May 18, 2009
— Martin E. Marty
Having had enough of headlines and cable television about distracting commencement events, I am planning to do a small, quiet commencement one the day before you read this. It's at a favorite school of our tribe, Wartburg Seminary in Dubuque, Iowa, a school and a state (I lived in Iowa in the forties) for which I have affection and admiration - and, of course, concern, these being times of struggle for both schools and states. Let concern have center stage on this page, a concern prompted by readings and printouts and clippings which have to do with clergy support, opportunity, need, and possibility.
We historians are not given the gift of foreseeing, but as for seeing - as in Sightings - I learned long ago to look at trends and signs that don't fit headlines or on cable. Thus, decades ago, while many chroniclers thought that "death of God" theology was a cosmic challenge, it occurred to some of us that "high-rise apartments and the long weekend" would do more to assault the world of Sunday Schools, church attendance, and the parish as a center of communal life. Today those trends continue, and the higher-rising of apartments and the longer-yet weekend keep playing their part. Forget the current "new atheism," so readily reported on as an assault. Notice instead patterns of leisure like Sunday marathons and soccer, patterns of work in which 24/7 job demands increase, and now, of course, "the economic crash" that colors all prospects
To sum up: "Rabbinic Market Tries Anxious Souls," heads a story by Rebecca Dube in the April 22nd Forward. It turns out that plenty of idealistic and service-minded young and mid-career Jews have turned to rabbinic schools, but find the "pickings are decidedly slim" for graduates seeking first rabbinates. "This is the worst job market for rabbis in years," says a Los Angeles director of placement. Older rabbis hang on to their posts, partly because they now fear the loss of retirement income. And many congregations cannot afford full-time rabbis, et cetera. Three Reform theological schools may have to merge into one.
"It's the economy, stupid?" Not entirely. Roman Catholicism presents a somewhat different problem: a drastic and ever-growing priest shortage. In the May 4th America, the editors offered "A Modest Proposal": Reactivate married priests, attract married candidates to seminaries, don't insist on celibacy for clergy. Easy. Nothing in Catholic theology opposes this, and "married priests already minister in the Catholic Church, both East and West." Observers see current trends leading to an almost priestless church, a contradiction in Catholic theological terms, and an inhibitor of Catholic life.
Saturday, Samuel G. Freedman in The New York Times told how "Economy Intrudes on Haven of Faith; Graduating Seminarians Face a Shrinking Job Market." Shrinkage is caused - you guessed it - by economic hardship, demographic shifts, and more. Freedman visits a class of thirteen at Colgate Rochester Crozer Divinity School and tracks a dedicated graduate-to-be. Many churches are in declining rural or inner-city neighborhoods, and no economic trends favor them. Megachurches, the current alternative, work for some believers in some places, but bring their own vulnerabilities in a world of shattered markets and shuttered malls. No single pattern will serve.
I often like to cite those who say that the church and synagogue do not live by demographic trends, but they do best when they rely on the promises of God. One can overhear prayers by debt-laden seminarians, seekers of posts, or seekers of priests: "Come on, God of promises."
Martin E. Marty's biography, current projects, upcoming events, publications, and contact information can be found at www.illuminos.com.