For the past several years, the largest research project ever undertaken on the ministry in America has been quietly gathering data, sifting it, and coming to conclusions. Based at Duke Divinity School, the Pulpit and Pew Project is now reporting out its findings via 10 research reports and seven books. One of those books, Jackson W. Carroll’s God’s Potters: Pastoral Leadership and the Shaping of Congregations (Eerdmans, 2006), is likely to serve as a new reference point for those who seek empirical information about the realities of American ministry at the turn into the 21st century.

The ambitious goal of this project was “to take stock of pastoral leadership in the United States, both Catholic and Protestant.” Among the realities the research unearthed are these important findings: There are more than 600,000 clergy in the United States; of these, 365,000 lead congregations, the median size of which is 75 members. The average clergy person today is 52 years old. The average salary (plus housing) for mainline Protestant clergy who entered ministry since 1980 is $42,000 for men, $41,000 for women. Eighty-five percent of all mainline senior/solo clergy earn less than $60,000 per year. The profession is graying and is attracting a relatively small number of young clergy. In response to these realities, the number of bivocational and “lay pastors” is on the increase.

Clearly, today’s clergy are part of an occupation in flux, as evidenced by major redefinition of clergy and lay roles, the opening of ordination in many Protestant denominations to women, a growing shortage of clergy, an increase of second-career ministers, and declining interest among young seminarians in parish ministry.

Public confidence in the profession has declined, the research shows. The communications revolution of the last half century not withstanding, 74 percent of the pastors surveyed report that their greatest challenge is reaching people with the gospel in today’s world. Meanwhile, the amount of time pastors devote to civic engagement is shrinking. Time spent in sermon preparation and pastoral care has declined sharply as well.

The triumph of consumerism in American congregational life manifested itself in the finding that “only 27 percent of the clergy overall said that they give priority to the theological rationale for establishing new programs or ministries. In contrast, 73 percent primarily consider how well the program or ministry will meet the desires and needs of members or prospective member.”

Seventy percent of the clergy surveyed reported that they practiced a new shared leadership style that was proactive and that encouraged and inspired members to make decisions. However, conflict in American congregations is on the rise, and surveyed clergy reported that the largest percentage of conflicts in their congregations had to do with pastoral leadership. The next most commonly reported conflict zone was lay leadership. Shared leadership is clearly not a settled matter in American congregations.

Professor Carroll asserts that, at bottom, the American clergy have participated in a paradigm shift from “an individualistic, pastor-centered view of ministry to one that emphasizes the work of the whole people of God.” While he finds signs of hope in today’s clergy picture, he also reminds us of the challenges ahead. Half of the congregations served by the pastors Carroll surveyed and interviewed have recruited no one to pursue some form of ordained ministry during the past five years. An adequate support system and the conditions for a “culture of the call” do not currently exist in American Christianity. The cost of preparing an M.Div. graduate now exceeds $100,000, and the bills will be paid by clergy with low salaries, denominations that face continuing financial burdens, and seminaries that must scramble to sustain their educational programs.

Those who care about American congregations and the clergy who lead them will find much to ponder and argue about in God’s Potters. Rather than prematurely attempting to settle those arguments, let me urge you to deeply engage them since they are about the future of the ministry in America. As I read this carefully researched and written book, and marveled at Carroll’s evenhandedness, I kept coming back to a fundamental concern. In so many ways, this research tells us that we live in a time when the ministry of the church is undervalued by the culture, but also by the church itself. There are many signs that we do not value and are not investing in the ministry that the world desperately needs. The Pulpit and Pew Project is a refreshing sign of a revaluing of that ministry—by the researchers assembled in the project and by the Lilly Endowment, which generously supported this effort alongside so many other projects that are seeking to help us develop a new imagination about the ministry. Generous foundations and committed scholars are a vital but not sufficient pool of investors needed to lift up a new generation of excellent ministers for our time. Each congregation, each pastor and congregational leader, each denomination and seminary, and each congregation member must take a fresh look at the ministry, the huge human need for it, and then invest sacrificially in its future.

Rev. Dr. James P. Wind is president of the Alban Institute