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.”