The state of professional ministry

April 1st, 2020

The young preachers on the back pews

In 1896, author Harold Frederic published the satirical novel The Damnation of Theron Ware or Illumination. The story provides a telling portrait of the Methodist clergy of Frederic’s day. Gathered in a local church for the Nedahma Conference of The Methodist Episcopal Church, the older preachers sit in the front of the sanctuary, the sight of them “conjuring up . . . pictures of a time when a plain and homely people had been served by a fervent and devoted clergy — by preachers who lacked in learning and polish, no doubt, but who gave their lives without dream of earthly reward to poverty and to the danger and wearing toil of itinerant missions through the rude frontier settlements.”

As Methodism had risen in respectability, however, the expectations of clergy had changed as well. Now these elders were joined by younger clergy who had begun to attend theological seminaries and to serve middle-class congregations with new buildings. The elders were suspicious of these new clergy who sat in the back pews. Frederic continues his description, saying, “The impress of zeal and moral worth seemed to diminish by regular gradations as one passed to younger faces, and among the very beginners, who had been ordained only within the past day or two, this decline was peculiarly marked. It was almost a relief to note the relative smallness of their number, so plainly was it to be seen that they were not the men their forbears had been.”

I hope you smiled as much as I did at that description. Every generation of professional clergy has had questions and doubts about the strangeness of those who follow behind them and the different journey they’ve taken. What it means to be a pastor and what’s expected of a pastor have always evolved from generation to generation. In the 21st century, as in centuries before, it’s changing again.

Seminaries and students

The rise of the seminary-educated pastor was one of the changes and tensions in Frederic’s book. However, by the late 20th century, the seminary route was the normal path to professional ministry in many Protestant denominations. There are currently 13 United Methodist-related seminaries in the United States, and they still educate “the majority of United Methodist (UM) elders and deacons” as well as “support the denomination’s Course of Study that prepares licensed local pastors for their ministry,” according to a recent United Methodist News Service (UMNS) article.

Yet, in the current environment, seminaries and students face significant challenges. For students, one of the greatest challenges has been cost. A 2015 Christian Century article noted that the “average student debt at graduation is now close to $40,000.” The decade prior saw tuition and fees at theological schools rise “by as much as 68%, compared to a 27% increase in the Consumer Price Index.” For students entering a profession whose median wage is $48,990, according to 2018 occupational employment statistics from the US Department of Labor, that debt level can have a significant impact.

In a 2014 Atlantic article, Justin Barringer, at the time a struggling seminary graduate looking for full-time employment, expressed his frustration. “I am not mad at the church,” he said. “However, I wish someone had advised me against taking on so much debt in order to be trained for ministry.” 

The move to part-time clergy

Beyond the burden of educational debt, many new clergy are also facing a landscape with fewer full-time positions. In 2013, Marcia Clark Myers, former director of the Presbyterian Church (USA)’s Office of Vocation, said, “As our churches have shrunk in size, we’ve had more and more need for part-time positions.”

Writing about the situation on the Christian Century website, pastor and author Carol Howard Merritt said, “Over half of our congregations cannot afford a full-time pastor, and many associate pastor positions were cut during the recent economic downturn.” In The United Methodist Church (UMC), the number of elders, who are generally full-time, decreased about 30% in the 30-year period from 1985 to 2015, while the number of local pastors, who can be full- or part-time, almost doubled.

Not everyone sees this trend as a bad thing. The Reverend Lori Modesitt, who served as a ministry developer for the Episcopal Diocese of Wyoming, told Religion News Service (RNS) that unpaid and part-time ministry “is going back to the original church, where people took an active part and used God-given gifts for the betterment of the community.” In her estimation, there will still be a role for full-time, seminary-trained clergy, but they’ll be part of an ecosystem that includes many other kinds of ministers.

Shifts in perception and support

Shifts in the larger culture are also changing the way that clergy are viewed. A 2017 Gallup poll found that Americans’ views on the ethical standards and honesty of the clergypersons has fallen markedly. While 42% say that clergy have very high or high standards, the decline has been steady from a high of 67% in 1985, and the drop has been especially precipitous in the last decade.

Public scandals, particularly around sexual abuse in the Catholic Church, have contributed to this. The growth in the number of Americans who have no experience of church, and thus little contact with clergy, may also be contributing factors.

Clergy coming into ministry today need different methods of formation and support. Katharine Henderson, president of Auburn Theological Seminary, talked with RNS about the new entrepreneurial ministry track her institution has created. “We’re encouraging a new form of ministry where students realize they may not go into congregations in traditional buildings that can pay them full-time salaries.”

The Excellence in Clergy Leadership Scholarship is a partnership between UM groups and the Lilly Endowment to offer financial aid and financial counseling to seminarians at the thirteen UM-affiliated seminaries. Allyson Collinsworth, who directs loans and scholarships for the United Methodist General Board of Higher Education and Ministry, told UMNS, “I was thankful to hear that 60% [of recipients] thought they were going to be able to graduate debt free.”

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