The Church's greatest challenge in a few years might not be how many people are filling the pews, but who's filling the pulpit.

The number of ministers under age 35 has dropped by at least half and up to two-thirds since the 1970s, according to the Alban Institute, which researches church trends and consults congregations.

And fewer than a third of seminary students intend to minister in congregations, according to a national study by Auburn Theological Seminary.

"Young people involved in the church see what it's like to be a pastor, the criticism, the struggles," said Sheryl Carle Fancher, a seminary consultant and associate director of the Midwest Ministry Development Service. "It's not a very attractive picture for them and certainly not anything that would motivate them to become a pastor."

Instead, many of today's seminary students are planning to minister outside the church or through other Christian organizations, Fancher said.

That leaves America's congregations praying for a solution as many of them are already having trouble finding leaders for their flocks.

Rural Catholic priests are pulling double duty to care for the 3,150 priestless parishes in the United States, according to a 2002 report in The Dallas Morning News. Many priests serve up to four parishes and 5,000 parishioners.

The Rev. Philip McNamara serves four parishes about 130 miles southwest of Dallas. He hurries from one to the other each weekend, squeezing in five English and Spanish-language Masses.

The Job Market

There are usually between 400 and 500 jobs posted on ChurchStaffing.com, ranging from worship leader or children's minister to senior pastor. More than 3,000 individuals also have posted their resumes, letting churches nationwide know they're available for service.
"I'm no busier than a lot of other priests," McNamara, 70, told the paper. "If people need you after Mass, you can't say, ‘Look, I can't talk to you.' But you have to rush."

The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) has a similar story, said Kurtis Hess, a professor at Union Theological Seminary-Presbyterian School for Christian Education in Richmond, Va. In his studies of pastoral trends, Hess has found that the number of church professionals available for pastoral positions in his denomination is decreasing fairly rapidly.

"We're approaching the sad fact that almost 20 percent of those who enter parish ministry will leave the pastorate within five years of ordination," Hess said.

From 1993 to 1998, the denomination lost an average of 111 clergy per year. In 1998, 33 percent of PC(U.S.A.) congregations didn't have an installed pastor. Hess estimates that his denomination's clergy will have declined from 8,739 in 1993 to 5,500 in 2025 if present trends continue.

Reversing the trend

Organizations like the Lilly Endowment are intent on reversing those trends. Lilly, which has long supported religious education and projects, has granted $76.8 million to 39 church-related U.S. colleges to help overcome clergy shortages.

"It'll still be tough," Fancher said. "Ministry is changing. There's a lot more happening outside the church walls these days, and this younger generation seems drawn to that."

In the meantime, churches must find a way to replace retiring pastors.

Some denominations are looking to the laity.

The United Methodist Church (UMC) is turning to what it calls local pastors - people who have met educational requirements through the Course of Study prescribed by the denomination's Section of Elders and Local Pastors rather than the traditional three-year seminary option. Many are older individuals who have chosen ministry as a second career, said the Rev. Robert Kohler, a UMC executive.

Kohler said there has been a drop in seminary-trained candidates ordained as elders - from 820 in 1990 to 621 in 2000 - but an increasing number of local pastors has more than picked up the slack. In 1990, the denomination had 1,413 local pastors; in 2000, it had 2,096.

"Instead of a shortage or crisis, I see a changing profile in pastoral ministry," Kohler said.

He said churches will intentionally use more full- and part-time local pastors as fewer people choose to take on an official pastoral role.

"We don't know if it is correct to assume that a pattern of keeping people in ministry 40 years will ever happen again," he said.

Get creative to get a pastor

With fewer professional church staff in the job market, congregations are having to get a bit creative in their hiring processes. Many of them are turning to online job-posting sites like ChurchStaffing.com.

"There's been a transformation, particularly in the last five to 10 years, that's changed what churches are doing with staffing," said Todd Rhoades, ChurchStaffing.com's founder. "A lot of churches have a lot more leeway in their hiring. They can look outside their district or even outside their denomination for staff members."

There are usually between 400 and 500 jobs posted on ChurchStaffing.com, ranging from worship leader or children's minister to senior pastor. More than 3,000 individuals also have posted their resumes, letting churches nationwide know they're available for service.

"There are a lot more people within the church who are online now," Rhoades said. "I think churches are realizing that if they want to reach today's job market, they need an online presence."

Rhoades includes sample job descriptions for churches to build upon, and those churches that choose to pay for featured listings get their ads placed in an e-mail news alert that goes to more than 20,000 people every week.

The site attracts a broad spectrum of churches, from evangelicals to "King James-only" congregations, Rhoades said. He recommends churches be clear in their advertisements as to where they are in that spectrum.

"It helps those seeking a job to know if they're a possible fit at least theologically if nothing else," he said.

He also has tips for job seekers.

"You have to present yourself as being professional, paying attention to the real practical aspects" such as spelling and grammar, Rhoades said.

"People make a lot of mistakes. I've seen some terrible grammar and misspellings," he said.

In the online world, computer etiquette is necessary, too. Using all caps in online correspondence, for instance, is considered the same as shouting.

Rhoades is working on ways to help job seekers with their postings, making sure they come across well.

"It's a big market, and there are a lot of jobs available, but if people don't know how to present themselves well, they'll miss out," Rhoades said.

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