- The Washington Times - Monday, July 2, 2001

Part one of five

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. What churchgoers value next is good fellowship and "a likable pastor," she says.
Today, roughly 350,000 active clergy serve some 325,000 congregations and relatively few are young. A study of clergy in 11 major groups by the Alban Institute, a Bethesda-based private research center on church life, found that just 8 percent were 35 or younger. By contrast, this younger group accounted for one-fourth of all clergy around 1940 — and that was after the decade dubbed America's "religious depression."
Theological leaders speak of an "actuarial crisis." Pension costs for retiring ministers are about to mushroom; the cost of a seminary education continues to climb.
The nation's 237 accredited theological seminaries have reported roughly full enrollment for decades. But of 70,000 students currently enrolled, fewer than half seek the master's of divinity degree typical of a parish ministry. Only a third even want to lead a church: They'd rather be teachers, entrepreneurs, chaplains or administrators.
Meanwhile, the "divine occupation" draws more older candidates than ever. Many arrive after dead-end jobs or divorces, bringing new human complexity to the training of clergy. With half of all seminarians age 35 or older, graduates typically are ordained in their 40s.

The search for leaders

The debate on numbers and quality of clergy is particularly active in the historic "mainline" churches of Protestantism, which account for about a quarter of all church membership.
Marked by older congregations, they retain the most formal traditions, from Episcopal prayer books and calendars to Lutheran creeds and hymns to Presbyterian legal procedures. Baby boomers and their offspring often recoil at such traditions. In the next decade, finding clergy to lead such conflicted congregations may be the first wave of what some call a crisis.
"If there's a shortage in ministry, it's in parish ministry but not ministry in general," says Dean Hoge, a Presbyterian scholar at Catholic University who has measured the Protestant mainline for 25 years.
Besides roughly 350,000 active clergy, another 150,000 or more are retired, "floating" or have taken other jobs outside the church.
The United Methodist Church, for example, reports having 20,000 ordained clergy and 6,000 licensed pastors to serve 26,000 places of worship. But 18,000 more clergy are retired or on special assignment.
"The question is not whether we have enough pastors, but whether we have the right pastors to do what needs to be done," says the Rev. Robert Kohler, head of clergy personnel for the United Methodist Church.
Matching clergy to needs also challenges the Evangelical Lutheran Church, where parishes without a full-time pastor doubled to 2,000 in 10 years, says the Rev. Michael L. Cooper-White, 12th president of Lutheran Theological Seminary.
When he was in seminary 30 years ago, parishes more eagerly sent recruits to school. Pastors extolled the "rewards" of their calling. But today many local churches may die away with their oldest members; the young have little loyalty to brand-name organized religion.
"There's a crisis in some places," Mr. Cooper-White says. "Some of our synods are working with congregations to identify laity who might be trained to serve as lay pastors."

Eager but older

Small churches are most likely to feel the bite. Half of all congregations have fewer than 100 active members. Many dot rural landscapes and struggle to pay a living wage.
Presbyterian Church (USA) officials reported last month that a third of all congregations do not have an installed pastor — for a total of 3,897 pastorless churches, most with fewer than 100 members.
But churches in plum venues such as the San Francisco Bay area or metropolitan Washington rarely are starved for clergy.
"There's absolutely zero shortage in Washington," says Mr. Hoge, who attends Takoma Park Presbyterian Church. "People fall all over themselves to work here."
With older seminarians, churches also get older ministers who are less flexible about assignments. The average ordination age is 46 in the Episcopal Church; among United Methodists, it's 43.
"There are congregations that won't hire an older pastor, and it's usually harder in the second call" because that pastor is older still, says Jack Hernstrom, 52, a former computer graphics technician seeking ordination at the Gettysburg seminary.
"My first reaction is that the Apostles were all 'second career,' including Paul," Mr. Hernstrom says. "My only regret is that I didn't heed God's call when I was young."
The Auburn Survey of Theological Students, which polled the 1998 entering class of U.S. seminarians, reported this year that second-career candidates were most eager to serve a church. Young seminarians, although more accomplished in college and more likely to come from "white collar" families, were less interested.

