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Is a clergy crisis coming?

21 November 2018

How to prepare for the coming shortage of pastors

By Patricia Paddey

Illustration: Janice Van Eck & 1000s_Pixels. Article and illustration republished with permission from Faith Today, Nov/Dec 2018.


A little over a year and a half ago, Ben Wimmers was hunting for salamander eggs in Georgian Bay, Ont., a course requirement for his undergraduate degree in life sciences. But that all feels like ancient history to the 24-year-old now in his first year of pastoral studies at McMaster Divinity College.

“It’s quite the huge jump," he concedes of finding his way to seminary in the hope of becoming a full-time pastor in the Christian Reformed Church. "For me, it was thinking about what would help the environment. I realized that people need to have their attitudes and behaviours changed. Through a lot of prayer, God spoke to me and said, ‘If you think that people’s hearts, minds and attitudes need to change, what helps people more than the gospel?’

“I felt this confirmation that being a pastor was the way that I was going to interact with the world and bring about positive transformation.”

God willing, Wimmers will graduate with his master of divinity degree in 2021. And when the time comes for him to find a pastoral position here in Canada, he likely won’t have any difficulty doing so. There are strong indications of evangelical clergy shortages on the horizon.

An exodus of baby boomers

More than half of today’s senior pastors will be retirement age within the next ten years, according to a 2016 survey of 1,240 church leaders by The Evangelical Fellowship of Canada and the Canadian Missions Research Forum.

“However, one-third of these pastors … are already over 65 today,” according to Rick Hiemstra, the EFC’s director of research.

And there may not be enough young pastors to replace them.

In the 2015 book A Culture of Faith: Evangelical Congregations in Canada (McGill-Queen’s University Press) authors Sam Reimer and Michael Wilkinson note, "Overall, evangelicals seem to be slightly better off [than mainline Protestant or Catholic churches] in terms of available leadership, but their pool of seminarians is declining rapidly."

Student enrollment at Canadian evangelical seminaries hit the bottom of a trough in 2011 (the last year of data Reimer and Wilkinson looked at), but they have since rebounded, according to the Association for Theological Schools. "Enrollment in the master of divinity (MDiv), typically the basic professional degree for ordination in many denominations, is somewhat stable among Canadian evangelical schools," according to Eliza Smith Brown, director of communications and external relations.

That may sound like good news, but it doesn’t mean clergy shortages won’t happen. While the percentage of Evangelicals in Canada seemed to be holding steady, the number of evangelical churches increased slightly from 2005–2015, according a 2015 article by Reimer and Hiemstra. It stands to reason more churches will require more pastors.

We’re not in Kansas anymore

While the number of students going to evangelical seminaries may be relatively stable, the students themselves have changed. Fewer are pursuing theological education with the idea of going into pastoral ministry. Students also tend to be older, with many going to seminary out of personal interest, a desire to equip themselves for more effective lay ministry, or en route to a second or even third career.

The latter will often have shorter careers once they do become pastors, and more life baggage – homes and families – that may limit their flexibility and choices when it comes to where they are willing to locate.

And finally, greater numbers of women and seniors are attending, many of whom may prefer part-time work rather than pursuing a full-time role, as Reimer and Hiemstra note in their 2015 article ("The Rise of Part-Time Employment in Canadian Christian Churches").

Jo-Ann Badley is dean of theology and associate professor of New Testament at Ambrose Seminary in Calgary. In the spring of 2018, she expected Ambrose to graduate 50 men and women from their seminary. But of those 50 only 15 were graduating from the MDiv program.

“I would say of those 15, only nine are going directly into Canadian pastoral ministry," she says, having freshly looked at the numbers. "Four of those nine are Mandarin speaking, so they’ll be going into a Chinese church context. Three more are going into international church work. A couple of them don’t know what they’re going to do, but they’ll probably wind up with parachurch organizations.”

“We’re not thinking, ‘Do we have enough leaders to staff existing churches?’ but ‘How do we develop leaders … in order to reach communities?’”

