(By Leslie Scanlon, The Presbyterian Outlook). The premise is this: With a surge of retirements approaching, and fewer people going to seminary, the Presbyterian Church (USA) is facing an impending, potentially severe shortage of pastors.
Lee Hinson-Hasty, senior director of Theological Education Funds Development at the Presbyterian Foundation, has been making that case in recent months — at the 2017 NEXT Church national conference, at Big Tent and elsewhere. Easily three-quarters of the Presbyterian pastors currently serving congregations will be eligible to retire over the next decade, Hinson-Hasty contends. Retirements and deaths are outpacing ordinations; a new research study reported by the New York Times in June, citing the work of Eitan Hersh, a political scientist from Tufts University, and Harvard doctoral student Gabrielle Malina, found the median age for pastors in the U.S. (not just Presbyterians) is 57; and Hinson-Hasty and others have begun to argue that a pastor shortage may not be far off.
What might the shortage look like?
The Board of Pensions is studying the issue, with its leadership intending to talk about the data and its implications sometime this fall. The Way Forward Commission is asking what changes need to be made to support ministers who may not have traditional full-time calls, and to encourage innovation in changing contexts of ministry.
Not everyone is as certain as Hinson-Hasty that a pastor shortage is pending – in part because another piece of the puzzle involves 50 years of declining membership in mainline Protestant churches. Over the past two decades, the PC(USA)’s membership has dropped from 2.63 million in 1996 to 1.48 million in 2016, a decline of 43 percent. The reality is that most PC(USA) congregations are small, some will inevitably close and many can’t afford to hire a full-time pastor. So as more PC(USA) ministers retire, will the full-time jobs in ministry also vanish as those pastors leave?
Online discussions of bivocational ministry draw heated comments. Some herald it as creative, and point out that it’s long been commonplace in many immigrant fellowships and for congregations of color. Others criticize it as essentially “adjunct ministry,” pushing pastors with graduate school educations (and often significant debt) to accept part-time pay for what too often comes with the expectation of full-time availability and commitment.
There’s also the question of what kind of narrative the PCUSA’s leadership is advancing – both for people considering becoming ministers, and for congregations and Presbyterians trying to identify and encourage those with gifts for ministry.
The message from the denomination’s national staff has at times been cautious – in essence, to warn those considering seminary that the jobs might not be there once they graduate.
For example, in 2010, Marcia Clark Myers, who was then-director of the PCUSA’s office of vocation, told Religion News Service, “We have a serious surplus of ministers and candidates seeking calls,” with four ministers for every opening.
And it’s still true that the number of candidates seeking calls exceeds the number of positions available, according to the count kept by the PCUSA’s Church Leadership Connection – the denomination’s system for trying to connect congregations seeking pastoral leadership with candidates seeking a call. As of August 2017, for example, Church Leadership Connection listed 569 open positions, compared to 2,020 people seeking a call.
Some, however, contend that to offer a continuing discouraging narrative of an over-supply of ministers is not wise.
Ted Wardlaw, president of Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary, said Hinson-Hasty’s contention that a pastor shortage is on the horizon is both accurate and “not a news flash.”