March 26, 2001
Young Clergy: Where Are They?
-- Martin E. Marty
This week, like the last, Sightings becomes "Pointings." We point to the Alban Institute, which bills itself as "the premier source of learning for congregations and their leaders." An ecumenical, interfaith organization, the Alban Institute seeks to bring research and education to bear upon the practical challenges of faith communities.
To help fulfill this goal, they publish a bimonthly magazine called Congregations, lately updated and reinvigorated. In a recent issue, a critically important issue receives cover-story treatment: "Young Clergy: Where Are They?" Congregations asks and begins to answer the question, and to call for action.
The reality of a general - including Protestant - clergy shortage has become old news. Through the decades we've watched clerical numbers go from bullish to bearish and back to bullish again. Oversupply follows undersupply follows oversupply. But this time the bears seem to be here to stay, at least for a longer time.
Catholicism's crisis is older news, as seminaries empty, priests retire and die. Similar troubles can be found in other faiths. For example, a recent issue of Forward (February 9) offers this banner on page one: "Reform Judaism Confronts 'Crisis' Over Rabbi Shortage." Rabbi Eric Yoffe, president of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations, calls this "the most serious issue facing Reform rabbis now."
Congregations is not talking so much about shortage as about the aging of clerics. Stop: I know that one cannot comment on this age issue without arousing some fellow seniors who ask: "What's wrong with seminaries filled with mainly 'late vocation' people?" "What's wrong with us 'older clergy?'" Answer: nothing. The gifts of maturity in ministry are obvious. But they are not the only gifts the churches and synagogues and culture need.
The culture? Yes. The health and effectiveness of the clergy is a public matter which should concern theists and atheists, belongers and the uncommitted alike. The congregations of the various faiths - some 300,000 to 500,000 - are the most widespread and visible representatives of faith, religion, and spirituality in a religio-secular culture like ours. If all the clergy are old and think old and don't last long, that does something to the spirit of enterprise, commitment for the long haul, and maturation-in-office - all of which mean so much in many situations.
Congregations includes a startling insert comparing age gaps "then" and "now." What percentage of clergy are now under thirty-five? The percentages, all of them average: seven percent of Methodist clergy, six percent Lutheran, four percent UCC, seven percent Presbyterian, four percent Episcopal, and so on. ("Then," decades ago, figures were upwards of twenty percent.) The magazine talks sensibly about why interest in ministry has declined among young people, and it adds good material on what to do about it.
These are the themes of the Alban Institute this month, and they belong on the "crisis" radar screen.