Covenant: “Mind the Generation Gap”

Writing at Covenant, Hannah Matis speculates on the one-two punch of fewer young clergy facing an uncertain future of part-time positions and “junior” positions:

Meanwhile, if the number of full-time jobs has shrunk, the number of part-time positions has ballooned: and I for one would not be surprised if those positions were disproportionately occupied by women, old and young, and by junior clergy hanging on by their teeth and, heaven forfend, trying to raise families on a part-time church stipend. Whatever our political beliefs, who we hire is a statement of worth: that we ordain women may be a balm to liberal consciences, but what does it say about those values if those women are doomed forever to be supply?

Even as denominations face shortages of ordained clergy, newly ordained young adults, persons of color, and women are finding it harder and harder to find full-time positions.

While Matis is speaking specifically about the Episcopal Church, a similar situation is playing out in the ELCA. While the ELCA faces a clergy shortage, we also have many young and minority pastors who can’t find full-time calls. In seminary, we were told about a coming golden age for those seeking calls as Baby Boomers moved into retirement.  But congregational decline has kept pace with “Boomsday,” leaving a slew of open but part-time pulpits.

I write this as someone serving a parish part-time. I love my vocation, I love my parishioners, and I enjoy the flexibility to have multiple days off a week to run and maintain this site. But the challenges are numerous; just to name three:

  1. Ministry is unpredictable, making it difficult to work a second job when my schedule can change at the drop of a hat.
  2. Working in a parish that can’t afford a full-time pastor means working in a parish striving for renewal. That’s not something easily achieved on a schedule of twenty-hours a week.
  3. I graduated with a debt that exceeds my annual salary, and I was fortunate enough to have amazing scholarships and a spouse who is both debt-free and has a good job. I’m one of the lucky ones, and it’s still a struggle.

In the Church, a thirty-five year old presbyter is deemed “young” clergy and might very well be serving as an associate pastor, in a part-time call, or in multiple congregations. “Aren’t you too young to be a pastor/priest/preacher?” is the constant refrain. In the secular world, a thirty-five year old with a graduate degree would be moving up into management.

Matis concludes with a warning:

That is both the lesson and the warning the Episcopal Church needs to heed: When Millennials don’t need either the political visibility or social advantages of the Episcopal Church and they (or their children) are treated like nuisances, they will just leave. When Millennial clergy bear the brunt of a demanding vocation and receive no investment from their church in them, their families, or their future, they will just leave.

I remain more optimistic. Living into this challenge and knowing many young pastors in similar situations, most of us have no intention of leaving. None of us took up this vocation because we thought it would be easy or because the world would greet us with open arms. We’re here because we’re called by God to this holy work.

But my optimism is not naïve. Soon, and very soon, the Church will have to engage in a very serious and difficult conversation about how we form young clergy and make room for their voices and gifts.

Post Script: Covenant also went back into the archives to re-publish this helpful article by the Rev. Robert Ehrgott on an earlier clergy shortage and the restoration of the permanent diaconate. It’s a fascinating read for those of us interested in such things but also a timely reminder that our present struggles are nothing new. On the heels of the ELCA’s decision to form a united roster for “Ministers of Word and Service” and as we consider, at long last, joining in the apostolic tradition of ordaining our deacons, Fr. Ehrgott’s piece provides a helpful history of the topic within the Episcopal Church but also the Church Catholic.

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