Forming a spiritual core

Measuring the quality of recruits is a delicate subject. Although some authorities say there is no clear trend, educators choose their words carefully.
"Older students bring a different kind of preparation," Lutheran Theological's Mr. Cooper-White says.
Union Theological Seminary in Richmond has produced Presbyterian clergy for 189 years. When the Rev. Ronald Byars recently arrived to teach preaching and worship after 37 years in local pulpits, he asked fellow faculty to assess the state of seminarians.
"Overall, there were more really good students, but overall more less-than-average students," Mr. Byars says he was told. The operative word: "uneven."
Many arrive with skills or talents but questionable religious depth. They also don't become steeped in a spiritual life on campus because they commute, says the Rev. Barbara Brown Zikmund, first female president of the Association of Theological Schools, which accredits the nation's 237 seminaries.
"Some theological educators are very worried about how we're going to form the spiritual core of our future leadership," says Ms. Zikmund, a minister in the United Church of Christ.
But complaints about quality of clergy routinely arose over the 300 years of American church history, says Barbara Wheeler, a scholar who directs the Auburn Center on Theological Education in New York City.
"People always spoke of decline," says Ms. Wheeler, who led the Auburn study of seminarians. "The 1950s were an exception. Mainline churches boomed after the Second World War, and especially in the suburbs. Lots of people wanted to go to seminary."
A survey of 5,000 ministers in the early 1990s found that around a third "seriously considered leaving" in the past year. Half said ministry hurt family life.
Mr. Carroll, the Duke scholar, says anecdotal reports suggest a rising number of "forced removals," usually resulting from mismatch of cleric and congregation.

Echoes of the '60s

The 1950s may have been simpler but hardly less rigorous on clergy, says the Rev. George Evans of Redeemer Lutheran Church in McLean, who used to jump in his car wearing his robes and make visits all day.
"The pastor was a shepherd, and that means taking care of a flock. It means finding the one lost sheep," says Mr. Evans, first assigned to a church in 1958. "But now, the last thing the flock wants is for you to show up at their door."
Mr. Evans says he sees a laxity among clergy rooted in the upheaval of the 1960s, the product of a culture where "the wraps have come off."
He remembers one minister resigning because a daughter got a divorce. "Now, the clergy may be ahead of the general population on divorces."
Older ministers complain that recruits "come with a full set of rights" and everywhere clergy tolerate alcohol at church events and give "'I'm OK, you're OK' sermons."
The '60s, some say, cast a kind of shame on the clergyman. He was criticized as the "organization man," and turmoil over the Vietnam War and sexual revolution produced alternative ministers who were prophets, liberators and street fighters.
"There was a breakdown in the local church youth ministry and of campus ministry," the United Methodists' Mr. Kohler says. "Recruitment was not a priority from 1960 to 1990."
Seminary enrollment might have plummeted had not draft-avoiding collegians flocked to theology school; young blacks also were inspired by the Rev. Martin Luther King's seminary credentials.
But soon women filled the classrooms. Their enrollment from 1977 to 1994 quadrupled the number of female ministers — to 16,312 — in the Protestant mainline. Changes followed; in many seminaries today, a paper or sermon with a male root such as "mankind" is rejected.

Evangelicals fill a gap

The mainline's abdication of college campuses in the '60s made way for a surge of evangelical outreach by Campus Crusade for Christ and similar groups.
On today's secular campuses, evangelical energy rules and it fuels training grounds such as Fuller Theological Seminary, founded in 1948. Today, with 3,897 students, it is the nation's largest theological school.
Many mainline candidates, especially Presbyterians and American Baptists (the name for the older Northern Baptist association) study at Fuller because they seek to join the flair of the evangelicals to their traditions.
The Rev. Eddie Gibbs used to wear his traditional Anglican collar while ministering to the British working class. "Relearning" was hard, he says, but now he teaches innovative ministry at Fuller.
"If you simply present the church in a traditional form, you won't get much of a hearing with your young generation," Mr. Gibbs says. "I was trained for a certain world. That world is gone."
The new Protestant ethos is a sort of generic evangelicalism. It, too, has roots in the 1960s youth revolution, joining Jesus people, Pentecostal renewal, black gospel and rock 'n' roll.
Today, this more emotional "praise worship," when twinned with strict Bible teaching and informal dress, is the Protestant success story. It also is a source of struggle for mainline clergy.
Fuller seminarian Benjamin Robinson, 24, was reared in the black Pentecostal experience in Oakland, Calif. He may try a pulpit or become an urban "church planter" after getting his master's in divinity.
Knowledge gained at seminary isn't everything, Mr. Robinson says. "Without that call and the anointing for ministry, seminary doesn't do you a lick of good."
For him, part of that anointing is the gift of music, and at Fuller he is worship leader.
"The clergy who are able to do music have a leg up," Mr. Robinson says, but he's not talking entertainment. "There's a fine line between performing and worship. It's a heart thing."

