There are about 70,000 marines and army soldiers who are trained for frontline combat; in the language of the Pentagon, they represent the “tip of the spear” in military engagement.1 Interestingly, there is about an equal number of ordained mainline Protestant clergy. These leaders on the front lines of the Christian religious movement are in many ways the tip of the spear of church.

At first blush, these parallel groups appear as merely an intriguing oddity, but despite the obvious differences between the church and the military, their similarities go deeper than the tip of the spear when one looks at their tactics for recruiting leaders at this time in our culture. Both the church and the military are service-based institutions that use a vocational language that sets them apart from the wider society (clergy and laity, military and civilian). Both church and military institutions are struggling to recruit qualified candidates. Church closings necessitated by priest shortages are but one example of the effects of recruitment failures in the Christian church. Military recruitment problems are so severe that some officers view the Army’s new slogan—“an army of one”—as an ironic prophecy.

All who encourage new leaders to enter service-related fields are required to work harder to make their professions appear to be legitimate choices than do recruiters from more conventional and lucrative fields, such as business, medicine, or the law. Intentional recruitment programs might be the only way in which an option to serve would even be considered as a practical professional possibility.

The military has pioneered several approaches that may inform those of the church. However, both ecclesiastical and military recruiters must examine their recruitment tactics critically in order to prevent manipulation that might have negative long-term implications both for the recruited individuals and the recruiting institutions. Recruiters seek to activate within the person they have targeted a sense of calling to a higher purpose and servanthood. Despite the obvious differences in the purposes of these institutions—a reality not lost on the authors of this article—the two institutions might have something to learn from one another. In particular, an awareness of the mistakes the military has made in its recruitment efforts may help the church avoid similar pitfalls in its own recruitment processes.

The Cultural Climate

Both the military’s and the church’s recruitment processes are responses to the same cultural forces, particularly issues related to time and money.

Sarah Drummond, director of field education and assistant professor of ministerial leadership at Andover Newton Theological School and one of the authors of this article, tells this story about recruiting leaders for a campus ministry she served: “It was clear to me from the beginning that our ministry would succeed only if we had strong, gifted, and charismatic leaders. Students rarely come to the ministry center to see only me. Rather, they come to see one another, and we needed to have leaders here whom other students would want to meet and know. The problem is that our students work an average of 30 hours per week outside of school. That’s the average number! That means that many of our students work full-time, and asking them to volunteer a huge amount of time to our ministry would have been asking the impossible. If we relied solely on volunteer leaders, two things would have happened: we wouldn’t have gotten the best possible students involved, and we wouldn’t have had enough time, energy, and effort from students, because they simply don’t have the time. So we created three paid internships and we got great leaders to come on staff. Our participation rates have increased 20-fold since we made this change.”

This illustration points out some of the important differences between the college students of today and those of yesteryear. Many authors have written about the ways in which American colleges have become increasingly diverse in terms of race, religion, and family background. The attribute of the current traditional-aged college student population most relevant to the question of ethical recruitment tactics for ministry is that many of today’s college students genuinely need to make money. They need to make money while they are in school in order to pay tuition and expenses; many do not come from families where parents are able to provide financial support. They need to make money after they graduate in order to support their families of origin as well as current and future dependents. Indeed, many are in college based solely on the promise of higher wages in the future. Whereas American colleges of 100 years ago served primarily as finishing schools for the nation’s elite, they today provide a key to an American dream not otherwise available.

One complicating factor in the argument that students “need” to make money, however, is that the concept of need has shifted dramatically. Due to the ready availability of credit cards for young adults, and even more importantly due to the marketing machine geared toward encouraging young people to procure more and more consumer goods, the standard of living of the young adult in college has risen dramatically in less than one generation.

On the campus of Andover Newton Theological School it is not uncommon to meet a college student with a cell phone, a relatively new car, and a reasonably nice apartment who cannot afford to buy groceries. That same student might work 30 hours a week just to pay credit card interest, not recognizing that many of the goods he or she owns would have been considered inconceivable luxuries to his or her parents when they were young adults.

