May 24, 2010
Supply and Demand of Professional Ministers
— Martin E. Marty
Public prayer, the kind Americans fight over a good deal, was not on the favorite “to-do” list of the Jesus of the Gospels. Just the opposite. He is heard saying: Don’t call attention to your praying in public. Go home and shut the door. Public action and teaching were a different matter. The King James Version of the Bible on which we teethed when young ran italicized summary capsules atop the pages. I was always stirred by one: “Here Jesus beginneth his public ministry.” He did not desert temple or synagogue or congregating, but ministry was for him a public affair, in marketplace, field, or wedding party.
It still is. I am not sure that “the public” is always aware of the public roles of the hundreds of thousands of men and women called to and being professionals in exercises of ministry. Most are in congregational service, but chaplaincies and agencies, attractive to so many, would not thrive or even exist were it not for the sustaining role of parishes and congregations. In all cases, the graduating seminarians of this season could merit the caption: “Here beginneth the public ministry of…” When ministry goes well, much else goes well, and when it suffers or causes suffering, much else goes ill.
This year national and local papers alike have been discussing the supply and demand of professional ministers. The general word is that – some sectors of evangelicalism aside – most graduates have to scramble and hope and wait for positions in church and synagogue alike. (The exception is Roman Catholicism, which experiences an almost catastrophic shortage of priests, but that is a different story.) As I write, I head off to speak at a Lutheran synodical assembly in downstate Illinois and a commencement at Louisville Presbyterian Seminary. There I will get close-up and personal impressions of how things are going with placement of long-term ministers and newcomers.
Don’t envy seminary leaders and placement people who have to calibrate and calculate and monitor supply and demand. The subtle word gets out that there’s a shortage, as there sometimes is, and by the time the fresh candidates graduate, there is an oversupply. And vice versa. To anticipate this month and this column, I have kept on file last Fall’s Colloquy, published by The Association of Theological Schools. It leads off with frank language which almost summarizes the current situation:
“Current prospects for theological school graduates are defined by several trends. * The job openings available to graduates have been steadily declining in number for the past four years. * Increasing numbers of MDiv graduates are undecided about full-time positions expected after graduation. * Those expecting parish ministry positions have declined. * In response to the economic depression, many retirement age pastors are choosing to postpone retirement. * The annual income required for servicing educational debt may limit job options for new graduates. * Placement and vocational counseling services consistently rank low among measures of student satisfaction.” There it is.
Many factors play their part. Plenty of young and mid-career people who seek meaning and are ready to serve are out there, finding their own way this side of professional ministry. Demography, geography, dual careers of married clergy, graduate school debt, declining rural and often inner-city churches, scandal that hits and hurts religious institutions, are all part of the mixture. Such institutions, such communities, are going through “a period of adjustment,” whose outcome is still uncertain. Seminary leaders and placement people, needless to say, are themselves scrambling and hoping.
Colloquy and other ATS resources are online at http://www.ats.edu/Resources/Publications/Pages/Colloquy.aspx.
Martin E. Marty's biography, current projects, publications, and contact information can be found at www.illuminos.com.