching for Shepherds

By Witham, Larry | The Washington Times (Washington, DC), July 2, 2001 | Go to article overview

Searching for Shepherds


Witham, Larry, The Washington Times (Washington, DC)


Byline: Larry Witham

First of five parts

Ye have not chosen me, but I have chosen you, and ordained you, that ye should go and bring forth fruit . . . - John 15:16

GETTYSBURG, Pa. - The hilltop Lutheran Theological Seminary has trained men of God for 175 years, despite bloody wars, industrial revolutions and other epochal social changes.

And so today, the nearly 200 enthusiastic students here are not easily daunted by warnings of a "clergy crisis" sweeping the United States.

The struggle to supply Christians with gifted clergy to guide them and spread the Gospel is hardly a novel task, whether in the halls of the nation's seminaries or in the pages of the Bible.

"In the Scriptures, God calls people at some of the most terrible times, and people you would not expect," says Chad Rimmer, who at 24 was the Gettysburg seminary's student association president for the 2000-01 school year.

Across the nation at the much younger Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, Calif., master's of divinity candidate Nathan Hieb, 25, describes how the United Methodists have asked him to consider their call.

Mr. Hieb says he may well stick with the more conservative Christian and Missionary Alliance denomination of his upbringing. Even so, he sported pierced ears and brow when he ministered to the punk rock scene in Minneapolis. He knows he could end up in coat and tie in a suburban pulpit, or again on an urban mission field.

"I'm not very concerned about preserving traditions," Mr. Hieb says at Fuller's student center, an old Victorian house. "I'm very interested in translating Christianity, the message of Jesus, into the new cultural climate."

But it is youth - along with being college graduates with a heart to do God's will - that makes Mr. Rimmer, Mr. Hieb and seminarians like them the envy of American Christianity.

In the next decade, the 1950s boom generation of clergy will retire in huge numbers. And hard-to-find replacements will go into the field at a time when organized religion and clerical authority have taken some nasty body blows.

While issues such as homosexual clergy grab headlines, the actual number of them is minuscule. Such heated debates, some say, distract churches from an imminent peril to the pulpit: a dearth of qualified clergy.

Do Americans value their clergy enough to make it a viable calling in the next generation? Although opinion polls show Americans laud pastors more than other "professionals," they also seem less willing to pay well for the job, encourage their children to follow the call or uphold the pastor's work in the culture or media.

Meanwhile, a shortage looms because fewer clergy seek to lead tens of thousands of small, struggling or conflicted churches.

This series explores the challenges ahead for the nation's Christian clergy by examining key aspects of ministry - from the struggles of mainline Protestants and Southern Baptists to the debate over female ministers; from the soul-searching of the Catholic priesthood to the excitement of the "new breed" of entrepreneurs in the pulpit.

"The '60s was a watershed for American religion. It continues to have an impact," says Jackson Carroll, a United Methodist scholar at Duke University Divinity School, who is in charge of an extensive effort to produce a "compelling portrait of ministry."

The goal of Mr. Carroll's four-year, $3.5 million project, which includes 30 researchers, is to excite a next generation of shepherds to lead the Christian flock. The project began last year with his assessment that "ministry, in many respects, is a troubled profession."

THE CALL TO MINISTER

"When you say `the ministry,' you think `the pulpit,'" says Mr. Rimmer, a North Carolinian with a degree in biology. "That's not the entire ministry."

Yet the pulpit probably is where this seminarian will spend the next 40 years, since American churchgoers still see the essence of their religion as "worship and spiritual growth," according to a survey of several thousand churches by Hartford Seminary sociologist Nancy Ammerman. …

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