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Clergy shortage looms as average age rises

February, 2001

This is the first in a two-part series looking at the growing clergy shortage in the Massachusetts Conference. Part two will look at those who enter the ministry as a second or third career.

By Tiffany Vail

With more than 300 members, a $140,000 budget and a church school with 90 children, members of Westminster Congregational Church expected their next pastor to be someone who had learned the ropes at a smaller church.

But now, a year into the search, the congregation has discovered there just aren’t that many mid-career candidates circulating profiles.

By 2020, more than 80% of Mass. Conference clergy will have reached retirement age.“Going into this process, we didn’t think this church was appropriate for someone just starting out, due to the size and complexity of our church,” said Bart Sides, a member of the search committee. “What the congregation was looking for was someone in the 37- to 48-year-old age range, maybe looking for their second church. But the bulk of our applicants have been age 40 to 55, looking for their first church.”

The Westminister church’s experience is an example of what is being felt all over the United Church of Christ and other mainline Protestant denominations: the number of clergy members is shrinking, and their average age is on the rise.

The trend can be seen in the statistics. In the Massachusetts Conference, there are 855 ordained ministers, compared to 958 in 1990. Of those ordained pastors, only 18 percent are age 45 or under. Fully 55 percent are between 46 and 65, and the remaining 27 percent are over 65.

What that means, according to those who work in denominational and seminary settings, is that as these middle-aged and older ministers retire, there will not be enough younger pastors to take their places.

“We’re graying and we’re declining in numbers,” UCC General Minister and President John Thomas said during a recent visit to the Conference. “We went far too long without enough people entering into training for the ministry and far too many of them were middle-aged. That creates a basic problem with the numbers.”

Part of what has created the problem is that fewer young adults are entering seminary.

At Andover Newton Theological School, the number of seminarians training for their second- or third-career has increased steadily over the last 10-plus years. The average age of students there is 40 years old.

The school’s president, Benjamin Griffin, said that change has to do with the different route people take to seminary.

“It used to be, 25 years and more ago, seminaries did not recruit students, we didn’t even use that word. Andover Newton didn’t even have an admissions office _ people just showed up on the doorstep,” Griffin said.

Linda Nicholas-Whitney, a former business owner, is one of many second- and third-career people entering the ministry.“I was ordained 37 years ago, and most people in my class at Andover Newton were under 30,” he said. “We were brought up in the church, we went to church camp where a young minister would say `have you considered full-time ministry?’ Most of us went to a church-related college. We were nurtured by the system. But all that’s broken up now. Very few seminary students come from church-related colleges. And the colleges have changed, many don’t have the denominational identity they had anymore.”

Griffin also believes that young people don’t go into the ministry because the status of being a pastor, and the respect and compensation that goes with the position, is not what it once was.

And many potential ministers are likely put off by the type of debt they will incur by going to seminary.

A 1998 study of UCC graduates showed that the average debt load of those who took loans was $28,072. In order to pay such a student debt safely _ without jeopardizing quality of life and care of self and family _ the banking industry recommends a minimum annual salary of $41,700. But, the compensation guidelines for 2001 passed by Annual Meeting recommend starting pay for clergy at between $24,000 and $44,000 annually, with only clergy at the largest churches on the high end of that scale.

“Many young people today can graduate into very lucrative careers, and ministry isn’t one of them,” said Richard Sparrow, Associate Conference Minister for the Central Area.

Sparrow also questioned whether current clergy encourage others to enter the ministry.

“Do we make it attractive? Do they see joy in us? People in my generation remember clergy engaging us in worship leadership and other forms of ministry, and saying to us `you should consider ministry,’” he said.

Thomas makes a similar point, saying clergy in recent years have suffered a “sag in morale,” which has resulted in their moving away from recruiting others to the ministry.

“We haven’t been ready to challenge a young person to enter a life we weren’t completely sure of ourselves,” he said.

Another factor effecting churches like Westminster is that pastors today are more often spending the majority of their ministries at just one or two churches.

“We still have a number of clergy who have 25 or 30 years of experience, but they are not circulating profiles as frequently,” Sparrow said. “Before, the male minister would say `I feel God calling me to a new place,’ and the family would pack up and move. Today, pastors have spouses who have careers and children in good schools and they’re saying they are not going to move.”

Sparrow said for “99 to 100 percent” of churches, having a minister stay for a long period is a blessing.

“The church gets good, consistent leadership over a longer period of time,” he said. “Do they get burnt out? Not if there is an allowance for sabbatical at five to seven years.”

Sparrow said that when Conference churches lament the dwindling number of profiles they receive during a search, he reminds them of how lucky they are to be in Massachusetts, because churches in more rural parts of the country are having a much more difficult time finding pastors.

“Churches also should remember that all that is required for a successful ministry is one profile, as long as it’s the right profile,” Sparrow said. “While it sure is nice to get 120 profiles, not that many are required if committees do their work prayerfully.”

Meanwhile, at Westminister Congregational Church, the search committee is beginning to accept the notion that they may want to call a newly ordained pastor.

“We’re a very active and very supportive church so if we do end up hiring someone brand new, the congregation will be able to hold that person’s hand,” Sides said. “There might be a positive aspect to this. We might end up in more of a partnership, rather than relying on the pastor to do everything.”

Read a commentary: Lack of young clergy a loss for churches

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