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At Easter, pews may be full, but it's getting harder to fill U.S. Protestant pulpits

Posted: Friday, March 29, 2002

HADDONFIELD, N.J. (AP) -- Easter 2002 is a bit special for First Presbyterian Church, a granite landmark that features a Tiffany stained-glass window portraying Jesus' resurrection.

It's not because of the added service to accommodate the extra turnout. That's customary.

It's because this is the first Easter since 1998 with a permanent pastor in the pulpit.

Judie Rose, a member of the search committee that recruited the Rev. William Getman, sees this year's Easter, the festival of rebirth, as ''a new beginning for the pastor and all of us.''

''No question, there is a level of excitement and expectation right now,'' agrees the 47-year-old Getman.

A pastor is nothing U.S. churchgoers can take for granted these days. Though the Roman Catholic priesthood crisis is a familiar story -- and current scandals won't help -- U.S. Protestant strategists are also becoming alarmed over a growing clergy shortage, particularly in predominantly white ''mainline'' denominations.

Getman says the nationwide Presbyterian statistics are ''frightening.''

The extent of the recruiting problem in black Protestant denominations is less clear; the conservative evangelical Protestants appear to fare somewhat better.

Until recently, the shortage was thought to involve mostly small congregations, which often have to make do with part-time clergy or lay preachers. But it's beginning to affect some prominent, ''big steeple'' churches in pleasant places like Haddonfield, a Philadelphia suburb.

First Presbyterian's search committee could find only four prospects it really liked, and two of those declined interest. ''The good people can afford to be choosey'' nowadays, remarks James Garnett, a search committee member who teaches personnel management at Rutgers. He says some years ago there would have been many more candidates.

Pulpit vacancies can have a discernible impact on local churches. First Presbyterian's membership has slipped below 1,000 for the first time in decades. Substitute ministers ably filled in, but search committee chairman James Groeling says that, without a regular pastor, members drift away and newcomers don't join.

U.S. Protestantism actually developed a surplus of clergy over the past half-century in terms of raw numbers, says Patricia Chang, a Boston College sociologist who studies the clergy labor market, but that's misleading.

The 16 Protestant denominations in the National Council of Churches that reported full data this year have 135,000 clergy and 89,500 local congregations. Problem is, only 71,000 of the clergy are serving congregations. The others hold different jobs, religious or secular, or have retired.

The reality, experts agree, is that there aren't enough Protestant ministers ready, willing and qualified as full-time leaders of local congregations. An added complication is the reluctance of some congregations to consider hiring the growing numbers of women clergy.

The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) is among the hardest-hit, and among the most meticulous in tracking trends.

A rough indicator is the national Internet job site run by the denomination's headquarters in Louisville, Ky. In 1994, it posted 1,697 clergy seeking positions vs. 944 congregations seeking clergy. By 1999, it was 942 clergy and 1,272 positions. At the moment, seekers and jobs are about equal.

The Rev. Marcia Myers, the denomination's personnel specialist in Louisville, says a third of the 11,200 Presbyterian congregations currently have no regularly installed pastor. Many are long-vacant rural churches. With national membership declining, 43 percent of Presbyterian congregations now have 100 or fewer members and can barely afford to pay a living wage, she says.

Other mainline denominations with dropping memberships report the same perplexity. For instance, in 2000 the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America reported 2,102 vacant pulpits (up 84 percent over a decade), 445 requests for 211 seminary graduates and a ''critical shortage'' in some regions.

Myers also worries about the future. Though 546 new Presbyterian clergy were ordained in 1980, the total for 2000 was only 367. Moreover, the ranks of clergy are aging. An Alban Institute study showed that only 7 percent of Presbyterian clergy were age 35 and under in 1999, compared with 24 percent in 1975.

Similar droughts in young clergy were reported for the mainline American Baptist Churches, Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), Episcopal Church, Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, United Church of Christ and United Methodist Church.

The Presbyterians' Princeton (N.J.) Theological Seminary, Getman's alma mater, is the largest mainline Protestant divinity school. The Rev. Dean Foose says when he started as placement director there in 1987, congregations looking to hire a new graduate might interview 10 or 12 applicants, but around 1996 the market flipped in favor of jobseekers.