Those are sobering numbers, but there are even more. "Only about 20 per cent of the people in our seminary are under 30, and the largest cohort are in their 40s." That’s just one in five who are preparing for a lifetime of Christian service. Badley says it’s indicative of Canadian church leadership participating in a larger societal trend, namely that few people stay in the same kind of work for a lifetime anymore.

At Tyndale, Canada’s largest seminary, president and vice-chancellor Gary Nelson estimates about 40 per cent of the student body is training for traditional pastoral ministry. "It’s hard to be a pastor," he muses, "and I think people realize that. It’s not exactly one of the most lucrative jobs to move into. But it’s also an adventure [in] that you just don’t know what it’s going to be like in the future."

Hard work, long hours, low pay, uncommitted laity, daunting expectations, little job security – it would take another article to unpack the reasons someone might not want to consider a pastoral career these days. However, one thing is for certain, says Nelson. "It used to be that being a pastor was a prestigious position. And it isn’t that way anymore. Being called is even more critical for that reason."

How it used to be

Clergy shortages are not new, although the reasons for them may be different than in the past. In the years following the Second World War, for example, young men returned home from the war, married, started families – and the baby boom was on. By 1953, published reports indicate Protestant church membership had grown by 50 per cent over the previous dozen years, with a ratio increase twice that of the general population.

The demand for clergy was so high, seminaries couldn’t keep up – in spite of being filled to overflowing. And no wonder. Being a member of the clergy was an esteemed position, and the rewards weren’t just intangible ones. One article of the time notes, "There is some evidence that income available for personal disposal during the first decade of a professional career is higher for ministers than for doctors and lawyers."

Fast-forward 50 years and mainline Protestant and Catholic churches were dealing with leadership shortages once again. Clergy were retiring and not being steadily replaced.

In response to the situation, lay members of some mainline churches have been filling in for absent ministers – sometimes for years. Other churches rely exclusively on visiting preachers. As attendance and finances dwindle and pulpits remain vacant, still other churches close or amalgamate.

Clergy may take on the responsibility of two, three or more congregations, hearkening back to the era of circuit rider preachers. Meanwhile the Roman Catholic Church is so short of home-grown priests, it has been regularly importing them from the Global South where there is a healthier supply.

Preparing for the worst in the best way

However, speak with Canada’s evangelical denominational leaders and you get the sense they are preparing for the worst in the best possible way.

Asked if the Wesleyan Church is concerned about clergy shortages, district superintendent of the Central Canada District Peter Rigby says they’re looking at the issue through a different lens. "What we’re attempting to do is to think about reaching North America for Christ," he explains. "To close the mission gap. We’re asking, ‘How do we develop leaders that will help us to do that?’

“We’re not thinking, ‘Do we have enough leaders to staff existing churches?’ but ‘How do we develop leaders … in order to reach communities?’”

That means re-evaluating everything, Rigby says. “We realize that a lot of what we desire is basic discipleship. So [we’re exploring] how we can empower churches that will produce disciples who will result in leaders.”

Ian Fitzpatrick, national director of the Church of the Nazarene Canada, says he’s only concerned about clergy shortages if the expectation among churches is a formal, historical route to preparation. “I’m not so concerned if we can become creative,” he explains. “Our preferred route has traditionally been an undergraduate degree, followed by a seminary education and then lifelong learning.”

But increasingly the Church of the Nazarene is recognizing that “Preparation needs to be contextual, portable and affordable,” Fitzpatrick explains. “It’s allowing the person preparing for ministry to stay in their local church and be effective there [while they train]. Many local churches have fallen by the wayside because their best and brightest leaders have left.”

Are Nazarene churches currently experiencing clergy shortages? “For those districts seeking the formal, classically-prepared pastor, the answer would be yes,” Fitzpatrick says. “For those willing to explore other possibilities, the answer would be no.”

