The Church: Does It Know What It Wants? I Wonder...

Church Problems

"The problem with the church is the church."

- R. Alan Woods

There was a day when Sunday was a day for Family.  There was a day when businesses were closed on Sundays and it was really a Day of Rest.  There was a day when the majority of our mainline churches were full and were the social and cultural hub of the community, as well as the spiritual center.  There was also a day when the degree we ministers receive, the Masters of Divinity, used to be a Doctorate.  After all, an M. Div is the equivalent of a double Master's degree or a standard Master's followed by a PhD - at least in terms of credit hours.  Along with Physicians and Lawyers, Clergy were The Professionals.

Those days, and a great many of us remember them, are gone; and they've been gone for a great many decades. One of the unfortunate outcomes of this is that Ministry has become a vocation that costs a lot to be educated for and a vast majority of churches that have become smaller can't offer competitive compensation packages.  There is hardly any reason for a young person to consider this line of work anymore.  Especially right after college with looming student debt already on their shoulders, why would anyone in their right mind then take on a four to five year Master's program for a job that is hardly going to compensate them and probably force them to have at least one other job, as well?

Ministry is quickly becoming a vocation that is primarily becoming a second or third occupation for the majority of current seminary students that are then forced to look at the reality of holding down one or two other jobs at the same time just to make ends meet.

I'll be the first to say that I'm one of the lucky ministers out there.  I have been in ministry for 15 years and in that time went from pastoring a small community church in rural Vermont to being the Senior Minister of the largest church of my denomination in central Florida.  Yet even the church I'm serving is half the size that it was a quarter century ago.  Thankfully, we're looking at the reality of our numbers and taking active, constructive steps to reverse the decline and I'm happy to say its working.  Slowly....but its working.

Yet I'm profoundly aware that there are a great many gifted and passionate women and men that are trying to follow their calling into ministry and upon graduating from seminary are finding work incredibly hard to come by.  It isn't because they aren't qualified, nor is it because they don't have amazing new ideas and great energy to bring to the table.  It also isn't because there's a shortage of churches that need leadership, because there are a ton of them out there.

From where I sit, my experience informs me that one of the primary reasons many churches aren't hiring new seminary grads is two-fold.  The first problem is the perception regarding age.  When I graduated from seminary at age 30 in 2000, the average age of a seminary grad was mid to late 40's.  Today its even older.  I've been with enough Search Committees in various capacities to know that many churches that are experiencing decline think that a younger (and often male) candidate will magically turn things around.  The reality is that the vast majority of those entering the job market in this arena aren't younger or male at all.  They are often 2nd or 3rd occupation folks  that are indeed older than most churches perhaps expect.

Upon realizing this reality, many churches (and I blame this on churches being in panic mode) don't give new seminary graduates the opportunity to even interview with their Search Committees.  This is such a complete injustice to new seminary grads that have left jobs, some of them quite lucrative, to go into a 4 to 5 year Master's program and graduate with the debt inherent in such an education; not to mention all the inherent gifts, talents and energy they are eager to share.

When I look at the employment listings for my denomination right now, I grieve for new seminary grads.  Where this is work to be had, there are an over-abundance of small churches that really have no ability to offer a competitive compensation package, and then the few larger churches that are out there won't even look at a new graduate most of the time; unless its for an Associate position.  The smaller churches, then, get stuck in the old mindset that if only they could get someone young with lots of energy, their church will grow again.  But the candidate pool out there is far older than most people realize, and then churches get stuck in long Interim periods as the church can't quite wrap its head around what it needs, what it wants, and who's really out there to come in and help them do it.

This reality coupled with the clergy dropout rate averaging only five years, churches, denominations and seminaries are considering alternative pathways to ordination outside of the M. Div. - specifically considering bringing in Licensed Ministers that have a speciality in a segment of the life of the Church but no seminary training at the M. Div. level.

What this means then is that communities of faith are potentially considering bringing in people to lead their churches that have no education or training in Church History, Systematics, Pastoral Counseling, Communication, Ethics, Homiletics, Church Administration....let alone how to draw healthy boundaries, deal with issues of conflict and confidentiality, being with people in crisis and death, membership renewal and get the idea.

In my humble opinion, this smacks of desperation and the Church just looks foolish.  Why is the Church, which desperately needs qualified leadership, ignoring a large segment of qualified new seminary graduates while at the same time considering lesser qualified people to lead the Church?  It truly makes no sense to me, and I seriously worry about the future of our churches if this trend gains real momentum.

I would never want someone who had a genuine love for medicine and perhaps had a bit of nursing school to diagnose my children or perform surgery on my wife.  I likewise wouldn't want someone without the comprehensive education, training and experience  of an M. Div. leading my church.  The issues are too complex, sensitive and far-ranging for anything less.

Unless, of course, the Church wants to watch Clergy Dropout rates increase and face an even larger problem regarding leadership and anxiety within the congregation.

Come on, Institution of The can do better.

Peace,  Shawn




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