WHEN DENOMINATIONAL officials look at the number of empty pulpits in their churches, they worry about a shortage of pastors. Some have strategized about new ways to recruit candidates for ministry. "The clergy shortage is impacting me at every turn," says Bishop Ted Gulick of the Episcopal Diocese in Kentucky. "The bishops and seminaries woke up about two and a half years ago, and realized we have to start recruiting younger people to fill the ranks."
Yet from the perspective of clergy, the situation appears quite tire opposite. They see a crowded job market, with few attractive positions and even fewer chances for promotion. Denominational statistics show that there are twice as many ordained ministers as there are pastoral positions to fill. Jack Marcum, head of research services for the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), sees "little evidence of a literal shortage of ministers ... We are training more than sufficient numbers of ministers of word and sacrament in the PCUSA to pastor mid-sized and larger congregations and fill other traditional ministries.
"The data supplied by denominations to the Yearbook of American and Canadian Churches confirm that there is a clergy glut. Whereas data in the 1950s showed slightly less than one pastor for every church, in 2000 there were almost two pastors for every, church. This trend appears across liberal, moderate and conservative denominations, across large and small denominations, and across fast-growing and slow-growing denominations.
If there are so many unemployed clergy, why are denominational leaders wringing their hands about a clergy shortage? The answer is that denominational officials are focusing not on the total number of clergy but on the number of vacant pulpits, and on this score many denominations are indeed facing a crisis. In the denominations often designated as liberal the Episcopal Church, the United Church of Christ and the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)--roughly 20 percent of churches lack clergy (according to Yearbook data). The "moderate" mainline denominations--including the United Methodist Church, various Lutheran denominations, the Disciples of Christ, the American Baptist Churches and the Reformed Church--show a 10 percent vacancy rate. The conservative denominations, which have among the highest numbers of clergy per member, also have the highest proportions of employed clergy per church. The data from these denominations--including the Southern Baptist Convention, the Church of the Nazarene and the Assemblies of God--suggest that there are 1.4 working clergy per church. (Anecdotally, however, officials in these denominations believe that there are still empty pulpits out there, and they estimate the percentage to be between 4 and 6 percent.)
How can some denominations report both a surplus of clergy and a large percentage of empty pulpits? Because the empty pulpits are mostly in small, rural churches, which aren't very attractive positions they are isolated geographically and they don't pay much in salary or benefits.
In the PCUSA, one of the few denominations that keeps data on ministerial vacancies by church size, the vacancy rate in congregations with fewer than 100 members has grown from 39 percent in 1990 to 44 percent in 2000. Among churches with fewer than 50 members, the vacancy rate has grown from 71 percent to 77 percent, The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America reports a similar trend, with half of its pastoral vacancies occurring in churches with fewer than 175 members.
The problem of filling ministerial posts in small churches cannot be ignored, for most churches are small. A 1999 study of American congregations reported that 71 percent have fewer than 100 regularly participating adults. The median size of at church is 75 active members. In other words, half a fall American congregations have fewer than 75 members.
Why don't pastors want to serve small churches? Many pastors would say that it is deeply satisfying to work in smaller churches. …