The Clergy Availability Crisis: What Are the Implications for Your Congregation’s Future?

Lutheran CORE’s Congregations in Transition ministry (CiT) was launched back in 2019 to assist Lutheran congregations who are contending with the shortage of available pastors to serve their churches.  This ministry challenge has only become more severe during the pandemic.

This crisis is so widespread it has now come to the attention of the mainstream secular press.  A recent article, in the Wall Street Journal, is entitled, “Houses of Worship Face Clergy Shortage as Many Resign During Pandemic.”  This article was just published last month, on February 21, 2022.  And while the article focused on the degree to which the pandemic has directly contributed to the number of clergy leaving the ministry, the shortage of pastors — as you probably already know — has been an issue for many years.  This pandemic has only made a bad situation even worse.

  1. Consider the many factors which, over at least the last twenty years, have contributed to a shortage of available ordained pastoral candidates looking for a call.
  2. A very large percentage of pastors have or are about to reach retirement age.
  3. Seminaries in general are struggling to recruit new students.  And many of the students they do enroll are far older than was typical when I was ordained back in 1981.  This of course means that many of our more recent seminary graduates will only be in the ministry for a limited number of years.
  4. The rate at which our culture is becoming secularized is only increasing; this directly impacts how many people feel “called” to the ordained ministry.  Consider this: Pew Research recently reported that millennials — most American adults under 40 — are the first American generation where those identifying as Christians are in the minority.
  5. And, as reported by Wall Street Journal, the pandemic has contributed to the number of ordained clergy who are leaving the ministry.  This includes Boomer pastors who, due to pandemic-related stress and congregational conflict, are retiring earlier than they had originally planned.

Then, in addition to the shortage of available pastors, the local church, more often than not, is struggling.  Thom Rainer is a pastor who is CEO of Church Answers, a large congregational coaching ministry.  Church Answers describes itself as “the largest online community in the world for practical advice on church growth.”  In a recent podcast Pastor Rainer stated that, even before the pandemic, 90% of American churches were experiencing a decline in worship attendance.  He also claims that the pandemic has accelerated that rate of decline by three years.

So what can congregations do to address these challenges?  And especially smaller congregations?  Because the clergy supply crisis presents particular challenges for small churches, and the hard truth is that the shrinking number of available pastors will tend to accept calls to mid-sized and larger congregations.

At this point I want to focus on those of you who attend smaller churches; let’s say churches with 100 or fewer members.  I pick this dividing line because Mike Bradley, the Service Coordinator for the LCMC, just revealed that over 500 LCMC churches in the U.S. have 100 or fewer members.  (This out of a total of 786 LCMC churches in the United States.)  It is my conviction that with the combination of your congregation’s size and the clergy supply crisis, it is time for your lay leaders to consider and plan for a future where you might not be able to find and call a seminary-trained, experienced pastor.  And that might even be the case whether or not you have the financial resources to pay a full-time pastor’s salary with benefits.

So assuming your church leaders are ready to address this possible future scenario — a future where you are unable to find a competent, ordained pastor — what then?  Well then it will be time to identify one or two active members whom you can convince to become ministers-in-training; ministers who will eventually serve your congregation.  Here are some of the steps that would be involved in pursuing this ministry strategy:

  1. Most important, identify the right person!  (Lots of prayer will help.)  The “right” person would be someone who is already known as a congregational lay leader and as someone with the personal integrity, faith commitment, and skills to become your future minister. 
  2. Next would be the challenge of convincing that individual to say “yes” to this ministry opportunity.
  3. Offer, as a congregation, to pay for online seminary classes to help your future “minister” prepare to serve your members.  These classes, taken on a very part-time basis, would not necessarily lead to ordination.  (That would be up to your “candidate.”)  But either way, they would give this person the tools to better serve your congregation in the future.  The LCMC has a list of recommended Christian seminaries; all of which offer most of their courses online.  Just one example: St. Paul Lutheran Seminary in St. Paul, Minnesota, offers an occasional six-week preaching class for just $50.  These seminaries also, of course, offer courses in biblical studies and Lutheran theology.
  4. Determine your “minister’s” eventual job description; including whether it would be part-time or full-time.  Note: If you assume it needs to be full-time you just might be ruling out the best person for your future ministry.  Be open to the possibility that your minister-in-training would always be bi-vocational, that is, serving your church while continuing with his or her secular employment. Also, this job description needs to be based on a combination of your congregation’s needs and your future minister’s ministry gifts.
  5. Eventually determine this person’s length of service once he or she is officially employed.  One year, two years, three years?
  6. At the appropriate time decide on the number of working ministry hours in a typical week, and the financial compensation.
  7. Identify a mentoring pastor who will have an on-going, informal “coaching” relationship with your minister-in-training.  This could be either an LCMC or NALC pastor serving in your community or region.  Or, a Congregations in Transition coach could serve in this role by offering online coaching and emotional/spiritual support for your minister-to-be.

