There is lots of talk in the ELCA about the existing clergy shortage, and how it will grow worse as more pastors retire. When I was in college back in the day (1992-1996) the recruiter for all the seminaries would come once a year to Muhlenberg and give us the pitch. At that time the pitch was, “Soon lots of pastors will retire and the Church will need new leaders like you.” In short, they were offering us job security. So this is not a new problem. However, it is upon us and worse then maybe even those recruiters thought back in the 1990’s. I have heard seminary presidents and bishops say, “The next seminarians are in your pews or confirmation classes.” This might be true but there is a deeper problem that never gets brought up.
I did not get my call from my congregation. I got it from outdoor ministry and campus ministry. During the time in my life when I was trying to figure out what to do with the rest of my life these two things became the Church for me. It was at college that I saw my college chaplain do things that I wanted to do. He was passionate about the world, cared about people, pushed the boundaries of the Church, and asked hard questions. I did not see those things in the congregation.
In the congregation I saw people concerned about money and buildings. People concerned about institutional survival not mission and ministry. I did not see the freedom to ask difficult questions, or explore new possibilities. This is not the fault of my home congregation. I was a kid when I was there and didn’t even realize that is what I was looking for. I didn’t ask hard questions because I didn’t know I needed to. I found that out in college. Thank God there was a campus ministry to keep me engaged.
It was at camp that I found authentic Christian community. I found how imperfect people tried to love each other unconditionally. It was at camp that I was given leadership roles in worship and Bible study. Again, I didn’t even know I could do that stuff until I went to camp. I came back to my congregation and organized a “youth service”. I preached for the first time. Camp gave me the courage to do that, and the confidence to know I could.
My point is that every year that I go to a synod assembly these are the two things that get cut out of the budget. The place where young people hear the call is no longer the place the Church puts its resources. And then we wonder why we don’t have enough young pastors.
What I see is that the people in power in our church (ELCA) are concerned about institutional survival and have lost the very reason why we do this work. As budgets become tighter we cut out the things that people really care about. I have a radical idea. In the next synod budget cut out a bishop’s assistant’s salary and use that money for campus ministry and/or outdoor ministry. Instead of having annual appeals for the synod have one for campus ministry and/or outdoor ministry. Have that campaign be about mission and ministry in the next century. We want young people to remain in the Church so let’s put our money where our mouth is. Stop begging me to get kids in confirmation to go to seminary, and do your part to have a Church eco-system that promotes church vocations when young people are making those critical decisions.
I tell the people in the congregations I serve that if we live out our mission the money will take care of itself. In every case that has been true. People are not giving money to a failing institution in order to keep it alive for a couple more years. They will happily give to something that is living and breathing. They will happily give to mission and ministry. So we should stop doing what is not working and take drastic action to focus on what we know does. This is just my humble suggestion to all the seminary presidents and synod bishops telling us about the great shortage of pastors.