A matter of clarity

Mainline Protestant clergy, while acknowledging evangelical growth, question what they see as a showbiz quality to "megachurches" and a revivalist preaching style that emphasizes a "crisis" in the listener and provokes a "decision" on the spot.
"Mainline Protestant congregations don't aim for that dramatic encounter on Sunday," says the Rev. Maria E. Erling, a professor at Gettysburg who was ordained in 1983 and served as a New England pastor for 18 years. "They expect a more textured message that connects them to a living tradition."
Mr. Byars, the Presbyterian professor at Union seminary, says evangelical effervescence is aimed shortsightedly at a baby-boom clientele.
"He who marries the spirit of the age will soon be a widow," he says. "Just the ordinary biblical preaching, week in and week out, is a way of reforming the way people view the world."
To almost no one's surprise, a major new study by Hartford (Conn.) Seminary, "Faith Communities Today," found that Protestant mainline ministers focus more on a liturgical worship style and pepper their sermons with more non-biblical literary allusions than do Bible-focused evangelists.
The mainline churches, many founded before 1945, face more conflicts over changes in worship styles. Although six in 10 ministers have at least a master's degree from seminary, the study suggests mainline clergy may be overeducated, dulling their popular appeal.
The more educated clergy, the study found, tend to lead larger churches and have longer tenures. Still, the highbrow cleric also is typical of congregations that are "far more likely" to have "more and different kinds of conflict; less person-to-person communication; less confidence in the future and more threat from changes in worship."
Parishes with more diversity, a wide array of interest groups and intellectually complicated sermons have "less clarity of purpose," the study suggests. And less clarity equals decline.
"The Gospel should be made simple, not simplistic or simple-minded," said David M. Greenhaw, president of Eden Theological Seminary, a United Church of Christ school. "By being too complex, people can't grasp its meaning for their lives."

Avoiding a 'train wreck'

In 1989, Mr. Carroll, Ms. Wheeler and two other researchers spent three years visiting a mainline seminary and an evangelical one — both unidentified publicly — to produce the study "Being There."
They concluded the mainline message was "equality and inclusion." The campus was a place for "struggle" over proper "attitudes" about blacks, women, homosexuals, American Indians, Asians— but not over salvation or true doctrine.
This fixation on identity politics, or seminary as a place for victims to find solace, has run its course in the mainline, many clergy and educators say. Through the 1980s, students arrived with the "Timex syndrome," one educator says: "I took a lickin', but I'm still tickin', so you have to recognize me."
Now, some clergy leaders look back to the 1950s for clues to making the ministry more attractive.
In the '50s, top prospective clergy went to seminary for a tryout year on grants from the Rockefeller or Danforth foundations. Echoing that idea, the Lilly Endowment in 1998 earmarked $195 million for outreach at church-related colleges to energize "the call, nurture and support of a new generation of ministers." The Fund for Theological Education in Atlanta backs 110 annual grants for students open to a clergy career.
Mr. Kohler says his denomination, United Methodists, began to reverse a slide in 1990 by drawing 1,000 young people to "exploration events" every two years. It also emphasized quality control with a "ministry inquiry process" that aims, over 10 years, to produce ordained clerics who are strong spiritual leaders.
"The congregation is far better educated" these days, says Mr. Evans, the Lutheran pastor, "so the minister's spiritual role has to be more clearly defined." But "spiritual" doesn't have to mean abject poverty — as many churches still presume.
"You have to ask, 'How many clergy want their children to follow the same career?'" Mr. Evans says, noting that some pastors can't afford basic orthodontic work for their families.
Ms. Zikmund, head of the Association of Theological Schools, predicts small churches are headed for a financial train wreck unless many are closed, merged or subsidized.
"People still like a church of 200 members, a pastor-centered church," she says. "But fewer and fewer can afford to pay what a well-trained clergy person ought to get."
The Auburn study pointed to the U.S. rabbinate as the success story: These Jewish men come young, gain social honors and are paid twice as much as Christian clergy.
Hearing the study's conclusions, Rabbi Philip Pohl of B'nai Shalom Congregation in Olney says rabbis worked to upgrade a calling that was less attractive 40 years ago.
"The rabbis have incorporated some of the best of what professionalism has to offer. Congregations see them differently," Rabbi Pohl says. "I don't see that as much with [Christian] ministers."

Sign up for Daily Newsletters

Copyright © 2019 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.

The Washington Times Comment Policy

The Washington Times welcomes your comments on Spot.im, our third-party provider. Please read our Comment Policy before commenting.


Click to Read More and View Comments

Click to Hide