It would be presumptuous of me to speculate any further on what this ministry strategy might look like for your congregation.  There are simply too many possible scenarios, which would be and should be based on what is unique about your congregation’s needs, and your ministry context. 

Congregational leaders of smaller churches need to start thinking “outside the box” when it comes to the assumption that viable and vital church ministries always require the leadership of an ordained seminary graduate.  Too often smaller churches — when they are unable to find and call a pastor — assume their only options moving forward are to either settle for “rotating,” occasional supply preachers, or to simply shut their doors.

Remember one of the most important lessons from early church history: The Body of Christ need not rise or fall based solely on the presence or absence of ordained pastors to lead a congregation’s ministry.  The Apostolic church thrived — often under persecution — without the benefit of a professional clergy class.  This is about the priesthood of all believers, not a priesthood limited to the ordained.  Or to put it another way: Sometimes the life and ministry of Christ’s church is simply too important to be left solely to the “professionals.”

Is My Pastor About to Quit?

You might say we are beginning to witness the proverbial straw that is about to break the camel’s back.  The camel, in this case, is the Protestant ordained ministry.  (Including, of course, Lutheran pastors.)  The straw is the current pandemic, and all the ways it is contributing to the work-related stress of pastors in this already infamous year of our Lord, 2020.

And yet the “straw” metaphor doesn’t do Covid-19 justice.  This pandemic and its consequences would have been hard to even imagine just ten months ago.  Yet here we are.

 I retired from parish ministry less than two years ago.  Apparently just in time.  And while I am currently coaching numerous not-yet-retired Lutheran pastors, I have been personally insulated from the “new normal” full-time pastors are dealing with in this pandemic era.  So I was surprised to come across Pastor Thom Rainer’s latest article just posted on August 31st.  The title alone gained my complete attention: “Six Reasons Your Pastor Is About to Quit”.

Who is Thom Rainer?  He is the former CEO of Lifeway Christian Resources, and currently leads the coaching ministry Church Answers.  And while Thom is Southern Baptist background, I’m convinced his insights apply to mainline Protestant pastors in general—including Lutheran clergy.

 Early in his article Thom writes this: “The vast majority of pastors with whom our (coaching) team communicates are saying they are considering quitting their churches.  It’s a trend I have not seen in my lifetime.”  (Keep in mind Pastor Rainer has been in ministry for almost forty years.)  Here are the six reasons, as described by Thom Rainer, why many pastors are “about to quit.”

  1. “Pastors are weary from the pandemic just like everyone else.”  No surprise here.
  2. “Pastors are greatly discouraged about the fighting taking place among church members about the post-quarantine church.  Gather in person or wait?  Masks or no masks?  Social distancing or not?”  Rainer also mentions the added stress when these conflicts have been politicized.
  3. “Pastors are discouraged about losing members and attendance.”  Pastors I have been coaching are, this summer, seeing in-person attendance that is only 30 to 50% of pre-Covid levels.  And Rainer adds this: “Pastors have already heard directly or indirectly from around one-fourth of the members that they do not plan to return at all.”
  4. “Pastors don’t know if their churches will be able to financially support congregational ministries in the future.”  And while giving might be healthy up to this point there is apparently mounting anxiety about whether this will continue to be the case in 2021.
  5. “Criticisms against pastors have increased significantly.”
  6. “The workload for pastors has increased greatly. … They are trying to serve the congregation the way they have in the past, but now they have the added responsibilities that have come with the digital world.  And as expected, pastoral care needs among members have increased during the pandemic as well.”

This pandemic has, in my view, created something of a “perfect storm” when it comes to the matter of clergy supply.  Even pre-Covid we were seeing the reality of many more pastors retiring than new pastors being ordained.  Now that trend will undoubtedly be accelerating, due in part to many pastors retiring sooner rather than later.

 Lutheran CORE’s Congregations in Transition (CiT) ministry coaches are available to help confessing Lutheran congregations who are or soon will be dealing with a pastoral vacancy in these uncertain and unnerving times.  If you are a congregational lay leader at a church that already has—or soon will have—a vacancy, or you are a pastor who will be retiring in the next one to two years, we can help.  Our coaching assistance, while at a distance, is comprehensive, and is customized to address your congregation’s unique ministry challenges.  If you want to know more, contact me, Don Brandt, either by email ( or phone (503-559-2034).

 And for every lay person reading this, do what you can to thank and encourage your pastor!

Dr. Don Brandt

Director, Congregations in Transition