Where Have All the Pastors Gone?

Editor’s Note: This original piece is written by Rev. David Lindsey, one of our esteemed writers. However, in the review of this article, we realized that some of the data needed to be placed into a larger context. It is our view that there is not – nor will there be in the near future – a clergy supply shortage in the UCC. Rather than editing Rev. Lindsey’s words, we have placed our own words in dialogue with his. We hope that this will provide a broader view of this important issue.

In addition, stay tuned for next week’s post by Rev. Elizabeth Dilley, who will provide an even deeper presentation of the clergy supply issue. 

Rev. Lindsey: The 2016 Statistics about the United Church of Christ have been released (you can access them here), and they tell the story of a denomination that has been shrinking in size for decades. One specific cause for concern to our congregations, I think, is what appears to be the vanishing pool of local church pastors. Since 1985, our local church pastors have retired in huge numbers and not been replaced. While the population of retired UCC clergy has grown by more than 76% during that time, the population of currently employed UCC clergy has simultaneously dropped by more than 30%. Further complicating matters is the reality that, as of 2016, more than 80% of the pastors serving local UCC churches are over the age of 50. We are blessed with a lot of competent, dedicated leadership among that 80% of active pastors, but there’s no getting around the fact that more of them will be retiring over the next 20 years. And given that fewer and fewer folks are preparing to become UCC clergy each year (771 in 2006-07 versus 534 in 2015-16), we have a problem on our hands.

CARD: While these trends are accurate at face value, information regarding supply and demand is helpful in explaining the larger phenomena we are seeing. As the number of congregations and the size of those congregations decrease, it is expected and normal for the number of local church pastors to decrease as well. Local churches cannot afford multiple staff, so many clergy will seek other ministry opportunities. Second, these statistics only reflect numbers regarding Ordained Ministers. In the United Church of Christ, ministerial authorization takes a number of forms: Ordained, Licensed, Commissioned, Ordained Ministerial Partner Standing, and Dual Standing. According to a Special Report in the 2016 UCC Statistical Profile, only 7 in 10 primary leadership positions in UCC local churches are held by UCC Ordained Ministers. This means that out of the 4,263 congregations that reported a primary leader, 1,224 congregations have a non-Ordained Minister as their leader. Some of these individuals are even laypersons. We believe this trend will increase as full-time positions in local churches decrease. Third, statistics regarding the age of pastors (only Ordained Ministers) does not reflect an increasingly aging pool of Members in Discernment and seminarians. A majority of individuals going into ministry will continue to be second- and third-career ministers; so moving into the future, ages of our Ordained Ministers will always trend older. Fourth, as mentioned before, many individuals who serve in local churches are not Ordained Ministers; therefore, they would not be counted in overall statistics regarding the number of ordinations per year. In reality, the issue of clergy supply is not one of fewer Ordained Ministers serving local churches; it is an issue of the types of calls that Ordained Ministers are willing to take, which will be outlined in more detail below. 

Rev. Lindsey: And that’s just where we are today. Rev. Beth Lyon has written here about what these trends mean for the next few years. In looking at longer-term trends, though, I see even more troubling signs. Currently, we have exactly 1 local church pastor for every 1.5 congregations. If current trends continue, then my calculations suggest that at our 100th anniversary as a denomination in 2057, we will have less than 1 local church pastor for every 2 congregations. This really could leave us asking, in the midst of our 100th anniversary celebration, “Where have all the pastors gone?”

CARD: As mentioned previously, this figure only reflects numbers for Ordained Ministers. Additionally, in 2057 there will be a much smaller number of UCC congregations for which to supply leaders. While many Conference Ministers in more rural Conferences report that it is becoming increasingly difficult to find ministers, this is not due to a supply problem. Because many of these calls are part-time and farther from metropolitan areas, the ability of UCC Ordained Ministers, many of whom have significant seminary debt, to be called to these positions is heavily impeded both practically and financially.

Rev. Lindsey: We in the UCC have been working hard to chart a different course for years, but we’ve had quite a struggle. Our denomination has been working to sustain clergy who are in their 20s and 30s (as seen here). God willing, those efforts will pay off with long-term, healthy careers for that generation. The CREDO program is designed to help clergy who are mid-career to stay engaged and healthy. In spite of these efforts, though, the gap between local church pastors and congregations is widening. From 1995 to 2005, we lost 129 pastors for 100 congregations that closed. From 2005-2015, we lost 145 pastors for every 100 congregations. With every passing year, current trends suggest that we are and we will continue to be spreading our pastors ever thinner across our congregations than we currently do.

CARD: As mentioned previously, because those entering ministry as Ordained Ministers are an increasingly aged population compared with previous decades, we may see smaller percentages of clergy in their 20s and 30s (though we do not see this occurring statistically in the past decade within our local churches). It is important to note two critical pieces of information around these issues. First, just because of the decline in the numbers of local church pastors, this does not mean that these individuals left ministry. Since the numbers above only reflect the local church context, they do not outline the depth and breadth of ministries in which UCC Ordained Ministers are engaged. And combined with increasing numbers of retired clergy, as well as the increasing numbers of UCC Ordained Ministers competing for fewer full-time church calls, there is an ever growing pool of Ordained Ministers seeking sustainable local church positions. While it is true that many congregations are and have been combining resources to calls pastors to serve multiple congregations, thus ensuring the financial stability of those ministers, this has not occurred on a large scale. Second, as mentioned above, not only Ordained Ministers are serving in local church contexts; and as positions become less financially sustainable over time, we may see an increase in the numbers of non-UCC Ordained Ministers serving congregations.

Rev. Lindsey: There’s no other way to say it: we in the UCC have a crisis of diminishing pastoral leadership.