What are some of the most noticeable effects of this shifting relationship between young adults in college and money? First, today’s college curricula tend to reflect the wishes of tuition-paying students: when allocating funding to departments, most colleges must offer courses they know students will take. At all but the most elite liberal arts colleges, career-oriented fields have fared better in this calculation. Whereas fields like philosophy, religious studies, or sociology might have exposed students to ministry as a possible field for continued study, those departments are shrinking today. Would a student studying marketing find joy in ministry? Perhaps, but that same student likely chose to study marketing in order to earn a higher income than ministry might provide.

Second, because students either need or perceive that they need to make money while in college, the culture of volunteerism is changing. Although more students volunteer today than inprevious generations, structures have been built up around that volunteerism, such as the rapid proliferation of assistant deans for community service, because to give of one’s time has become less of a lifestyle and more of a hobby. As a case in point, many students give their spring breaks to Habitat for Humanity, but weekly attendance at most colleges’ Habitat campus chapter meetings tends to be low. Students enjoy giving succinct periods of time to others, but they find themselves too busy to give regularly or to commit to unpaid work. Paid work takes precedence (whether financial needs are real or perceived) among all but the wealthiest students. Therefore, the pool from which seminaries and divinity schools draw applicants has changed in shape and content. Whereas recruiters from such programs might once have focused on liberal arts departments or volunteer groups, these groups are shrinking in favor of career-oriented majors and paid extracurricular work. Something different must be done to reach out to students in career-oriented majors and students who spend their time outside of school working. The military seems to recognize this, and the church has begun to recognize it, to

Parallel Tactics

Both the military and the church are seeking to recruit young people to a service-oriented vocation without the financial promise implicit in law school or a medical residency, and both are using promises of financial aid as part of their recruitment campaigns. The military’s chief recruitment tools are a college benefit for enlisted soldiers and the Reserve Officers’ Training Corps (ROTC) for officers. Meanwhile, in the ministerial recruitment arena, the Lilly Endowment’s Programs for the Theological Exploration of Vocation provided grants of over $1 million to 88 historical Christian colleges and universities interested in creating vocational discernment programs for all students, with a special focus on students considering ministry. Many of these college programs create financial incentives for pre-seminary candidates.

Both the church and the military are also working to gain access to young people and to create a recruitment pipeline that begins in high school. Recent legislation, such as the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001, gave military recruiters extensive access to high school students’ personal information, including home and cell phone numbers. Meanwhile, several denominations are working with the Fund for Theological Education to create the Pastoral Search Leadership Effort, which would create an online community of youth and young adults interested in ministry and provide personal contact information to seminary and denominational recruiters.

Another similarity in church and military recruitment programs is that both use what might be called “showcase” programming to attract recruits—highlighting what is best (or most alluring) about the vocation. For instance, military recruiters often arrive on high school and college campuses with the latest technology to impress students: Humvees, Black Hawks, Strykers. No one would ever suggest that the church has the latest technology, yet a host of programs rising up across the church—such as intensive weekend experiences and internship programs—give prospective candidates a sample of what is best and most rewarding in ministry.

Finally, both the church and the military are working to identify and train a cohort of people who can be called into service to fill emergency needs. One of the most innovative solutions to the recruitment needs of the military was the expansion of the National Guard and the Reserves. Together, National Guard and Reserves units account for a significant proportion of the soldiers in the current conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan. One wonders if the flourishing lay academies across denominations are the church’s equivalent. In many of these programs, lay church members give up one weekend a month for several years and graduate into a specific ministry position, serving in a way that is neither fully clerical nor fully lay. Whether it is the Catholic laywoman administering a parish or the Presbyterian layman who preaches at his 30-member church in rural South Dakota, these ministry-trained laity form what is essentially an “Ecclesiastical Reserves.”

Recruitment Landmines

Given the striking similarities between church and military recruitment, one begins to wonder if the very public problems that have existed in military recruitment will befall the church. Becoming aware of and learning from the military’s ethical trouble spots may help the church to ensure that it maintains high standards of integrity in its own recruitment efforts.

