Magazine article The Christian Century

From Clergy Shortage to Clergy Glut

Magazine article The Christian Century

From Clergy Shortage to Clergy Glut

Article excerpt

After a decade-long clergy shortage in America's pulpits, Christian denominations are now experiencing a clergy glut--with some denominations reporting that they have two ministers for every vacant pulpit.

"We have a serious surplus of ministers and candidates seeking calls," said Marcia Myers, director of the vocation office for the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), which has four ministers for every opening.

The main cause of the sudden turnaround: the bad economy.

According to PCUSA data, the church has 532 vacancies for 2,271 ministers seeking positions. The Assemblies of God, the United Methodist Church, the Church of the Nazarene and other Protestant denominations also report significant surpluses.

Cash-strapped parishioners--who were already aging and shrinking in number--have given less to their churches, which has resulted in staff cuts. Meanwhile, older clergy who saw their retirement funds evaporate are delaying retirement, leaving fewer positions available to younger ministers.

"With the employment prospects both in and out of the church being slim, those who are employed are not likely to leave"--at least not voluntarily, Myers said.

All that adds up to a clergy glut--a dramatic shift for denominations and seminaries that had once recruited young ministers to combat an expected clergy shortage.

"There is just no place to go," said Patricia M.Y. Chang, an associate professor of sociology at Stanford University who has studied clergy supply and demand for more than a decade.

In the 1950s there were roughly the same number of ministers as there were U.S. churches. Now there are almost two ministers for every church, according to the latest Yearbook of American and Canadian Churches--607,944 ministers and 338,713 congregations.

Not all those ministers are looking for employment; some are not working or are employed in other professions. Those who are looking--especially recent seminary graduates--say realistic offers are few.

Larger churches are eliminating vacant positions or terminating the position of associate pastor, Myers said. Smaller congregations are shifting some ministers from full time to part time.

That's what happened to Stephen Farrar, 38, whose full-time music minister position was cut to part time, mostly because of finances. He resigned to look for another position but has found only a part-time interim music job in Mount Airy, North Carolina.

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"Things are kind of hard around here, and when there are openings it's very, very competitive," according to Farrar.

Most churches, he said, are looking for a jack-of-all-trades--music, administration, preaching, youth and children's work--things for which Farrar wasn't trained. "It's been tough sometimes, but there's no doubt in my mind that God called me into this," he said.

Job hunting is toughest in churches that are autonomous. While United Methodists guarantee placement to every fully credentialed minister, Baptist pastors, for instance, are mostly on their own. "It's a free market," said Ed Stetzer, a Southern Baptist researcher.

It's virtually impossible to track supply and demand among free-standing churches, such as among Baptists, Pentecostals and many evangelical groups. But researchers agree that the clergy glut is even worse in loose-knit denominations that offer little job security.

In the Church of the Nazarene, only 6 percent of U.S. congregations are currently without a pastor, said Nazarene researcher Rich Houseal. That's down from the typical 8-10 percent, he said, and is likely a reflection of the recession. …

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