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

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Posted by Jeremy Mann


  1. I definitely saw the gap in new leaders in the last church I was in. When it came time to nominate new elders, the church scratched the bottom of the barrel and often approached many of those who had served previously who often refused to serve again (that’s a red flag). We were then having to contend with those we didn’t necessarily desire to have back in leadership fill the vacancies. I raised discipleship as an issue with this church and can only hope with their new pastor they start working toward this end so that there aren’t these gaps and desperate pleas for candidates. And this didn’t just happen with elders. We saw the same thing with many of the open leadership positions. It was either a lack of gifted people (or knowing who they were, which when a church is run by cliques, they often can’t see beyond their group) or an unwillingness on the part of some to serve again. This can happen when people get burned out from having served for so long because there was no one else groomed for the role.


  2. Just wanted to let you know I confirmed one stat you mention from Don Sweeting.

    You write above:

    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.”

    Sweeting writes at http://donsweeting.wordpress.com/2012/06/01/the-changing-role-of-north-american-seminaries-in-global-theological-education/
    “In the US, ATS seminary enrollment figures show decline over the last six years . . . we have . . . fewer students.”

    ATS statistics:

    Full-Time Equivalent Enrollment – All Member Schools

    2007 25,673 MDiv students
    2011 24,227 MDiv students

    Page 23 or Table 2.3-A


  3. Also one more stat:
    Total ATS enrollment: 1970 31,072; 1980 49,611; 1990 59,033; 2000 72,728; 2010 75,898. Peak in 2006 81,063. Most recent data: 2011 74,193.


    1. Thanks Andy, this is great. Interesting that fastest growth was during the 70s.

      For reference, here is US population during the same time. 1970 203,211,926; 1980 226,545,805; 1990 248,709,873; 2000 281,421,906; 2010 308,745,538. The summary is America grew by about a third from 1970 to today.

      Another useful reference point, from “Lost in America” by Tom Clegg and Tim Bird:

      In 1920, 27 churches existed for every 10,000 Americans.
      In 1950, 17 churches existed for every 10,000 Americans.
      In 1996, 11 churches existed for every 10,000 Americans.


      1. I also wonder what effect reliable transportation and better infrastructure has had on the change in the number of churches since 1920. Our experience is that small local churches were established to serve specific geographic locations–before good transportation, a distance of a few miles was more than enough to justify individual congregations. But with increased mobility, there are just fewer and fewer reasons to attend a small church when the larger one up the road can “offer” you more options and perhaps better teaching. I think it’s probably similar to the dynamics that small mom and pop businesses have experienced over the years with the increase of big box stores, etc. I haven’t done or seen any hard research but my gut says that the rise in mega-churches parallels the rise in large retailers as well as the loss of centralized communities.


        1. It is not just the transportation factor but also the changes in agriculture. Many of those rural churches have closed. Farms grew larger with fewer farmers and smaller families. On our mile road, there are five farmsteads and only one farmer.


        2. Please possibly read the book by Warren cole smith: A lovers quarrel with the evangelical church.
          I am a recovering evangelical, was part of the Jesus movement in the early 70’s in S. California.
          I liked what i was experiencing then, but not now, it is strange to see the church morph itself into a society of self imposing republicanism, non-loving and unbalanced faith and a self seeking souless church it has become.


  4. I am writing a “my take” type of response to this post tomorrow on my blog. I would love your thoughts Jeremy if you have some time. You wrote a great article.


  5. I am now looking for a full-time church staff position, along with looking for a full-time senior pastorate, due to constant rejections by church search committees. From what I’ve been told, my experience of receiving close to 150 rejections in a year is not out of the ordinary. I have to broaden my options if I no longer want to be a bi-vocational assistant pastor.


    1. Out of curiosity, what is your educational & denominational background? Obviously you have the experience for a pastoral search committee to interview you right?


      1. I’m SBC, have 2 masters, and am on my 6th year as an assistant pastor. Over a dozen search committees have contacted me, saying I was one of their “final few candidates.” The larger number of rejections is in reference to how many resumes I have sent out. From what I hear from other guys in my position, it’s not uncommon to send out several hundred resumes.


  6. I’d like to add another deficiency to the section on “A Deficient View of Calling” I see in evangelical churches: Many seem to think that God would only call men into leadership or the pastorate.

    My intent is not to start a complementarian vs egalitarian debate. I know the Biblical arguments for both sides (and it’s clear which side I fall on). However, I do want to suggest that maybe this is another area in which we are limiting God in ways He doesn’t limit himself.


  7. I’d like to echo bfad’s comment and amend it slightly. Even as a convinced complementarian, I see a lot of areas that women could be on full-time staff of churches fulfilling roles that often unnecessarily (and unfortunately) fall to the lead pastor, not by conviction but by default. However, such women would need to be encouraged to pursue training at seminary levels and also be assured that there will be places for them once they’ve made that investment.


  8. I agree with bfad. The “leadership quartile” is (ideally) composed of 50% women, so we would do better not to limit our pool of leaders unnecessarily.

    Another facet of the “strong alternatives” is the issue of how much we value the roles that pastors fill. (Our country is experiencing a similar problem with teachers.) How many young Christians have a good idea of what a pastor actually does outside of preaching and leading worship services? In our individualistic society, it is easy to devalue the role a pastor plays in fostering community.


