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Reason for clergy shortage? Just ask why pastors leave churches

A growing challenge in many denominations is finding enough pastors to serve the churches that are vacant. More people are leaving the ministry ranks (through resignation or retirement) than are joining them. In my own denomination, the Christian Reformed Church, plans to start new churches are repeatedly scaled back because we can’t find enough qualified pastors to start these new churches. Our denomination is having a hard enough time finding enough pastors to fill vacant churches, let alone finding pastors to start new ones. Why the shortage of ministers?

Several years ago, consultants Alan and Cheryl Klaas were hired by the Lutheran Church (Missouri Synod) to investigate this issue. They were tasked to find the root causes of the clergy shortage that many denominations are facing. The problem they uncovered was unexpected (to them) and troubling. The reason for the drop-off of new ministry recruits matched the reason for an increase in people leaving ministry: the conflict, criticism, and ill-treatment that has become an all-too-common aspect of ministry life. What follows is an excerpt of an article in the Baptist standard:

“[This research study] was intended to be a traditional recruitment and retention study,” Klaas said. For example, he thought he’d be recommending changes on issues like seminary communication with potential students.

“We wondered if students got good services, if seminaries were recruiting the right people,” he explained. But in the end, the Klaases concluded the problems are 20 percent institutional and 80 percent behavioral.

“The fundamental finding is that people beating on each other is the main issue,” Klaas said.

One telling statistic from the Klaas study is the decrease in the numbers of pastors’ kids who become pastors themselves. Klaas estimates that pastors’ children made up about 40 percent of seminarians in the 1950s and ’60s. It’s a much different picture now at the two seminaries in the denomination Klaas was working with. Last year, pastors’ children made up only 5 percent of seminarians at one and 17 percent at the other.

The bottom line is that churches need to do a better job at caring for and supporting their pastors. Another way of looking at it — from the vantage point of the pastors themselves — is to say that pastors need to do a better job of caring for and supporting themselves (through training, taking time off, participating in support groups, etc.). Instead of sitting back and hoping that the church will do it for you, create a plan and insist on the church’s support for you to take the steps you need to care for your physical, emotional, and spiritual health.

I sometimes wonder what would have happened in my case, had I done this. I tried to do it, but was not clear enough about what I needed, or insistent about getting the funding to get help. To be honest, I don’t think I really understood what I needed or how badly I needed it until it was too late. Don’t make that mistake.

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