Recently, the Catholic Diocese of Maine ordained its only priest for 2009 and 2010. He was 52 years old. Maine had 97 active priests in 2005. By 2010, it will have 65. Where I live in Maine, half the Catholic parishes have been consolidated, not because of low attendance but for a lack of priests. The days of a priest serving a single parish are long gone.
This summer, I will begin serving as senior pastor of a non-denominational, mainline congregation near Chicago, with an average attendance of about 150. I will have a full time music director, almost full-time associate pastor and two other support staff, both a little less than full time. Because this is common staffing in mainline congregations today, it’s easy for us Protestants to think we are observing Roman Catholicism from afar. But we share common ground.
Christian congregations across the United States are in the midst of a seismic shift. While they may not be closing at the same rate as Catholic parishes, signs indicate that fewer of their young people are choosing pastoral life as a calling. Case in point: the United Methodist Church has around 35,000 ordained clergy. Roughly 800 are aged 35 or younger. This same percentage holds true across mainline denominations: PCUSA, ELCA, Episcopal, American Baptist, Disciples of Christ and United Church of Christ.
But my concern is deeper than numbers alone. Research suggests that most young folks who we successfully recruit to pastoral ministry are inclined to do so, in part, because they lean towards institutional conservatism. They are willing and able to adapt to the generation that dominates mainline church life because they tend to be culturally out of synch with their generational peers. The aging, culturally conservative context of mainline Protestantism becomes a safe haven. Yes, the numbers of twenty- and thirty-somethings who choose to become pastors is down. But the numbers who do so with the creative, innovative, reforming edge of youth is way down.
What we lack is not just generational balance in age, but generational diversity in spirit and inclination. Young people who enter theological education shaped more by their broader cultural peers than by the aging culture of mainline Protestantism are often cured by seminary of any iconoclastic tendencies that might be lurking in them. If they’re not, then immersion into the institutional/cultural realities of mainline protestant church life (and what it takes to survive there) will complete their enculturation. Young people who make it through the gauntlet of preparation, ordination and installation are likely to be pastoral leaders well schooled in the responsibility they owe to existing structures (being in literal debt only adds to the importance of good behavior). The sage advice given to new pastors across the mainline sums it up well: “Don’t change anything for one year.” Lord, have mercy!
We are prepared to increase our efforts to recruit more young people into seminary. But are we prepared to cultivate, even encourage, the kind of youthful leadership that will bias us towards reform, innovation and re-invention? Given the signs of decline, we have never had greater need for leaders who have currency with our young culture and who boldly bear witness to the gospel.
It is a new day for Christian congregations in America. Are we forming the new generation of leaders for the church that is passing away or the church that is being born?
David J. Wood has been coordinator of the Lilly Endowment’s Transition into Ministry program. He will soon be installed as senior pastor of Glencoe Union Church in Glencoe, Illinois.