    1. A good point on the women (whatever one’s position); these days that top quartile is actually more than 50% women.

      Hannah, I wonder if you’ve seen what I have (after my wife pointed it out) in the younger generation of pastors’ wives, almost a reaction against any presumption of supporting the ministry of their husbands. I don’t think wives should necessarily have to play the organ or bake a casserole every weekend, but I think they do have an office.


    2. Jeremy, I found this a very well-written and helpful article. As a woman currently studying full-time at a seminary, I find myself thinking and talking about this issues a lot, and I lament the lack of brothers I see around me who are dedicating themselves to the pastorate due to those very reasons you outline above. I hope this conversation continues.

      And Evan, although I would argue that the limitation on leaders being male is biblically mandated, not unnecessary, your comment about others’ understandings of “what a pastor does” is spot-on — I used to be an elementary school teacher and found that a very trying aspect of the job. “Oh, so you take care of kids…what else do you do??”

      Instead of griping about the devaluation (not that you’re doing that, Evan, but it seems to be the general sinful tendency to do so), I have come to learn that the best counter to these situations is education (surprise!). Not formally, but informally through conversations over meals, a sharing of written articles/thoughts, general relationship-building, word-of-mouth… humbly letting one another into our worlds so that not only is understanding deepened, but bonds of unity are also strengthened by the breaking down self-erected barriers.


  9. Oh, and to clarify, “leaders being male” refers in my comment to those who are responsible for teaching and preaching with authority over the congregation. I resonate with Hannah’s comment. Clearly :)


  10. Jeremy,

    It’s funny you should mention that aspect–my husband pastors a small church (a little over 100) and for us, a lot of things do end up being a “team effort.” Having said that, in the past, I tended to take on too many roles at the church simply because it was expected not because I believed God had gifted me those specific areas. I’ve learned the hard way to say “No” when necessary and prioritize my family’s well-being over the church’s. I think this kind of dilemma is why you do definitely see pastors’ wives of this generation automatically pulling back a bit.

    Also, we have to recognize that not every pastor’s wife is gifted to help her husband directly in ministry and by the same token, some women who are very gifted for church-based ministry are not pastor’s wives. But in the past, the “role” of pastor’s wife generally trumped the gifting of capable women in the congregation. Add to that the niggling reality of finances–both that no pastor wants his wife to simply be a BOGO and that many small church pastor’s often rely on their wives salaries outside the church to enable them to continue to pastor.

    All in all, it’s nice when a couple’s gifting work in tandem–I see that in my marriage and my husband’s call to pastor–but I don’t think that this will always be the case. Overall I think the healthier approach is for women who are gifted to work in ministry to pursue their gifting first and leave to God the possibility that it might happen in a Priscilla/Aquila context.


    1. Hannah, thanks for this perspective, it’s good to hear. I’m glad you’ve been able to find balance; you’re absolutely right about the importance of gifting and the importance of a congregational life that shows the fact that church is ALL God’s people ministering.


  11. First, I really admire the readership of this blog because the dialogue in the comments is so civilized and informative. You just don’t see that very often.

    I just read a statistic saying that only 16 Irish men enrolled in Catholic seminaries this year, as opposed to more than 150 per year in the 1980s. I don’t know if that’s an isolated statistic or if the downward trend is global/ecumenical, but it seems like the reasons outlined in this article might affect other denominations as well.


  12. Good post. I especially agree with your assessment of the currently deficient view of calling plaguing evangelicals. Channelling St. Gregory the Great’s insights in his “Book of Pastoral Rule”, it is not only the Isaiahs who voluntarily offer themselves for ministry who are exemplary of laudable service to the Church. There was also Jeremiah who, according to St. Gregory, “zealously clings to the love of the Creator through the contemplative life” and therefore “opposes being sent to preach.” Of course, Jeremiah was to ultimately be sent to preach and there are Christians of that persuasion today for sure that are just as essential to the pastoral office as the volunteers.


    1. This is a terrific reference, thanks Caleb. I’m excited to look at the larger work.


  13. Some churches are offering internships to people who want to explore a calling to some paid staff position. These include music, communications as well as pastor and teacher.


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  15. As a seminary grad who is a published scholar, I would say at least half of seminary students today are not going to seminary to become pastors in English-speaking America. Many just want a Bible education, others want to serve God’s people who live or speak in another country. Others want to be professors. Exascerbating the problem is low pastoral pay. Pastors are paid low, often barely livable (by American standards), wages, and unless the job is in a “successful” church, say over 300, it’s not worth the sacrifice to them.

    Furthermore, most seminarians who want to be pastors come from “successful” churches, and ministry success is all they really know. They are, largely, there to get the degree. In many cases, seminary is not able to break through their ministerial blind spots. And, those that try to follow a more theologically-informed ministry model find that they are ministry “failures.” There are exceptions to all of this, of course, but they are exceptions.

    Finally, search committees are looking first and foremost for Senior Pastors who have at least 5 years of Senior Pastor experience, often from one of their seminaries (try getting a Senior Pastor position in the SBC without graduating from one of their seminaries). By the time seminarians are 5 years out of seminary, they’ve either given up on vocational ministry or learned to survive in the “successful church” model, thus diminishing their potential.

    And, let’s be straight, when it comes to preaching, most preachers, whether more or less theological in orientation can’t preach a quality sermon. Some can preach an accurate sermon if their text(s) come from the epistles, but overall accuracy and clarity are non-existent in the pulpit. The author of “Why Johnny Can’t Preach” basically correct.


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