Youths' declining interest is one factor, but another is the big increase in older people entering the clergy as a second career. That raises the average age of clergy -- and lowers the number of years in active service.

At age 48, Chuck Willoughby is part of that wave. He says he had a mid-career ''lightning bolt experience'' of God's calling to the ministry, sold his successful training-film business in Nashville, entered Princeton seminary and will graduate in May.

When he posted his job availability in mid-January. Louisville headquarters quickly matched him with 40 potential openings, and 15 vacant congregations contacted him directly. But most are in rural settings that he doesn't consider ideal for his wife and two teen-age sons. He is looking elsewhere.

Willoughby got a shock after he first felt the call. He sought out one of Nashville's most successful and revered pastors for advice and the veteran told him, ''If there's anything else you can think of doing, don't become a minister.''

That makes Willoughby a clear-eyed realist about his new career: ''Look at the job. A lot of hours, low pay, diminishing prestige in the culture, requiring a tremendous amount of education and a lot of money needed to fulfill that.''

''Why would anybody want to do this job? Only one reason. A sense of being called by God.'' Fellow seminarians say much the same.

The pay has never been alluring, even though the ministry typically requires three or more years of graduate study. But some improvement is shown in Bureau of Labor Statistics data, analyzed by Duke Divinity School's ''Pulpit and Pew'' research project on U.S. clergy.

In inflation-free dollars, median income for U.S. clergy of all faiths has gradually risen since 1976, reaching $37,795 in 1999. That's near parity with schoolteachers and slightly surpasses social workers, though well below lawyers and physicians.

The Protestants-only median would be higher, since Catholic priests' minimal stipends pull down the figure. (Jewish rabbis earn more, but are relatively few.) And many Protestants get free housing, not counted in these figures.

On another of Willoughby's points, clergy status in American culture ''is not high and is not rising'' says Barbara Wheeler, director of the Auburn Center for the Study of Theological Education in New York City. Her report on clergy trends last year said seminaries pretty much accept anyone who applies.

Foose thinks recruiting problem may reflect a ''loss of trust in authority figures since the 1960s,'' as well as parish conflicts and other cultural factors.

The Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod provides the clearest case of a conservative denomination afflicted with low morale and thinning pastoral ranks. Only 8 percent of clergy are 35 and under, and a church report said if present trends continue, 38 percent of congregations will be without a pastor by 2017.

And that report's alarmingly candid survey of pastors showed 20 percent were ''moderately distressed'' and another 20 percent had reached ''advanced stages of burnout.''

Cries of gloom and doom are frequently heard. Yet a poll among clergy of all faiths for Duke's ''Pulpit and Pew'' project is more optimistic. Majorities above 70 percent said they were ''very satisfied'' with their current positions, with their family life and with their relationships with lay leaders. And 71 percent had never considered switching to secular careers.

To Princeton's Foose, that's understandable, despite everything. ''If you want a sense of satisfaction for your mind and the passions of your heart, making a difference in the lives of people, then pastoral ministry is the place,'' he asserts.

Graduating students he's helping to find pulpits agree, even while acknowledging the challenges.

''In a critical moment we can proclaim God's love and God's grace,'' says Melodie Jones. ''It's difficult, but it's worth it. If you're called to pastoral ministry, it's who you are.''

''I completely believe in the transforming power of the Gospel, if faithfully preached, and the church is where that prophetic word comes,'' says Lyn Olson. ''My own life has been affected by the Gospel, and the church was where that happened.''

Matt Reeves dropped plans for medical school as an undergraduate because he found Christian activities ''were the most rewarding and joyful times when I was living life to the fullest.'' No other profession can compare, he thinks.

As for Haddonfield's Getman, he acknowledges that in moments of discouragement he has thought about doing something else. But, he says, ''I can't imagine, in the final analysis, being anything but a pastor. I love it, even when I hate it.''

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On the Net:

Alban Institute: http://www.alban.org

Auburn Center for the Study of Theological Education: http://www.auburnsem.org/studies

Duke ''Pulpit and Pew'' study: http://www.pastoralleadership.duke.edu

Princeton Theological Seminary: http://www.ptsem.edu

End Adv for Weekend Editions, March 30-31



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