Church and economics, part two

One reason that seminaries might not see a bounce in enrollment during this recession is that there are many more ordained persons than there are available churches–depending on where you look.

Religion News Service reports the great recession has meant churches are reducing the number of clergy on staff, and more clergy are holding on to their current positions — if they can.

All that adds up to a clergy glut — a dramatic shift for denominations and seminaries that had once recruited young ministers to combat the “clergy shortage.” Now seminary graduates struggle to find ministerial employment.

“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 associate pastors, Myers said. Smaller congregations are shifting some ministers from full time to part time.

It’s natural for religious professionals to fall back on theological reflection.

“It’s been tough sometimes, but there’s no doubt in my mind that God called me into this,” says Stephen Farrar, 38, whose full-time music minister position was cut to part time, mostly because of finances.

On the other hand, “It’s a free market,” said Ed Stetzer, a Southern Baptist researcher.

But it is never as simple as it looks. At the same that there glut of religious professionals (ordained and lay) and there is a different kind of shortage going on in mainline churches.

The reality is that in small churches, especially in rural areas, there is a severe shortage of clergy. Suburban- and urban-raised clergy cannot imagine living in small communities where amenities that they take for granted are not present and most clergy are trained to serve in larger, multi-staff congregations as both a norm and as a professional goal. Many do not have the skills or mind-set to work in places where most churches exist–small towns in small communities.

Small congregations — those with 100 members or fewer — make up the majority of U.S. Protestant churches, and in those pulpits, there’s still a shortage of ministers. A 2008 study in the PC(USA) found 71 percent of churches with fewer than 100 members had no permanent pastors.

That’s the reality at Sumner (Miss.) Presbyterian Church, which has relied on visiting preachers for the three years it’s been without a pastor. The congregation had already shrunk from 100 members to about 30 and can’t afford even a young pastor’s salary and benefits, said Frank Mitchener, a lay elder and chair of the pastor search committee.

The church used to be a training ground for new seminary grads, Mitchener explained. Now most seminary students “come from the suburbs and can’t conceive of living in a small town without a mall.”

Even if a pastor was willing to come to tiny Sumner in the heart of cotton country, the family “can’t survive without two incomes,” Mitchener said, “and in a rural area, where is a spouse going to find a job?”

So the previous shortage and the current glut could have the same sources: small salaries or part-time positions cannot meet the debt that seminarian incur to get their training.

Some wags think that this glut could evaporate all at once:

An official of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America estimated recently that when economic pressures recede, the “pent-up demand” could triple the number of retirements in the denomination — from about 300 to 1,000 a year.

Likewise, one seminary leader said the clergy glut is more of “a traffic jam at rush hour.” When the economy starts flowing again — as churches hire and boomers retire — the resumes of clergy candidates will start to flow as well.

“In five to seven years, I think we are going to see a major turnover and experience a shortage again,” said Dock Hollingsworth, assistant dean of Mercer University’s McAfee School of Theology in Atlanta.

“We laugh around here that every pastor we know is 57 years old,” he said. “The baby-boomer pastors are all going to retire the same weekend!”

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