Professional clergy are also victims of Great Recession woes

About two months ago I read a book that reported on the state of America’s clergy. It argued that there was a clergy shortage and that countless churches, mostly smaller congregations with less than 100 people, were in need of professionally-trained ministers. Of course, these small congregations found it difficult to attract clergy because of a lack of resources.

The author recommended that churches proactively seek out and discern who might be interested in ministry in their local parishes.   I thought of folks at my own church, and one of my friends immediately came to my mind as the likeliest person to respond to a call in the ministry.

The next Sunday, I grabbed him in the sanctuary and said, “Friend, the other day I was thinking about who in our church might make a great minister, and you came to mind. You should really pray about being a minister; churches are in need of good ministers these days.”

Not less than one month later, I went back to my friend to tell him some unsettling news: He may want to heed my encouragement with caution; clergy unemployment is at an all-time high thanks to the Great Recession.

Turns out that the book I read was published in 2005. At that time, there were about 2,000 clergy members unemployed according to a 17 May 2010 Wall Street Journal article by Joe Light.

By 2009, that number rose to 5,000. Though the unemployment rate for clergy is hovering just above 1%–a far cry from the national rate of 9.5%–it takes about six months to a year for a minister to find a job in the current marketplace.

Many ministers are turning elsewhere for employment, taking up new lines of work like education, construction, and sales. Those who do want to work at a church find that their resume is one of hundreds submitted to vacancies across the nation. In the Presbyterian Church alone, there are five applicants for every job available. That may seem like a hopeful figure, but add to that the difficulty of matching a minister to a compatible church, and that leads to some real slim-pickins’.

Furthermore, many of those churches that were mentioned in the book have closed shop.  Other churches are downsizing, going to bivocational ministry, or ditching staff altogether.

Aside from economic shortfalls, churches—and the jobs they once provided—are shrinking for many reasons. For one, more people than ever before in recent history are worshiping in informal home churches or with online communities.

A greater emphasis on “spirituality” versus “religion” (a recent Lifeway poll showed that 72% of people ages 18-29 stated they were “more spiritual than religious”) means that people are not flocking to their local, institutional churches like they did once upon a time.

Another reason is that some Christians have disregarded professional clergy as a real necessity in churches. Why pay clergy, some Christians argue, when all of us are called to be ministers of the Gospel?

I don’t know what the future holds for clergy, all I know is that it is difficult and discouraging to not be able to fulfill what you believe God has called you to because of a lack of jobs.

My prayer is that clergy unemployment will decrease as the economy turns around and as donations increase. This prayer is not motivated out of some arcane desire to maintain “business as usual” in church life; rather, the prayer is based on my conviction that there is a real need for professional clergy in our society.

Clergy provide an invaluable voice of ethical and moral clarity, and of prophetic and political engagement that not many individuals have the type of training to give otherwise. Without paid ministers, these important voices will all but dry up.

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