How can we support raising the next generations of pastors?

The responsibility has shifted from denominations to the individual -- and now it is time to experiment with new ways to support young clergy, particularly financially.

I was raised in a golden age for pastoral ministry, in which scholarships for pastors supported my college and seminary expenses. Part-time work for students was plentiful, and graduates were hired by congregations.

Today, students pursuing pastoral ministry take out loans or work full-time while pursuing school. Full-time jobs following graduation are scarce, and benefits such as health care and retirement either are not available or deducted from salary.

The responsibility for preparing generations of pastors has shifted from the denomination to the individual. At the same time, the number of congregations that can afford a full-time pastor with benefits is shrinking.

Other professions have a version of these challenges.

Law school graduates often have more debt than job prospects. In an interesting twist, law school professor-turned-President Obama has floated the idea of a two-year law school as a way to reduce indebtedness. Many who are trained as lawyers are translating the education into preparation for fields such as business and public policy where jobs are more plentiful.

Ph.D. graduates are having difficulty finding anything beyond part-time teaching with no job security or research support. Across the United States many are talking about the challenges of student debt and the underemployment of recent graduates in various fields.

This situation feels like the sort of problem about which L. Gregory Jones and Nathan Jones write, “Wicked problems, on the other hand, bewilder us because they frustrate our attempts at grabbing hold of them. Not only do they lack clear starting and ending points; they cross social and conceptual boundaries, and their dimensions often change the more deeply we explore possible solutions.”

Such problems are the occasion for hand-wringing because next steps are filled with uncertainty. Perhaps it would help if we engaged in experiments, measured results and determined whether these efforts were solving the problem.

For example, a congregation might donate funds to the seminary where it most often recruits clergy. A congregation could make a gift to a scholarship fund, employing a summer worker or giving opportunities to preach. The result could be measured in the student debt of the students who they help. An impact would be to follow the recipient over time and celebrate the ministries served.

Another experiment would be to raise the salaries of the lowest-paid employees at a higher percentage than salaries of middle- and upper-income employees. Note the difference in pay for various employees and track retention and morale. The president of the hospital where I worked for 15 years maintained that employee morale was the single most important indicator of the hospital’s financial performance.

As one who has been preparing seminary seniors with interviewing skills for 15 years, I have a feeling that the ground is shifting. I certainly feel it as the chair of my congregation’s finance committee and in the scramble to find money for salary increases.

The burden of preparing pastors has shifted to the pastors, but the pay for pastors has remained low in many places. I am committed to encouraging experiments of new models and sharing the results. How are you addressing these issues? What are the results and impact?