Perhaps my perspective is somewhat distorted by being one among so many retired or retiring Boomer pastors. After all, the Boomer generation has been accused—often justifiably—of having an inflated view of its own importance.
However, age does sometimes bring a degree of historical perspective. So allow me to share, from my own professional life, how dramatically the Lutheran church has changed, in at least one way, since I graduated from seminary back in 1981. My seminary class was comprised of just over sixty graduates; virtually all of us seeking our first call and ordination. However, at that time there were far more Lutheran seminary graduates in the U.S. than there were available calls. As a result, on graduation day at my seminary there were only three of us who knew where our first call would be. The rest of the class would simply have to wait; in some cases for over a year.
For some additional perspective regarding today’s clergy shortage, consider the dramatic differences when it comes to the current seminary experience and what graduates—and call committees—can expect in 2023:
- The number of Lutheran seminary graduates today who have an M.Div degree is probably less than 25% of the number of graduates back in 1981. And the number of vacant congregations without a pastor has increased dramatically.
- Unlike in 1981, when the great majority of seminary students were studying full-time and living either on campus or within commuting distance, the majority of seminary students in 2023 are studying almost entirely online. And consider just one implication of this new norm: Online seminary students—logistically—often will not and cannot be adequately vetted by seminary faculty. This means that call committees in 2023 are often looking at applicants that have not, in any meaningful way, been “screened” as to whether they are suitable candidates for call and ordination.
- Call committees in 2023 are, in some cases, unfortunately “settling” for candidates who might not be suitable for their call. Why? Because of an incredible shortage of qualified applicants for their position.
- The shortage of viable seminary graduates and currently serving pastors available for call has not yet plateaued. Instead, this shortage is only growing more severe. And this growing crisis will last at least until the last serving Boomer pastors retire. As of this year Boomers are between the ages of 59 and 77. In other words, it is only in 2029 that the youngest Boomers will reach the age of 65.
- The pandemic has accelerated the rate at which pastors are leaving full-time ministry. This is due in part to a significant number of pastors who had to deal with pandemic-related congregational conflict.
Also contributing to these resignations is the stress experienced by pastors who have seen a pandemic-related, demoralizing decrease in in-person worship attendance compared to early 2020.
Enough in regard to the challenges the church is facing now and over at least the next six years. What can we do as lay leaders and pastors to address this crisis? To begin with, we need to acknowledge that no single ministry program or strategy will suffice. Why? Because this crisis is too systemic and formidable for a single, simple “fix”. However, there are at least two church-wide strengths that, if capitalized on, could make a real difference.
One is the fact that a great many competent and faithful Boomer pastors have retired over the last decade. I am convinced that many of them would be willing to step forward to mentor and coach a single congregation that is dealing with an unfilled vacancy. In some cases this could mean serving in a compensated part-time interim role if the pastor is living within a reasonable distance from the church. In other cases, a retired pastor could volunteer to serve as a mentor and coach—at a distance—to congregational leaders. This would involve coaching online and by phone. In this scenario the pastor would be volunteering his/her time, and would not be relocating or driving long distances to serve in person. In this post-Covid era there is a new culture-wide acceptance and recognition of the potential for online coaching to make a real difference; both for individuals and organizations. It’s no secret: Many pastors, once they retire, welcome an opportunity to serve in some ministry capacity.
Second, many if not most of the congregations dealing with long, extended vacancies already have talented and faithful lay leaders who have a vested interest in wanting their congregations to not only survive but thrive. I am convinced that many of these lay leaders should be recruited, commissioned and trained as part-time lay ministers for their congregations. And some of these lay ministers need to be encouraged to consider an online seminary education while they serve.
This is where I see real hope and promise in the years ahead: Helping part-time, commissioned lay ministers and retired pastors connect in a meaningful way to serve Christ’s church; a church that is definitely in crisis.
Lutheran CORE is offering a new ministry to address this crisis: the Congregational Lay-leadership Initiative, or CLI. This is by no means the only way to address this clergy shortage, but it is one way.
To learn more about CLI we now have complete information available on the Lutheran CORE website. Or, email me personally at firstname.lastname@example.org.