CARD: In fact, what we have is a shortage in the number of full-time sustainable calls for UCC Ordained Ministers in our local churches; and these Ordained Ministers are serving in a wide variety of calls throughout the country. For example, did you know that the percentage of those serving as military, hospital, and prison chaplains has increased by at least 30% in the past decade? The future of ministry is calling ministers into increasingly non-traditional pastoral calls; so there will never not be a need for UCC Authorized Ministers!

Rev. Lindsey: So what do we do? Here are a few scenarios:

  • We go even further to radically reform our approach to cultivating and nurturing local church pastors.
  • We merge with another denomination (or two) in the U.S.
  • We merge with sister denominations in other countries. Our experience is strikingly similar to what is happening in similar denominations in countries like Canada, Australia, and the UK. We already have good relationships in these countries: just click here to read about a recent meeting in Vancouver of four denominational heads from four countries.
  • We actively poach pastors from other denominations. This is pretty unethical, and it would burn many of the ecumenical bridges we’ve built over the years. Such a desperate act would also be out of character for a denomination founded “that they may all be one”.
  • We do nothing and continue to decline.

None of these options are easy. All of them – including doing nothing – will create change.

CARD: These are options, but they seem to be drastic given the broader view of what’s occurring in our denomination statistically. In fact, the reality is that we have more Ordained Ministers competing for full-time church positions than ever before; and because of implicit bias within the system (and in our world in general), a majority of these positions continue to be filled by white, cisgender, heterosexual males, leaving our increasingly diverse Ordained Ministers and Members in Discernment to search for calls outside local churches. In addition, these options shouldn’t be considered only in light of the current context of our congregations and ministers – we believe there are myriad creative solutions around what’s occurring not only in our churches, but also in the wider framework of ministry and in our world. What if we envisioned the notion of church differently? What if ministry was truly understood as occurring both within the beyond the walls of a traditional congregation? What if we created resources to assist Committees on Ministry with reducing bias and considering more diverse candidate pools? What if we worked alongside other denominations in order to share resources and best practices? (This last one is already occurring as a result of the UCC’s Full Communion Agreement with The United Church of Canada.)

Rev. Lindsey: In spite of these numbers, there are some signs of hope in the denomination. Several of our congregations have cultivated a culture of call. Consider First Community Church of Columbus, Ohio. I was recently at a clergy gathering with several UCC colleagues, and some 10% of the pastors in the room were nurtured by First Community Church. When I asked some of them why so many pastors rose out of this congregation they cited different reasons: a scholarship for members-in-discernment, engagement in outdoor ministries, an award for teenagers who demonstrate marks for ministry, the church’s practice of hiring / calling staff members and pastors of diverse ages. Though their reasons were diverse, they each revealed a church that was pro-actively involved in helping its members hear their call from God to ordained ministry. I could say similar things about congregations of all sizes.

CARD: Yes! There are many congregations like this across the United Church of Christ that have nurtured several through their discernment paths into Ordained Ministry – a couple of others include Park Hill Congregational UCC in Denver, CO and Kirkwood UCC in Atlanta, GA. 

Rev. Lindsey: How does your congregation help its members to become Members in Discernment? What pro-active steps do you take to help your members hear God calling them into Ordained ministry? And how do we expand the pool of qualified, dedicated, and faithful local church pastors in the coming years?

David LindseyRev. Dr. David Lindsey currently serves as the Senior Pastor of Little River United Church of Christ in Annandale, Virginia, in the Central Atlantic Conference.


5 thoughts on “Where Have All the Pastors Gone?

  1. The unspoken piece here is that the majority of those UCC congregations who can’t find clergy are part time calls. If you look at Employment Opportunities right now, you find many more part time calls than Full time. IF some of those congregations came together, there would be great opportunities out there. As it is, most refuse and so can’t find clergy. New clergy now absolutely must be tentmakers or not get jobs for the long term.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Rochelle, thanks for reading the article! I appreciate taking the time to reflect on it and offer this comment. Would more yoked pastorates help, where 2-3 churches could share a pastor? If so, what would it take to help churches adjust to and embrace that model?

      BTW: I graduated seminary in 2003 in southern California, a land overflowing with everything from megachurches to 6-person congregations. While in seminary, we had very little formal or informal conversation about tentmaking and part-time ministry. Do you sense that changing?


      • I wish more seminaries talked realities about tentmaking, etc. I teach as an adjunct at Yale Div. School. They do nothing with this. I am hoping with the arrival of Andover Newton, perhaps something might come!


    • David, thanks for reading my article! I appreciate you taking a look at it, and for then sharing an article you found meaningful.

      I read the one you posted, and it raised some questions for me. While its author Father Longenecker raised some valid concerns, I honestly didn’t agree with most of his conclusions. I’ve worshipped in congregations and denominations on different sides of what Father Longenecker calls the “historic” / “progressive” divide, and I honestly don’t think his article offers accurate portrayals of churches in either group. The author defined progressive Christianity as being essentially sentimental and subjective, yet my own experience is that the most sentimental and subjective churches I’ve ever attended were what Longenecker defines as “historic” churches.

      Further, I’ve found (both anecdotally and statistically) that the vitality of Christian movements depends on far more factors than Father Longenecker suggests. Consider his contention that communal Christian movements result in more vitality (evidenced by increased numbers of members, churches, and clergy) than individualistic Christian movements. On the contrary, individualist movements (e.g. the 1st Great Awakening in the US in the 18th century) have sometimes resulted in larger churches and more clergy, and at other times more community-based movements (e.g. the liberation theology movement in Latin America in the 1960s and 1970s) led to more churches and clergy. Context makes an enormous difference.


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