For as far back as I can remember I have lived within the fulcrum of a ministerial calling. My father is an ordained minister. As early as age five I responded to the call of salvation and then, every day since, to the call to ministry. I have never been ordained in any official sense as a lay or pastoral minister, still I feel the Call to ministerial activity in my blood. As a teenager I had the privilege of sharing my faith every week on a music television program. I began quite opposed to the idea of preaching. I thought of it as much too harsh and heavy a term for my tastes. But boy did I preach fire and brimstone! Over the six years that I “shared” on television I grew into the preaching until it didn’t seem quite so authoritarian or condescending to my own ears. Even so, every time I turned on that camera and opened a Bible an argument was brewing inside my head as to it’s truthfulness and my authority to speak.
When I turned eighteen I had no idea what to do with my life. I’d been working for three years in full time ministry. I’d been through the self-styled ad-hoc omnivore school of discipleship. I literally stumbled into the idea of Bible college with barely any forethought. The summer before college I struggled with some serious workaholism while in ministry. I thought that it was impossible to burn out for Jesus and I used work to cope with a myriad of emotional and sexual issues that I didn’t feel I could talk about. Accountable to everyone– in truth I was accountable to no one. I bitterly ignored the warnings to slow down and the pleadings to open up and talk. Just before I left for college the young woman I believed I would one day marry departed for good. Maybe Bible college would be a welcome break for me. Well it wasn’t, and three years later I suffered a nervous breakdown. I walked in and dropped every one of my classes. With a wry smile the Dean of Academics said, “Well when you come back to the Lord, look us up again.” I still don’t know what to make of that parting remark. I felt very much like I’d been unable to live up to the call of ministry and here was this jibe that maybe I wasn’t right with God. Since this experience I have encountered many others who sensed a call to ministry but got lost along the way. Some of them are unsure of their faith at all.
I still feel haunted and empowered by this spiritual Call. I don’t feel like its something I have to live up to anymore. Being a part of the church as a good husband, father, and friend and maybe occasionally penning something inspired is a weighty enough endeavor for now. Even so I feel an urgency to pray for and support those persons involved in an active Pastorate. Particularly in those smaller unnoticed congregations with unassuming names and places. I’ve long been curious about the changing nature of pastoral ministry in American society.
Somewhere in my memory I remembered someone talking about how the job of pastor was once within the top ten jobs every little boy wanted as a child. Were the 1950s a golden age for American pastors? Has twenty-first century America made the profession a mere caricature of itself? I had to find out. Here are the results of my little study.
Remember your leaders, those who spoke the word of God to you; consider the outcome of their way of life, and imitate their faith. (Heb. 13:7 NRSV)
But we appeal to you, brothers and sisters, to respect those who labor among you, and have charge of you in the Lord and admonish you; esteem them very highly in love because of their work. Be at peace among yourselves. (1 Thess. 5:12 NRSV)
“There is no dearer treasure, no nobler thing on earth or in this life than a good and faithful pastor and preacher.” Martin Luther
“Leaders have their inner wounds and limitations like everyone else; we are called to love them as brothers and sisters. Members who have difficulty with authority and with the limitations of their leaders need good accompaniment in order to avoid falling into the trap of closing up.”
—Jean Vanier, Community and Growth, Paulist, 1989, pg. 234-5.
Larry Witham asks, “Is American ministry in crisis or simply in the thick of very interesting times?” Most of the following statistics come from his book Who Shall Lead Them? The Future of Ministry in America. While other professions (like lawyers) have prospered over the last five decades, he writes that:
“the share of clergy has practically stayed flat, hovering just above one minister for every thousand Americans. . . . for some, the comparison between the pulpit and the bench is enough to declare that Christian ministry in America is in decline.” (pg. 1)
Is there a clergy crisis today compared with other eras? A close look reveals that its complicated. No profession looks rosy under too much scrutiny. The pulpit has a different standard for scrutiny:
“The expectations put on clergy in the United States are colored by a culture of evangelical immediacy and business-world pragmatism—ministers must bring results. For conservative believers this result is pietistic transformation—the proverbial revival. For more liberal or communitarian believers, clergy are expected to erect “the kingdom of God,” a world of better health, education, peace, and justice.”(Witham, pg. 3)
Here is a glance into the landscape of the profession (Witham, 10-11):
Between 1910 and 2000 there were just a fraction more than one “occupational” minister for every one thousand citizens.
The US 2000 census found 388,925 with a “clergy” occupation in the past five years.
Denominations reported 351,989 “serving parishes” so these two figures on “active” clergy
Matching a rough estimate of 300,000 to 350,000 congregations
But these are not counting all clergy. Many ordained are retired or not leading local churches.
Denominations total= 595,935
60% lead local churches
40% are teachers, missionaries, counselors, administrators, freelancers, or retired.
Denominational layout of clergy
Mainline Protestants: 22 %
Southern Baptists 15%
Roman Catholics 11%
Historic Black Churches 8%
Other (Adventist, Mormon, “orthodox” Protestant) 23%
Where are they?
The South 40%
The Midwest 25%
“Regional proportions have remained stable in recent decades with the Sunbelt showing the most growth and the industrial Northeast the most loss. Today, most clergy (52 percent) work in towns and rural settings. A quarter serve in cities with population of ten thousand or more, and the rest carry out ministry in the suburbs.”
How local culture affects ministry:
Nevada is 1 to 1,644 citizens
South Dakota and Arkansas are 1 to 460 citizens.
National average is 1 to 723. (appx. In Wisconsin, Louisiana, Michigan)
On megachurches, get this:
“For all their celebrity megachurches draw few than 2% of the nation’s worshippers: about two million people. (Witham, 136)”
This is but a taste of a large body of data. Time and space don’t allow me to cover the wealth of material found in Larry Witham’s whole book. In eleven chapters he skillfully covers the crucial issues facing anyone entering or serving in a full time pastorate today. The diversity of today’s ministry makes the reading exhaustive. Never before in history has the pastorate looked so unique and particular to each locale’s needs and individuals. Which, when you stop and think about it, is a truly wonderful thing! The real locus of American social study of the pastorate, and the source of much of Witham’s material is with Jackson W. Carroll who founded the Pulpit & Pew, “an interdenominational project aimed at strengthening the quality of pastoral leadership (clergy and lay) in churches, parishes, and other faith communities across America.” The fruit of this research project can be found in his book God’s Potters: Pastoral Leadership and the Shaping of Congregations (Eerdmans, 2006).
William Willimon gives six “chief ministerial metaphors of our time” that I think succinctly compose the different images we think of when we refer to pastor:
He gives about a page to each of these metaphors in his book Pastor: A Reader for Ordained Ministry (pg. 55). After exploring each of these he concludes:
“My impression is that contemporary ministry is groping for an appropriate metaphor for our pastoral work. Perhaps there has always been a certain tension in the guiding images for what we do. It is the nature of the Christian ministry to be multifaceted and multidimensional.”
BTW, William Willimon now has his own blog.