Q: We keep hearing that there is a growing shortage of capable clergy. Why are so many clergy burning out, dropping out, retiring as soon as possible, or shifting to doing interim ministry? And why aren’t more bright young people coming into the ministry?
A: Clergy are burning out and/or dropping out for several reasons. Over the years, most mainline Protestant traditions have drifted into a model of congregational life that it is overly clergy centered and clergy dependent to the point where, for some people, the success of the congregation depends entirely on the clergy. That is a heavy burden for clergy to carry.
In addition, in our consumer-minded society, many people believe it is the task of the pastor is to keep everybody happy all of the time. Rabbi Edwin Friedman said the typical Protestant congregation consists of an overfunctioning pastor surrounded by infantilized laity. This is a perfect recipe for burnout. Small wonder that young adults are not attracted to such a ministry.
Actually, there are many young adults going into the ministry, but many of them are not coming into the traditional mainline denominations. Instead, many young clergy are starting independent “emerging congregations” to serve the 20 to 35 age group. They believe that being connected to existing traditional denominations would inhibit and perhaps even undermine their ministry because the traditional denominations reflect a modern worldview whereas the emerging generation reflects a postmodern worldview. Emerging Churches: Creating Christian Community in Post Modern Cultures by Eddie Gibbs and Ryan K. Bolger (Baker Books, 2005) describes some 50 “emerging congregations” in the United States and Great Britain that have been started within the past 20 years, mostly by pastors under 35 for young adults under 35.
In most of the mainline congregations I work with, I find that the least represented generation is the 20 to 35 age group. Older members who are in charge have difficulty understanding and/or communicating with the emerging generation. They want them to come to church, but they want them to accept things as they are and not try to change them. The younger generation has different priorities and thus concludes that there is no room for them in established congregations.
The Christian church is always potentially one generation away from extinction and for many congregations this is a real possibility. Postmodern young adults are more concerned about relationships than ideology and they care more about authenticity than success. They don’t see much resemblance between life in our established congregations and the actual teachings of Jesus.
Another dimension of the problem relates to the process used to prepare and credential candidates for the ministry. Seminaries are engulfed in the academic model and they do a fine job of teaching Bible, theology, church history, polity, and ethics. They don’t, however, teach much about leadership! Many seminary faculty are academics who have never had to exercise leadership. Years ago, Daniel Goleman did research documenting that IQ is not the primary factor in effective leadership. His findings were that the key to leadership is something he calls “Emotional Intelligence,” which is based on 18 intrapersonal and interpersonal competencies. Unlike IQ, which is a fixed figure, emotional intelligence is something that can be developed. Unfortunately, our seminaries are not geared to help candidates for the ministry develop their emotional intelligence. The result is that we produce clergy who are often very smart and can preach good sermons but lack the competencies (emotional intelligence) to be fruitful leaders.
To make matters worse, we have inherited a hierarchical model of pastoral leadership that tends to create dependency. Traditional leaders add followers to a congregation. Empowering leaders multiply leaders in a congregation. True leadership is a catalytic rather than a controlling function, but many clergy have not learned the art of empowerment. Too often our congregations are in the membership business instead of being in the disciple making business.
Is it too late to change? Not necessarily! How willing are we to be changed? If we are unwilling to be changed our congregations will remain the same. But we need not worry. If our congregations cannot reach and serve the emerging generation, God will raise up emerging congregations that will. The central concern is not to preserve our institutions but to seek the Kingdom.
Edward A. White is a senior consultant and seminar leader for the Alban Institute, with expertise in leadership development, strategic planning, and conflict management.