For young men and women who are truly called to a military vocation, the enticements and programs of the military can work to benefit both these individuals and the institution. For instance, a young man in author Andrew Warner’s congregation2 felt a strong sense of call to the Army in high school. He was motivated by a deep patriotism and respect for the rule of the law. In college he was admitted to the ROTC and thrived in its culture of discipline and dedication. He now proudly serves with the 101st Airborne Division. For him, military recruitment was a matter of matching his gifts and call to the opportunity to serve his country. However, many recruits to the military do not have this prosaic experience of call. In recent scandals, military recruiters were found to have made false and misleading promises to recruits, even assuring them that they would not go to Iraq or Afghanistan. Drummond once worked with a student who enlisted in the National Guard after the recruiting officer promised financial aid for college in exchange for serving a few weekends a year. The student signed up, thinking that, at most, she’d be called up to heroically rescue civilians during a natural disaster, not drive a tank in Baghdad. Indeed, for much of the 1990s Americans became accustomed to thinking of the National Guard and the Reserves more as disaster response teams than as military units. Some recruiters, breaking military policy, continue to sell the Guard and the Reserves on this false premise. In response to this problem, the Pentagon held an unprecedented one-day stand-down from recruiting in May of 2005 in order to retrain recruiters on the ethical boundaries they must maintain.

In addition to the isolated misconduct of some recruiters, the military is facing a financial challenge in the Montgomery GI Bill. As reported in May 2005 in the Chronicle of Higher Education, many soldiers recruited with the promise of financial aid for college find that the actual benefit is far short of their costs and, because of cumbersome eligibility requirements, only eight percent of veterans ever use their full benefit. Military recruiters are enlisting soldiers on the promise of financial aid that too few see fulfilled.

Many college students are in a financially precarious situation, where the promise of financial assistance might overwhelm a true sense of call. Currently, no denomination offers anything as comprehensive as the Montgomery GI Bill. However, some mid-level judicatories are moving to offer seminarians debt relief in exchange for a specified term of service in the judicatory. As the church develops more and more financial aid packages, integrity demands that it fulfill the promises it makes and ensures that the call from God is louder than the call of financial assistance.

Recruiting with Integrity

As the church moves into a more aggressive approach to recruiting church leaders, it must be cognizant of the ethical challenges inherent in inviting youth and young adults into a vocation. Dean Hogue and Jacqueline Wenger, authors of Pastors in Transition,3 recently conducted exit interviews with many clergy who left their vocations. Strikingly, 27 percent of those interviewed left because of a changing sense of call or dissatisfaction with parish ministry, and another 14 percent left because of burnout related to feelings of inadequacy.

This study suggests that a plurality of ex-pastors was recruited into a vocation that was not theirs. This should serve as a warning that church recruitment efforts can suffer the same failings as those of the military.

Integrity in ministry recruitment requires a special vigilance. Recruitment ought to be clear about the gifts required for ministry and realistic about the lifestyle of clergy. This is hard to do. Both of the authors of this article work with college interns in their ministry settings. Sharing the joy of ministry while being realistic about the church is a delicate balance; ministry in its lived form might figuratively mean being called either to sandbag the Mississippi or to drive a tank through Baghdad.

There is much that those involved in ministry recruitment can learn from what the military does right and what it needs to do better. For example, options like the Montgomery GI Bill and the National Guard provide realistic ways in which a man or woman can serve in the mil
itary, based on today’s cultural norms. These options provide multiple incentives and pathways, allowing potential soldiers to make a choice that is feasible for their circumstances. Given the financial constraints on current college students and the allure of more financially rewarding careers, it will be important for ministry recruiters to develop multiple recruitment techniques and strategies. At the same time, those committed to strengthening the leadership ranks of the Christian church must be extremely attentive to the disquieting lapses in military recruitment tactics. How today’s church leaders describe the vocation of ministry to the next generation ought to be true to fact—wheat and tares together. Its offers of financial aid ought to come alongside true, deep discernment of God’s call for an individual Christian’s life’s work.

_______________1. Max Boot, “The Struggle to Transform the Military,” Foreign Affairs (March/April 2005), 107.
2. Plymouth Church, Milwaukee, Wisconsin.
3. See Congregations, Summer 2005 (Herndon, VA: Alban Institute).