by W. Jackson Watts
This past March I published an article entitled “Reexamining the Pastoral Shortage Problem.” If social media and WordPress metrics are any indication, it struck a nerve. I view this as an affirmation that most readers agree that there is a shortage in available pastors, and we desire to see that need met. Where we may differ is what we think to be the underlying cause for this shortage.
In my earlier article I emphasized two overlooked factors. First, a substantial number of ordained pastors who begin serving churches do not continue to serve throughout their entire working life. Second, there is a substantial number of ordained persons who aren’t completely willing to serve as pastors. They are content to preach as opportunities arise, but not fulfil the full New Testament vision of the pastorate.
We must reckon with these factors because they account for the pastor shortage problem as much as other popular explanations. A prevailing narrative sounds something like this: “Young people just aren’t interested in serving the Lord.” Or, “Years ago when I was growing up our church was full of young people, many of whom were answering the call to be a pastor or missionary. We don’t see that anymore.” Exegeting such statements might uncover other more revealing questions that can serve us better.
Reexamining Our Assumptions
First, it’s uncontroversial to say that broadsides against entire generations—in this case, whoever the “younger people” in view are—are counterproductive to seeing more people arise to serve Jesus. It is tantamount to a volunteer recruitment strategy in the local church where we begin by saying, “You older people refuse to do anything to serve in our student ministry,” then expecting current workers to feel appreciated and new ones to emerge out of thin air. Certainly there’s a place for analysis and even criticism, but lamentation about the state of Gen-Z or Millennials will likely do as much harm as good. And as Matt Pinson has noted previously, sometimes we don’t understand these groups as well as we imagine!
Second, let’s assume that someone was raised in an environment where many persons were answering some type of call to vocational Christian ministry. Where are they now? No doubt some persevered and have finished the race (or are still running), but how many didn’t? How many left, for any number of reasons? This question returns us to my earlier contention about the many persons who begin in the pastorate, but don’t continue. There are more than we think.
Third, as you see those many faces in your church’s youth group from the 1960s, 70s, 80s, and 90s, how many do you see? Now compare that number to the number in those same congregations now. Are there more, about the same, or significantly fewer? If you answered the latter of the three, then you’ve identified another crucial factor contributing to our pastor shortage crisis. Assuming that our “pool of candidates” is limited to the “young people,” let’s say ages 12-18, then the pool is inevitably going to shrink if churches aren’t reaching youth for Christ. In other words, one of the massive culprits is the failure of local churches to engage in faithful evangelism.
Moreover, if we have a narrow vision about how and when God calls people into the pastorate, this will also partially explain why our shortages exist. Can God not call a 25-year old, 35-year old, 45-year old in our congregations to the office of pastor? Or have we assumed (unbiblically) that God only calls youth?
A Multi-Factorial Problem
For those keeping score, more than one factor is driving our present need. No doubt some are more pressing and impactful than others. However, we must resist the urge to simplify complex problems. This is a multi-factorial challenge. By implication, this means that we will have to tackle it from multiple angles, regardless of how daunting it may be.
In my prior article I offered a list of suggestions that I thought would demonstrate and support a serious, practical theology of the pastorate. Let me restate those:
- A renewed commitment in the local church to explain the call to ministry, pray for workers, and encourage gifted men to consider the work;
- A concerted effort to demystify the call to ministry and balance the subjective aspects of the call with the objective, external aspects;
- A renewed commitment of local associations to forsake careless, hasty, or thin licensure and ordination procedures;
- A renewed commitment of local associations, and especially presbyteries, to support, care for, and encourage the progress and perseverance of those licensed and ordained;
- A refusal to maintain the licensure or ordination of pastors who fail to demonstrate a tangible commitment to shepherding a local church.
Each of these deserves its own article, seminar, forum, or panel discussion. We must work together to find consensus on how to accomplish these in our various contexts. However, let’s also set another list alongside this one to enumerate the factors creating this present crisis.
I believe these factors are (in no particular order),
- Many churches do not regularly teach and preach on the vocation of pastor.
- Many churches treat their pastor(s) so poorly that regardless of what is taught about the subject, their actions undermine the messaging. People don’t “answer the call” in that environment.
- Some churches so mystify the call to pastor that few would likely perceive a calling.
- Some churches communicate that the call to pastor is one which can only be accepted at a specific moment or period in one’s life, namely as a teenage boy nearing college-age.
- Some pastors eventually stop pastoring due to various forms of burnout and do not return.
- Some pastors resign due to moral failure or family issues they’re unable to resolve.
- Some pastors are forced to resign due to health and or financial reasons.
- Some pastors depart churches to serve in other denominations.
- Some pastors transition to new forms of ministry, whether denominational administration, chaplaincy, or other parachurch ministries.
- Some men ordained to the ministry have no intention to serve as a pastor, only preach.
- Some men ordained to the ministry are only willing to pastor in a specific locale or region.
- Some pastors retire in a given year (more or less, depending on the year).
- Some pastors die in a given year (more or less, depending on the year).
- Some churches won’t hire single men to serve as pastors, so these men continue as associate pastors (of various kinds) or continue to search in vain.
- In some areas we may have an excess of churches. The location, dysfunction, and other challenging dynamics in some churches, especially in rural areas, make it such that perhaps the Kingdom would be better served by closure or a merger. A potential excess of churches artificially inflates the number of pastors needed.
The list could be longer than the one I’ve produced here. Additionally, each of these factors should be weighed differently against the overall problem. But I submit that until we resist simplistic appeals for more youth to enter the pastorate and pay attention to all the dynamics and issues at work, we’ll still be discussing this problem in two decades. Failure to appreciate the range of factors will lead us to simplistic prescriptions that don’t address the problem adequately. May God help us to see the situation as it is and obediently apply our hearts to biblically-based solutions.