The Mennonite Church Canada has been seeking creative solutions to clergy shortages for a while, says Willard Metzger, executive director (he plans to retire in October 2018). “We’ve had qualified people coming from the U.S. that are wanting to serve in Canada, which has helped. And some of our retired clergy are making themselves available as interim pastors.”

In the longer term, however, the denomination is considering “whether bivocational ministry is something we’ll be needing to consider in the future. And we’re wondering how we might prepare our people for that.”

Similarly, the Evangelical Missionary Church of Canada is placing greater emphasis on equipping lay leaders. “Clergy don’t have to be paid, full-time people,” says president Kervin Raugust. “We have models in our denomination where they’re not. And they’re thriving.”

He cites a Winnipeg church of 600 in which all ten pastors are bivocational and volunteers. A village church in Alberta was having difficulty recruiting a traditional pastor. Raugust worked with them to envision a different way of doing church, resulting in their bringing in a preaching pastor (by DVD series). “They call him ‘Henry on the Wall,’” he says. “The people of the church picked up leadership, visitation, the traditional things that clergy would do. And this church has taken on a new life.”

Across the entire denomination, Raugust says, “What’s been done in the past is not what will be done going forward.” For one thing expectations about education are going to change. “We’re preparing to recognize life experience, other education and other criteria that can demonstrate these are mature, godly men and women who qualify to enter into our process toward becoming credentialled ministers,” he says.

Canada’s evangelical seminaries are attempting to adjust to meet changing demands with innovative program and course offerings, and flexible study options including modular, online, distance, competency-based theological education offerings and part-time learning being only the tip of the iceberg.

Cause for hope

As A Culture of Faith makes clear, this country’s evangelical churches have demonstrated vitality and resilience in an era of declining religiosity. One of the reasons the authors point to for this strength is congregational leadership.

Pastors are important – to the well-being of their congregations and the spiritual health of the countless individuals who compose them. The thought of a looming clergy shortage is not a happy one.

But it is heartening to realize denominational leaders – the leaders of those who now lead and who will lead our churches – are not sticking their heads in the sand. Like the men of Issachar (1 Chronicles 12:32) they are observing and understanding both the times and challenges ahead. And they are responding in wisdom with creativity, adaptability and a passionate recognition that they are building Christ’s Church, not just building churches.

Canada’s evangelical seminaries are attempting to adjust to changing demands with innovative program offerings, and flexible study options.

Patricia Paddey is a senior writer for Faith Today and a part-time seminary student who lives in Mississauga, Ont. Read more articles like these with a subscription to this EFC magazine.

Sidebar:

How to prepare for a clergy shortage (and other changes ahead)

Churches in major urban centres will likely reflect immigration trends – larger multiethnic churches, ethnic churches (both large and small) and a few larger young adult churches looking for age-specific community. Small churches and church plants will likely have a harder time with the simple costs of operating in major cities. Movements connected by a larger sense of shared vision and mission will likely emerge similar to what we see in virtually all other sectors (Amazon is replacing Sears, Toys"R"Us, Zellers and even cutting into Walmart now). People are not loyal to brands or big box names, but simply to where they can get the support they need in a way that makes sense with their lives. With that in mind:

  • Renew your church’s board with people under 45. (Our major national political parties are now led by leaders 45 and under.)
  • Celebrate and embrace ethnic and racial diversity at all levels, especially in leadership.
  • Consider how to turn church buildings into community centres/rental facilities during the week.
  • Focus on collaboration versus competition – working together as a movement versus defending theological distinctives.
  • Seek outside consulting on how you use language, communicate and relate to Canadian culture. Ask, "Would my neighbour understand what we are saying to each other?"
  • Get up to speed with relevant technology and how to integrate, manage and leverage it (see www.FaithTech.com).
  • Focus on children and youth, and how to support their spiritual growth all the way through their 20s. We need to help them over transition points when they can drift away (see www.HemorrhagingFaith.ca and www.RenegotiatingFaith.ca)
  • Learn from ministry leaders in other countries who live as a minority.

— Tim Day, director, CityMovement.org

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