One of the greatest challenges facing religious institutions today is solving the looming clergy shortage. This means finding ways to attract—and keep—theological students who will make a lasting commitment to serve their denomination. As educators and institutions continue in their recruiting efforts, should they focus on attacting younger people, or look for a mix of older and young students?
Both recent college graduates and second-career theological students bring to the seminary their own strengths and assets. But younger students introduce a certain vitality that the theological classroom often needs. Observes L. Gregory Jones, dean of the Divinity School at Duke University, “They bring a certain academic rigor, because they are coming right out of undergraduate schools and are used to asking broad and deep questions. And they tend to be intellectually curious. I wouldn’t say that second-career students don’t bring this, but it is a strength with younger students.”
While it is not universally true, Susan Thistlethwaite, president of the Chicago Theological Seminary, adds that young people also bring a level of energy and openness to the classroom that older students may lack. On a spiritual journey, younger students are often eager for and seeking out new ideas and they want the answers fast. On the other hand, more mature students have lived longer and had more experiences. Thus, she adds, they know that life is complex and its answers are found more in nuances than in simple “yes” or “no” responses.
The young’s very energy can revitalize church communities and educational institutions, and often young students offer fresh insights into the nature of changes in society and culture as these affect the church. “Young people see it [the church] from a grassroots setting, and see where the church is going” says William Pannell, special assistant to the president at Fuller Theological Seminary, noting that second-career students’ attitudes are already strongly influenced by the careers they’ve had. “It is an important generational difference.” This underscores the need for young clergy who can understand the Generation X culture and make a connection with it.
More Time on Their Hands
Because they are generally free from the family or financial ties or career involvement that may tie down a second-career student, younger students have more time to commit to studies and to community activities. Thistlethwaite notes that in her experience, beginning second-career students often don’t realize how time-consuming theological studies can be. “Just taking notes is only about one-third of what you are doing,” she says. “The rest is your own exploration and taking advantage of experiences.” She remembers one student in particular who worked extra hours to earn enough to get through seminary debt free. He was often so tired that he would fall asleep during class, thus cheating himself of the value of the education. Says Thistlethwaite, “We had to intervene to give him financial aid.”
Having fewer demands on their time also allows young students to form stronger community involvements and deeper relationships outside the classroom. “This enhances the formation of their ministerial character,” says Jones. “A lot of education and character formation happens outside the classroom.”
And after seminary, those with the least encumbrances are the most mobile to go where community needs are greatest, says Martha Horne, president and dean of the Virginia Theological Seminary. “Younger people don’t have the financial commitments or obligations, and are more able to go into different kinds of situations,” she says. “The older ones, especially if they are married, find it much more difficult to go into rural areas, especially with a spouse [who may have a job].”
Return on Investment
Because a theological education is expensive, investing in educating younger people may yield greater long-time rewards. “If the education is funded, it is very expensive and met by private donations and the work of the church,” Thistlethwaite says, “At the age of 40, a pastor may have a 15-year career left; at the age of 30, a pastor may have a 25-year-long career. It’s the same education, the same cost.”
But sometimes, she cautions, investing in youth does not always pay off. Although Thistlethwaite can only draw conclusions from anecdotal experiences, she thinks the burnout rate among young pastors can be very high. She tells of a young academician who recently turned 30 and told Thistlthwaite that all of her peers from a prominent East Coast divinity school had burned out. “And think of what those educations cost,” Thistlethwaite says, adding that while younger students may be unprepared for the stresses of modern-day ministry, mature students have a greater chance of staying the course and not burning out. “Mainline theology has undergone seismic shifts and the form of expression it takes is changing. It takes tremendous creativity and energy to work with these trends creatively,” she says. And with few life experiences to draw upon, adds Jones, the younger students are often naively optimistic about their capacity to make a difference and to change the world, factors he believes account for a higher attrition rate.
And Jones feels that younger people face a greater challenge in trying to understand what the ministerial ideal and life will mean for them. “Their being a minister carries with it perceptions by others,” he says, “and a second-career student comes in as already being an active adult in a community and a congregation . . . The younger people at Duke are perceived by colleagues and others as [already] being ministers, and that carries a certain expectation . . . and causes them to struggle a lot about what the ministry means.”
Age Mix Is Important
As schools and churches look to attract younger people, no one discounts the contributions made to the ministry by second-career pastors. “They bring a tremendous amount of experience and a level of maturity to the ministry,” Thistlethwaite says. And an age mix in the theological classroom can be positive. She remembers her years in the seminary, during the Vietnam War, when she and her classmates had just graduated from college and, in general, were all of a similar age and background. Today, however, the typical student body is much more diverse in terms of class, race, and gender. The mix and the age differences are two ways to help educate people, she says, noting that intergenerational contact greatly enriches everyone education and social interactions. Besides, an age mix in the classroom reflects what life is really like. “If you are a younger pastor, you need to relate to older parishioners. How can you minister to them if you don’t know what they are thinking?” she says. On the other hand, the older students get to know what people in their twenties are thinking and can then have much more of a peer relationship.
Another asset older students bring is how enriched they are by life experiences, Horne believes. Second-career pastors have already dealt with the hard knocks of life so they have a different perspective and can deal with life problems more effectively. “They have the ability to relate to, to work with, and to understand the lives of parishioners, which is a focus that sometimes people straight out of college lack. We need to emphasize a mix [in ages],” she says.
However, even though youth should not be the sole criterion for pastoral selection, religious institutions do need an infusion of younger people to fill the generational gaps many congregations are facing as older pastors retire. That’s an underlying concern, says Thistlethwaite, who describes the recent 50-year anniversary of her school, and the school’s minister-in-re
sidence, a member of the 50-year-out class. “These long ministries are spanning huge crises in American culture . . . and the loss of these people is huge. There is no one to replace them,” she says. “They represent a generation of longevity in the ministry that you just don’t see happening anymore.”
Not only that, church adminstrations are also facing a real leadership deficit, worries Horne. “There is a real lack of people in the 35- to 50-year-old category who are ready to take on important jobs in the church,” she says. “The older ones may not have the energy or the incentive to take on a big leadership role. So we need to train young people who will not only speak to the young, but who will also move into more challenging leadership positions in 10 to 15 years.”
But Thistlethwaite feels the most important task of the church and the seminary lies beyond attracting new pastors: Both need to find ways to keep them involved. “That’s where the challenge really lies,” she says.