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"He Desires a Noble Task" The Erosion of the Evangelical Pastorate

September 3rd, 2012 | 7 min read

By Jeremy Mann

empty-church-pulpitThe evangelical church has a problem. We’re going to run out of good pastors. For a variety of reasons, we are failing to sufficiently prepare the next generation of church leadership. I doubt this particular problem will ever feel like a full-blown crisis, given the many influences on church health and the wide diffusion of the effects, but it’s a trend with costly consequences. All things being equal, eventually there will be fewer churches than there could be, and on average they will be weaker.

This message is different than the common doomsday alarms. American evangelicalism is not in perfect health, but it’s strong in many respects. More 20-somethings are currently attending evangelical churches than any year since 1972. Enrollment in Christian Colleges is also up, as is diversity. The problem is not that there aren’t any young people in church; it’s that not enough of them are planning to lead.

Why think this?

First, the numbers. While Christian colleges are growing, seminary enrollment has either plateaued or declined at mainline and evangelical seminaries. Don Sweeting, President of Reformed Theological Seminary, told the Lausanne Consultation on Global Theological Education a few months ago in his plenary address, “We have more seminaries and fewer students.” It’s not just an enrollment issue. As anyone who has recently spent time on seminary campuses can tell you, more and more seminarians are not planning on leading churches. They are there for counseling, or para-church ministry, or simply to learn more about Scripture. Quite a few don’t know why they are there.

This brings us to quality. There are no easy ways of determining the quality of pastors-in-training, even on very simple metrics (unlike most other graduate programs, an M.Div. does not require GRE scores).  What we do know is that there has been a distinctive cultural shift away from a “best and brightest” mentality of the Puritans. To put it very simply: the top Christian students (whether attending a Christian colleges or not) are generally not interested in leading churches vocationally. From what I see, this trend is accelerating. Schools like Gordon, Wheaton, Moody, and Biola are not producing nearly as many future ministers as they used to, and even fewer from the top 25% of students (a group I’ll call the leadership quartile). To the leadership quartile academia, medicine, law, politics, technology, and media are attractive—sadly, being a pastor is not.

I see three reasons this is happening:

A Deficient View of Calling: If you ask bright young evangelicals why they aren’t going into church leadership, they will probably tell you they have not been called. Probe a little deeper and you’ll find “calling” is understood almost exclusively in terms of a personal feeling or inward sense of commission.  This is not how the church through history has understood calling, especially calling into ministry. Instead, ministry calling would have been largely discerned in community, particularly with the thoughtful, proactive guidance of elders and pastors. A desire for the work was important, but wouldn’t have been the most significant factor, and definitely not a required precondition for consideration.

Our contemporary conception is hurting us. When young men do not expect guidance and old men do not regularly (and in unique prompting by the Spirit) seek them out mentorship into ministry will not happen. The current norm is to first wait for volunteers, and then mentor those who bring themselves forward. As a result many spiritually-sensitive young men, who are most leery of pride or self-promotion, don't end up in ministry.

Strong Alternatives: The decision to pursue vocational ministry has never been made in a vacuum, but in our era the viable alternatives are more attractive than ever. More than any other period in recent history, talented, well-educated young people (the leadership quartile) are able to secure positions that at least feel significant, pay well, offer partnership with gifted like-minded friends, and lots of opportunities for development, all with little risk. And while it’s no secret that consulting, tech, and finance dominate, there are now many superfast tracks (Teach For America, where I spent four years, has in many ways a similar payoff). Furthermore, in contrast to vocational ministry, these other paths employ aggressive and skillful recruiters. They start guiding college students in their sophomore year to ensure strong applications and established trust two years later. They connect students with older mentors in the field, and offer internships, fellowships, and flexible deferment options.

One more factor to note on this front: the vitality of many Christian colleges poses another challenge to encouraging vocational ministry. Ministry used to be an attractive option for bookish types, given the opportunity it gave for further study. But now instead of assuming ministry with the off-chance of full-time scholarship, the leadership quartile’s thinkers assume scholarship with the chance of ministry or, better, some sort of broader public influence. Why is this? First, the specialization of the academy sidelines pastoral scholarship. Second, many Christian college professors are viewed by their students as some of the first adults that “get it.” It’s difficult to describe, but very common. After growing up in a diluted, trivializing youth ministry, the excitement of awakening to the life of mind in college makes lots of people want to stay forever (see the huge glut of underemployed Christianity-related PhDs, perhaps even worse than the secular glut.)

Inaccessible/Weak Church Leadership: Suppose one key factor for recruiting and training future leaders is close contact with strong examples. There are then two ways this can fail to happen. In the many churches, the pastor is not a strong example. He might serve the congregation faithfully, but he does not attract apprentices. On the other side, most large churches do not foster close contact with pastors (except in some cases for those who already volunteer, see above). Beyond basic mentoring, however, there’s the tendency in large toward lower rates of service in the church. This means fewer people are joining in the work of the church; there’s less close contact with ministry itself. This means confirmation of gifts or awakening of interest are less likely to happen.

There is a lot more to say on this topic. I haven’t addressed the trend away from seminaries toward church-based training (which while encouraging, is both not enough and introduces some new problems). I haven’t talked about the enormous inequality of church leadership and accessibility to training between high-income area churches and low. I also haven’t defended my assumption that churches and their leaders have a significant responsibility in raising up new leaders. I'm hoping this post prompts a larger conversation, where some of these finer points can be developed. Consider this my opening statement.

“…so that through the church the manifold wisdom of God might now be made known…” Ephesians 3:9-10